The Hague was a fitting venue for Manchester United’s latest dreadful performance, because surely the Red Devils’ tortured brand of football qualifies as a crime against humanity. United barely held for a 0-0 draw against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League, a competition which they will soon exit, if their current form continues.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deployed United in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, but with a number of players in different positions, particularly up front, where Daniel James spearheaded the attack, while Mason Greenwood and Angel Gomes flanked the Welsh winger. The unfamiliarity did not seem to be a problem in the first ten minutes, as United were very much on the front foot.
It did not take long for AZ to get comfortable, though, and fewer than 15 minutes had gone by before the hosts had the ball in the back of the net. Fortunately, the goal was correctly ruled out for offside, but United’s backline — playing together for the first time — did not look entirely comfortable. In the 15th minute, David De Gea (playing in the Europa League for the first time in memory) had to make a sharp save to keep the scores level.
Whether because of general incompetence or not having adjusted to the bounce of the ball on the artificial pitch, United struggled to move the ball with conviction. Nemanja Matić had the grace and movement of a man who was being operated by remote control on a shoddy wifi signal. His partner in midfield, Fred, well...Fred’s passing in the first half has to be seen to be believed.
The closest that United came to an opening was a cut back from James that Greenwood could only hit first time into the legs of a defender. For the last 15 minutes before half time, AZ were comfortably the better side, while United yet again looked totally devoid of ideas.
The second half didn’t start off much better for the visiting side. Nineteen-year-old Yukinari Sugawara was having his way down United’s left flank, while Oussama Idrissi was getting in behind Diogo Dalot on the opposite flank and making life uncomfortable for Victor Lindelöf. With just over an hour gone, Solskjaer tried to inject some purpose into proceedings by sending Marcus Rashford on in place of James.
Instead, it was AZ who turned the heat up in the last quarter of the match. After a handful of half-chances, De Gea was again called upon to making a save at full stretch to keep out a curling shot from Owen Wijndal. Minutes later, the referee missed an obvious penalty call when Fred — displaying staggering levels of uselessness by this point in the match — hauled down Dani De Wit in the box.
Still not content with the number of blunt objects on the pitch, Solskjaer sent on Jesse Lingard in place of Greenwood for the final 15 minutes.
Rashford was unlucky to be denied a penalty of his own in the 80th minute, but it would’ve been more than United deserved. Scott McTominay also came for Mata, presumably to help hold off the mighty attack of AZ Alkmaar.
Bar another one of Rashford’s increasingly stupid free kicks, there was not much to report in the closing stages, until the last silver lining disappeared in injury time. The one thing that United could not afford is more injuries — which is exactly what happened when Lingard limped off with a hamstring injury in the dying seconds.