Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 November 2019

Manchester United pay the penalty for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's mistake, not Paul Pogba's

The United manager contradicted himself with his explanation of why the Frenchman took over spot-kick duties from Marcus Rashford in draw at Wolves

Perhaps it was inevitable, given the mushrooming of big clubs. We have become accustomed to the concept of squads featuring two players for every position.

Manchester United have apparently taken it a step further by having two designated penalty takers.

Or, at least, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said they do after a spot kick was squandered and two points dropped at Molineux. Marcus Rashford scored from 12 yards against Chelsea. For the fourth time in a year, Paul Pogba failed from the same distance, his effort repelled by Rui Patricio. For the third time in 11 months, United lost a lead to Wolves. After United’s second game of the season, the campaign had its first Pogba controversy.

So much for the notion a new season brought a new start.

The fact it was Pogba meant it assumed greater proportions. Such are his magnetic qualities. Yet, sadly, it also took on a disgraceful element.

Like Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, following his missed penalty in last week’s European Super Cup, Pogba was racially abused on social media. It was rightly and robustly condemned by United but if it reflects badly on the companies who permit such people to use their platforms, it is a more damning indictment of a worsening culture.

It also ignores the footballing issue, where the essential failure was Solskjaer’s. The United manager contradicted himself with his explanation.

“There is a system. You can see the slides on PowerPoint,” he said before claiming that whichever felt more confident could take the penalty. So if it is about belief, why have a system, let alone PowerPoint slides?

Reason should trump faith. It should not require particularly autocratic management to establish a pecking order which Rashford, given his 100 per cent record from the spot for United and England, ought to top.

There can be occasional confusion at clubs when the preferred penalty taker is not on the pitch – think of the spot kick Pep Guardiola directed Riyad Mahrez, rather than Gabriel Jesus, to take in the absence of Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne at Anfield last season – but it should be simple when he is around.

Paying the penalty did not merely deny United two points. It took the shine off what otherwise felt proof of progress. The only goal they have conceded this season, from Ruben Neves, was the sort of spectacular effort for which neither defence nor goalkeeper can be faulted.

Solskjaer’s defensive additions again impressed. Harry Maguire looks to have stiffened United’s backbone and resolve. Aaron Wan-Bissaka leads the way in the divisional tackling charts, recovering the ball so often only three other players are within seven of him.

Further forward, Solskjaer’s attacking rejig is bringing rewards. Anthony Martial scored for the second successive game since being reinvented as the main striker. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s reign has been decidedly mixed but the power broker deserves credit for resisting Jose Mourinho’s attempts to sell Martial last summer.

The Portuguese also used Rashford on the left flank. Under Solskjaer, however, he has more freedom and spends more time infield. The Englishman looks like the Old Trafford Sadio Mane in his new berth. As against Chelsea, he was arguably the best player on the pitch. The only cause for concern is that opponents can either exploit space behind him or drag him back; Adama Traore, a catalytic substitute, meant Rashford had to protect Luke Shaw.

Yet if results in 2019 suggested United and Wolves are more evenly matched than at any point since the 1950s, a far better performance at Molineux, compared to two spring defeats, indicates reports of their decline are greatly exaggerated. But while better decision-making has brought improvement, an imperfect choice can undo some of the fine work.

Updated: August 20, 2019 02:56 PM

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