Cheeks puffed out followed by a deep sigh, Marcus Rashford seemed somewhat offended by the question. He’d been asked whether Manchester United, in their 1-1 draw against Liverpool on Sunday, had played their best game of the season. The goalscorer did not agree, probably on the basis that a point against such a fierce rival should never be celebrated, but the premise of the query was sound.
Good performances have been hard to come by for Man Utd this season, but Sunday’s display just about passed as one. Against the runaway Premier League leaders they showed cohesion, drive and tactical nous, coming within a late Adam Lallana equaliser of all three points. These are the sort of traits that have been desperately lacking in recent weeks.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised by what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team served up against Liverpool. Their best performances, as few and far between as they have been, have come in the big matches – their opening day thumping of Chelsea, the home win over Leicester City and the draw against Arsenal.
Of course, these four matches, factoring in Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Liverpool, have all been played at home, but Old Trafford isn’t the fortress it once was. In fact, playing at home has become a slog for United in recent times – look at the defeat to Crystal Palace earlier in the season – and yet they have found something close to top form against the higher calibre opponents they have faced.
It’s not in the big games where Man Utd are letting themselves down so badly.
It’s in the matches against the likes of Newcastle United, West Ham, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Wolves where Solskjaer’s men have disgraced themselves. That’s where they must improve or suffer their poorest season in a generation.
Solskjaer must find a way to harness the big game mentality his players have adopted against Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester City and Liverpool in matches against opponents of a lower calibre. Of course, all football managers face the challenge of motivating their players when motivation isn’t readily available, but the Norwegian’s need to keep his team pointed is more acute than most. He must work out how to translate Man Utd’s big game spirit into something more consistent.
It seems simplistic to put United’s recent problems down to a lack of effort and determination. Top level football is rarely decided by such fundamentals. But it’s difficult to compare the way Man Utd have played against Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester and Liverpool to the way they have played against Newcastle United, West Ham, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Wolves and not conclude that the difference lies in the mind.
United will travel to East Anglia this weekend to take on a Norwich City side that have lost three of their last four games to bottom half opposition. This presents a litmus test. Did Sunday’s display against Liverpool, the fight and collectiveness they showed, represent the turning of a corner of just another continuation of a pattern emerging this season? It would typify Man Utd’s campaign so far if a respectable point against the league leaders was followed immediately a defeat to a promoted team.
This isn’t to say effort is all that stands between Man Utd and the resolution of their problems. The issues at Old Trafford are deep-rooted and will take a long time, and probably a lot of money, to address. But in the immediate term Solskjaer must deal in the incremental. Either United have performed above their natural level in the big games so far this season or they have played below themselves against lower calibre sides. Solskjaer must work on the basis that the latter is true.