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The Red Devils were kept to a 0-0 draw at Arsenal after losing at home to Sheffield United, casting doubt on their confidence in their own potential. After a tough week featuring two frustrating results, the euphoria that filled the Manchester United dressing room six days after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side beat Liverpool feels like a lifetime ago.
The manager had called on his squad to use the FA Cup victory over the side of Jurgen Klopp to help them hit the necessary heights of a genuine Premier League title challenger, but they had a reality check by the side sitting bottom of the league and another shorn of several star men over the course of seven days.
Having seen leaders Manchester City make it eight wins in a row with a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United earlier in the day, United’s 0-0 draw with a weakened Arsenal cannot be viewed as anything other than two points dropped.
Solskjaer was hoping the Liverpool win would increase momentum and belief but these last two games have had the opposite effect. The admirable grit that had been getting them over the line in recent weeks has disappeared for the moment, with the defence and the attack taking it in turns to let the side down.
Edinson Cavani, who before the Emirates clash had barely put a foot wrong in a United shirt, had the two biggest chances of Saturday’s game and thought he’d won it in the 88th minute only for his bicycle kick from six yards out to go wide of the post.
“The big thing is that he’s there on the end of all the chances, which is something I hope Mason, Anthony, Marcus will learn from,” Solskjaer told reporters afterwards.
He certainly can’t be too pleased with his forwards, as United once again failed to score a goal from open play against the ‘Big Six’. This season in the Premier League, United’s strikers have twice drawn a blank against Arsenal, and once apiece against Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham – that’s just not good enough for a team who have real desire of mounting a title charge.
While Arsenal spoke at full time of signs of progress, having taken four points from United this season, Solskjaer was left wondering how to get his side back to winning ways.
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Where it was the defence who let them down midweek against Sheffield United, it was the lack of precision up front that cost them against Arsenal.
And United couldn’t blame absentees either. Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes all started at the Emirates and there were minutes too for Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood.
However, even with all that attacking talent on the pitch, they just couldn’t find a breakthrough. Of their 14 shots on goal, only three were on target and just one came in the second half.
Solskjaer had urged Rashford to take on Gabriel Martinelli in the first half because he “couldn’t defend” and while the England international looked lively, the killer final ball was missing and his last contribution, which was a shot into the side netting, summed up his night.
“I’m scratching my head with them, to be honest,” former United skipper Roy Keane mused in theSky Sportsstudio after the game. “They almost lacked the belief to go and win the game.”
That was the biggest problem for United: the game had been there for the taking. They had the last six shots of the first half, while Arsenal failed to have an effort in the 15 minutes that preceded the break.
When Solskjaer needed his team to step up in the second half, though, the failed to deliver.
Despite the fact that Scott McTominay’s illness-enforced withdrawal saw Martial enter the fray, United lack penetration and incision in attack.
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This was a night on which United set a new club record for games unbeaten on the road (18)but that was hardly cause for celebration, given United now trail City by three points having played a game more than their neighbours.
“Of course, you look at every game but you look at the games we have played against Arsenal, Chelsea, City and Liverpool and we defend well,” Solskjaer mused. “We don’t really concede many chances and that’s one foundation to build on.
“But we need to take our chances and we know we have players to do that. We just haven’t done it, so we have to keep on working with them on the training ground.
“Today, with the chances we had, we feel that we should have won it. But you have to take those chances. It’s definitely something I want my forwards to sort out, given they’ve scored so many goals throughout their careers.”
Solskjaer had called for that elite mentality to get them through the week after the Liverpool win but they lacked self-belief when they really needed it.
The Norwegian compared the busy scheduling to that of the NBA and if this United side are to really show their mettle as potential title challengers, then six points against Southampton and Everton is a necessity.
They need to rediscover their killer instinct, starting at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. If they don’t, they can forget about the title for another year.