“It’s a pretty strange situation when you see that Manchester United team in the first hour and now you see them in the top four and two points off the top of the league”, says Gary Neville.
It was the first week of December 2020 and United had travelled to West Ham for the 10th game of their 2020/21 campaign. An abysmal first half was followed by an emphatic second, where for the fifth time that season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men came from behind to win a game. That’s right, five times in 10 games. Eventually, the Red Devils would finish that season with a total tally of 10 games won after conceding first, nine of those being away from home, setting a league record.
Media outlets hailed them as the new ‘mentality monsters’ and there was an emphasis on the immense character that the squad displayed every time, but there was also a certain predictability associated with each game. It was evident that United were not strong starters and always looked a touch vulnerable in the early stages.
Sides naturally looked to exploit this precious and oddly consistent window of opportunity, the ball would end up in the back of the net, and it would seem as though United were in for a long evening. However, as we all know, they would instead magically spring to life, digging in and launching wave after wave of attack, breaking their opponents down until they eventually found the winner. It certainly was not ideal, but hey, it seemed to work somehow.
After all, this was the famous ‘United DNA’ was it not?
David de Gea, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Fred, Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford. This was the core of Solskjaer’s team then, and today, this is the core of Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United. Adding in Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom were signed by the Norwegian, that is nine out of 11 starting players that the two have in common. Just a season apart though, United could not be more different. The mood around the camp has changed, and United just don’t seem to know how to play football anymore. This was a side that could take the game to Manchester City and Liverpool, yet just last season they were brutally put to the sword by both those very sides, conceding a whopping 15 goals in four games and scoring just once. They scored 16 goals less in the league and conceded 13 more, seeing them drop from 74 points to 58. Yet, among this drastic decline, United’s predictability still remains.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is by no means the predictability of before. In fact, it is the completely opposite of the earlier scenario. Now, United are simply predictably bad. There are no ‘mentality monsters’, and some would argue that there is not even a single strong character in that squad. Every game is surrounded by impending doom and the concession of one goal leads to another, then another and another and by the time anyone in the club seems to realize what is going on, the side have been buried for good. Interestingly, even the way they concede those goals have become predictable, so much so that it might be worth starting a Manchester United bingo. Anyone has David de Gea refusing to leave his line resulting in a goal? How about the opposition successfully pressing the deepest midfielder to score?
Predictability is a part of this United side now, but where it was once their advantage, it is now their biggest weakness. Their flaws are evident and their strengths not so much. Brighton exposed them in the first game week before Brentford picked up on the same points, blowing United away. Naturally, wild transfer rumours and media leaks flooded through the next day, that too has now become predictable.
“How can you go from being so bad to so good, regularly? "Neville asked after that West Ham game.
This predictable United have long stopped coming good.