DECEMBER : 9TH CIRCLE OF HELL
Premier League (A) : Tottenham 4 - Manchester United 3
United’s first away game of December would be quite the rude awakening, if a month with a whopping nine games scheduled wasn’t bad enough having to face off against Spurs and Arsenal in that run made it even worse. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was enjoying quite a run, beating Everton 3-1 and West Ham 2-1 at Old Trafford put them closer to the top of the league but came with a bit of a downside. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Ethan Laird, and Axel Tuanzebe would all face injuries and put the defense in jeopardy. Laird was the worst of them, a calf injury would hold him out 2-3 week and leave LB in an even bigger mess. Ashley Young is now United’s only starting caliber LB, the transfer window can’t come soon enough.
The trip to Spurs’ new stadium would expose a number of issues that Solskjaer has been getting away with all season. The big difference was that United haven’t had a player of Harry Kane’s quality to expose the problem. The game started out very well for United as they controlled possession and started out-shooting Spurs right away, Bruno Fernandes combined with Marcus Rashford to take advantage of a Davinson Sánchez defensive gaffe at 8’ to put United up 1-0. Things were looking good for Solskjaer, but Kane was slowly exposing their weakness to Route One football. Time and time again Spurs would send long balls forward, sometimes from deep in their third, and find Kane streaking between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf for a one-on-one with David De Gea. A number of times he was so far past that United fans began whistling because he wasn’t called offsides, so far De Gea had been up to the task of stopping him. At 29’ it was Son Heung-Min serving up a counter punch to the mess Kane was creating, Kane received a free kick from deep in Spurs’ third and took three United defenders with him toward the right side of the box before he cross the ball to a wide open Son who easily headed it in as De Gea dove to his left and barely missed. Now 1-1, Kane broke through with two goals just before the half on similar passes that left Maguire and Lindelöf looking like statues.
Kane was too good for United today.
Down 3-1, Marcus Rashford seemed to take a page from Kane’s book as he scored off a long ball that allowed him to run right past Spurs’ back line and tap the ball past Hugo Lloris at 49’. At 76’ Rashford would repeat the move, this time from a shorter pass to pull the game level at 3-3. A long period of confusion followed United’s goal celebration as Solskjaer argued with an official, the goal was under review and VAR found that Rashford scored from an offsides position. The whistling returned for the refs, but it would return in force just a few minutes later. Young collected an errant long ball in United’s third and took a hefty touch to bring the ball down, sending it flying more than a few steps away and right into the path of Moussa Sissoko. Sissoko had a direct path to goal and punched the ball under De Gea for a 4-2 lead and a shower of whistling for Young. Anthony Martial would score a nice goal deep in stoppage time, but the whistle blew almost immediately after to finish off a sad outing for United.
Europa League (H) : Manchester United 2 - AZ Alkmaar 0
Having clinched 1st in the group, this game was a dead rubber for United but a win would save AZ Alkmaar. Everyone had a shot to advance with a win, and Arne Slot was looking at the hardest path to a win. Solskjaer used the second squad today so the first team could rest for Arsenal later in the week, it also gave him an opening to send Jesse Lingard home to recover from illness.
Things didn't go well for Slot at all, things were so bad for AZ Alkmaar that they failed to register a single shot in the first half. United were more than dominant but failed to score, so there was a ray of hope for the visitors. Number of shots don’t matter as much if none of them go in, but at the same time you can’t score if you don’t take any shots. Playing the whole game on their back foot must have gotten to AZ Alkmaar in the second half as they started fouling more and more to balance out the 66%-34% possession issue, eventually it led to Ron Vlaar practically kicking Mason Greenwood as he tried to run onto a through ball just inside the box. VAR was used to determine that he was inside the box and Daniel James put the penalty in. Andreas Periera would score at 72’ and things seemed over for Slot.
While AZ Alkmaar were rightfully disappointed by the result they moved on very quickly when Getafe drew 1-1 with BATE Borisov to eliminate both of them. United would be drawn with Trabzonspor in the Europa League 1st knockout round, a fortunate draw considering some of the other teams lurking.
Premier League (H) : Manchester United 1 - Arsenal 1
A visit from Unai Emery and his red hot Gunners would be Solskjaer’s first real test of the season. Liverpool and Manchester City have righted their ships recently and will be tough opponents in the rematches, United definitely faced both of them at the right time. Arsenal is in peak form and currently (8) points clear of Manchester City in 1st, a win would help both Manchester clubs but Solskjaer has maintained that 1st isn’t their primary objective.
“We want to win all our games, but we aren’t as focused on the title as others” quietly admitted Solskjaer “we need to qualify for the Champions League, if that means finishing 1st or 4th we’ll see. I don’t know if we are ready to be champions just yet.”
For all of the fanfare, articles, and sniping between fan bases this game was quite boring. Solskjaer did adopt a more balanced approach to the in form Gunners, but all that seemed to do was cede more possession to them as both teams ended up playing fairly evenly. Marcus Rashford did score 19’ in off a Juan Mata free kick, taken from just outside the box at a very steep angle, the ball flew through the box and found Rashford waiting at the back post to head it in. After that, things were very tight and it looked like United might be able to hang on to this one, a win against Arsenal might announce them as potential champions.
The game chugged on until the 86’ when all hell broke loose courtesy of one of the worst backpasses or best through balls, depending on who you root for, in recent memory. In a move that drew Solskjaer from the dugout to wordlessly question Harry Maguire, he received a pass just beyond the half and spun before punting a pass all the way back to the box. Who this pass was intended for it still up for debate, but Alexandre Lacazette wasn’t going to wait to find out. He collected the pass with no United defenders within 15 yards of it, ran to the end line and hammered a shot around the approaching Lindelöf that crossed the net at a near 180 degree angle and hit the opposite side netting. A stunning goal to end a rather dull game, and once again defensive frailty would be United’s downfall.
Carabao Cup (A) : Burnley 0 - Manchester United 2
Coming so close to beating Arsenal only to fall apart at the end made things a little tense for Solskjaer. Burnley wouldn’t quite be Arsenal, but with an away game against Wolves in a few days he had to take a chance with the second squad. The way Mason Greenwood had been playing would put fans at ease, but few put much importance on the Carabao Cup with United in the hunt for a league title and the Europa League still in their grasp.
Sadly, this game would be more memorable for the string of bizarre circumstances that left Solskjaer and Sean Dyche stressed. First Chris Wood would need to leave the game at 28’ after breaking his hand by hitting the post on a corner. Greenwood would try to best Wood when he slipped past the end line and slid into a digit ad, twisting his ankle in the process and making Solskjaer look like an idiot because he didn’t have another CF on the bench. United came out at the half with Daniel James at CF as Antonio Marin came on to man LW.
The game dragged on with United dominating possession but failing to do anything with it until Andreas Periera broke through with a 62’ goal followed by Tahith Chong at 71’, and then things got really interesting. Off the ensuing kickoff Axel Tuanzebe got caught up field and practically kicked Matej Vydra in the knee as he tried to run around Tuanzebe, he had already been booked so it made sending him off easy. Solskjaer was forced to swap Daniel James for Harry Maguire, who did not think he was going to be playing today, and gut out a win with a 4-2-3. The win would earn United a date with Watford in the Semi-Final.