Manchester United’s Europa League campaign got off to a disappointing start on Thursday, as they went down 1-0 to Real Sociedad at Old Trafford. The only goal of the game came from a highly dubious penalty early in the second half, but United’s failure to convert their possession into goalscoring chances meant they didn’t deserve much more from the game.
Erik ten Hag named a strong starting lineup, making six changes to the side that beat Arsenal 3-1 last weekend. Casemiro was handed his first start, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire returning to the starting eleven; Antony kept his place on the right side of attack.
Despite the quality of their starting eleven, it was a frustrating first half for United. They saw plenty of possession but struggled to turn it into chances. Cristiano Ronaldo was particularly disappointing up top, too frequently caught ambling back from an offside position or being outrun by Real Sociedad’s centre-halves. He looked to have scored a superb opening goal ten minutes before halftime, but his towering header was ruled out for — you guessed it — offside.
Chances were otherwise hard to come by, notwithstanding flashes of creativity from Anthony Elanga and Christian Eriksen. Still, Real Sociedad offered very little, and by halftime, the only shot on target had been registered by the hosts. If ever there was an archetypal Europa League group stage game, this was it.
Ten Hag looked to shake things up for the second half by introducing Bruno Fernandes and Lisandro Martínez for Christian Eriksen and Diogo Dalot. It almost paid almost immediate dividends, with Fernandes flashing a cross in from the right, though Ronaldo headed wide from six yards.
Real Sociedad soon started to grow into the game, with successive crosses from left winger Takefusa Kubo causing considerable problems in the United box. The first was headed just wide by striker Alexander Sørloth, and the latter hooked from under the Norwegian’s boot by the outstretched Martínez.
Within seconds, however, Martínez was harshly penalised for a handball in the United box. A low David Silva shot struck the Argentine’s thigh and bounced up onto his arm, which the Italian officials adjudged to be worthy of a penalty even after a VAR check. Brais Méndez matched his stuttering run-up with a superb finish, low to David de Gea’s left, sending the Basque visitors into an unlikely lead.
United didn’t deserve to be behind, but nor did they really deserve to be in front. Even after conceding they lacked urgency and fluency in their attacking play, and with 20 minutes left, Jadon Sancho and Alejandro Garnacho were brought on in place of the quiet Anthony and the ineffectual Elanga.
The changes did little to enliven an undeniably tedious affair, though Sancho might have done better when he volleyed fresh air instead of a teasing Fred cross at the back post with five minutes left. Academy graduate Charlie McNeill soon replaced Tyrell Malacia as ten Hag switched to a back three, but Real Sociedad saw out the remaining minutes untroubled. Only a late save from de Gea in a one-on-one prevented the visitors from winning by a bigger margin.