There were a lot of reasons to be nervous heading into Manchester United’s match against West Bromwich Albion. Injury concerns to some key players, questions over who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would select in midfield, the fact that United hadn’t won a match at Old Trafford since July, and the fact that they tend to struggle in these types of matches. But most of all, because United won their last match against Everton and haven’t been the least bit consistent this season.
Personally, my fears were alleviated the second I saw West Brom emerge from the tunnel wearing their gold and green change strip and looking exactly like Norwich City. That had to be a good omen right? After all, the one team that has never caused Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United problems is Norwich City.
That calmness lasted all of about two minutes up until United won a free kick and this happened.
This wasn’t a great chance but I immediately realized what was happening. If you didn’t realize it then, about 20 minutes later it was all but confirmed when West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone did this.
We were in for one of those games.
You just knew United academy product Sam Johnstone would be adding his name to the likes of Nick Pope, Artur Boruc, Tom Heaton, and Lee Grant among the goalkeepers for crap teams who have come to Old Trafford and stood on their heads.
Johnstone delivered exactly that kind of performance which made for a very frustrating evening. But don’t mistake frustrating for “bad.” Other than the finishing (which was a combination of United being poor and Johnstone being good), United weren’t actually bad, they just weren’t good either.
There’s a middle ground in there and that’s where the Red Devils were Saturday night and despite not being “good” there were a lot of positives to take.
United have been a team completely out of form this year. That’s been at every level, from the manager down to the players. Even when they’ve been doing the right things - such as against Brighton - their passing and everything else have all just been off. There are various reasons for this but none are more true than this: this is a unique season where United didn’t have a preseason.
Even when United got a few games under their belt they didn’t have their full first choice team available until Anthony Martial returned from suspension against Everton. They were never going to find their form overnight, it was always going to take some time to develop that consistency.
The positive thing here is during the first two months of the season, when United weren’t on their game, they were BAD. On Saturday they weren’t on but they weren’t bad. They weren’t making mistakes, they weren’t leaving anyone exposed, they just weren’t pulling off the things they were trying.
And trying things was very much what they were doing. This was evident early on when Alex Telles attempted an ambitious cross field switch of play.
Later he would try another long ball down the left side.
Neither of these plays come off but it’s a good sign to see them being attempted. These are the things you need to do to beat a team that’s sitting deep. You need to make cross field switches. You need to send some early long balls in behind.
Juan Mata is exceptional at making clever runs and moving defenses around. The problem was that only Bruno Fernandes would be able to spot the pass along with Mata’s run,
On Saturday Nemanja Matić was getting in on the act as well.
Whether it’s trying to thread the needle on a through ball or looking for the big home run...
It’s important to play these balls even if they aren’t working. It prevents you from becoming one dimensional and keeps the defense on their toes. Eventually one of them will work and that’s all you need. Typically that ball hasn’t been played, and when the ball is consistently not played the forwards stop making those runs. This is a new dimension that Alex Telles brings to the squad.
Matić in particular is a player to be highlighted. Brent, our Busby Babe editor, pointed out on Monday how Matic is the living embodiment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United and that couldn’t be more true on Saturday. He wasn’t actively bad, as in, he wasn’t making mistakes that were hurting United, but he wasn’t on the top of his game either. He was missing passes that you know he’s capable of making. You know he’s better than this.
When Matić is on, he's brilliant. When he's not, he looks unfit for the top level. Can go weeks at a time at one level or the other, and also veer from world class to liability in the space of a few days.— Brent (@brentmaximin) November 23, 2020
Is that not Solskjaer's United in a nutshell?
Matić attempted 90 passes on Saturday, 67 of which were forward. United’s midfield has been far too passive this season. On Saturday every time Matić got the ball it looked like he wanted to go forward with it. That mentality is important because eventually the players will round into form and their passing will get up to the expected level. These are the passes you want them making.
Matić’s forward passing was contagious as even Fred was getting in on the act.
Matić’s form is paramount to United, especially when it comes to beating teams like West Brom. His 0.48 xG Buildup per 90 leads the team and is miles ahead of any of United’s other central midfielders (McTominay 0.22, Pogba 0.18, Fred 0.18). In other words, when Matić is involved possessions are ending in shots far more often than any of United’s other midfielders.
As good as Matić looked, he’s not quite there yet defensively. As evidenced here.
Why the hell are you (still) pressing so high up the pitch? This wasn’t the only time Matić ventured that high but why are you even up there? That’s not where you want to be.
When he gets the defensive side of his game in line, United will be more comfortably able to slot in a more attacking player like Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek next to him to make them even more attacking.
The biggest positive from this game though was the fact that they won it. United had 64 percent of the possession. Look at where this game was played.
Nearly the entire game is played in West Brom’s end. A year ago this was a game that United dropped points in. This year they found a way to take all three.
And don’t forget Sam Johnstone. I’m sure that list of goalkeepers names at the beginning of the article made you shudder as you remembered a whole bunch of games that United dominated only for it to end 1-1 or 0-0. Johnstone did exactly that on Saturday. United’s post shot expected goals was 3.1! But they found a way to win.
United did get bailed out by a favorable penalty decision (again) but it wasn’t like they weren’t due. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over United have averaged a penalty once every three and a half games in all competitions. Their last penalty came at the end of the RB Leipzig match, three games and 56 minutes before the penalty against West Brom. You can’t get much closer to three and a half games than that.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a concern that United once again needed a penalty to win, but on the whole that performance was good. Strip the penalty out and United still managed 16 shots with an xG of 1.67. That’s their best non-penalty xG output in a match without Paul Pogba since the Manchester Derby back in March.
They created a lot of good chances, they just did this.
Overall? It’s not bad! They played the way Solskjaer wants them to play: organized at the back, quick forward passes, always looking to attack, and had their highest creative output of the season despite having a team comprised of players who are all at an individual level out of form. If they’re doing this when they’re not on it, just imagine what they’ll do when they are.
Repeat that performance multiple times and you’re likely to win a lot more often than you won’t.
Coming off an international break, where the team didn’t even have a full training session with the entire squad that’s not something to scoff at. It’s a positive that can be built on.