Heroes to Zeros

Paul Pogba. The face of MU’s most shocking home defeat since David Moyes’ era.

They weren’t supposed to do it like this. Not after what happened last week.

The narrative was so amazing. A dreadful first half against the local rivals. Two goals conceded at Etihad. A motivational, half-time talk between somewhat dejected players, invoking the words ‘honour’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘effort’. Then, Paul Pogba’s retribution for otherwise unremarkable season. Alexis Sánchez’s two assists. Chris Smalling’s resounding reply to the criticism. David De Gea’s obligatory inspired save that preserved the comeback. The satisfaction of holding off Kevin De Bruyne’s POTY conquest. The wiping out of Pep Guardiola’s permanent smile of satisfaction. Everything was there.

Today, it’s all gone. Guardiola might as well be dancing around the golf field he reportedly went to instead of watching his local rivals. De Bruyne probably laughs while he hugs his wife in the celebration of his first ever Premier League title. Arsène Wenger relaxes at home, knowing that his team’s abysmal away form won’t be the main talking point of the Monday sports columns. Jay Rodriguez, the man who faced Manchester United six times in his career and never won, is framing the picture of his Old Trafford winner. Alan Pardew prepares to take credit for this shocking result. And so on, and so forth…

It is true. Manchester United fell. At home. To rock-bottom West Bromwich Albion.

Who are WBA, really? On Sunday, they walked on Old Trafford’s pitch with a bunch that could easily star in ‘Escape to Victory’. Rejected, former MU goalie. Right-back recently replaced by Watford. Left-back kicked out of Arsenal. Two centre-backs who saw their last clean sheet in January. One of the strangest England call-ups ever in central midfield. Two wide midfielders with two 2017/18 Premier League goals between them. Chris Brunt trying to keep this rag-tag team together with his set-piece deliveries. Salomón Rondón, recently decent, but nowhere near his last years’ form. Caretaker manager in charge.

Baggies didn’t even have that much of a business winning this match. At 21 points, they were four wins away from the last safe spot and having five matches left ahead of them, the last hope of survival has already been thrown out the door. A shop window performance also didn’t look like a plausible explanation. It’s harsh, but it’s true: after a season like this, hardly any of WBA lads will be getting a Premier League job this autumn, regardless of the result against United. They’ve lost 9 out their last 10 games, after all. Apart from sporting pride, there was very little reason for them not to fade into the background again.

Defeated Baggies. It’s been like this the whole season – except for Anfield and Old Trafford…

In a way, they did. With ball retention below 30 percent, merely four shots on target and 37 clearances made, the visitors had a textbook Tony Pulis performance. Deploying two defensive midfielders in front of their centre-backs and leaving it to McClean and Phillips to deliver crosses for the strikers, it was a truly anachronic strategy – the same that somehow carried them to a respectable, 10th place finish last year. After an eight-month break, it worked again. From winning key headers, through clutch goalkeeping, to a set-piece goal – on Sunday, everything fell into place.

Not so for Manchester United, though. Set up in the same formation as against City, with two squad changes (Lindelöf for Bailly and Mata for Lingard), Red Devils have delivered an overwhelmingly mediocre performance. If the home loss to Sevilla a month ago served as a blueprint of MU’s incompetence, this match has set a new standard for it. Disjointed, lethargic, spineless… Those aren’t the qualities of a team capable of safeguarding it’s runner-up position against Liverpool’s assault, let alone of a team that has the ambition of postponing Manchester City’s title party.

Just like at the Etihad, one player stood out above this mess. A week ago, Paul Pogba was making first winter ascent at K2; on Sunday, he returned to climbing molehills, doing everything wrong in the process. One particular situation, in the first half, exemplified his performance: after receiving a pass from sprinting Alexis Sánchez, Pogba slowed down the tempo of the attack, got tackled, gave the ball away, exposed his team to a counterattack and then jogged back to his defensive third in a tempo that resembled Yaya Touré’s Greatest Hits. José Mourinho had enough of his contributions after 58 minutes. Rightfully so.

But the issues didn’t just end there. While Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were watching the game from the bench, their team was crying out for a player who could make a proper run and expose WBA’s flanks by using some pace. Old Trafford crowd roared “Attack! Attack!” as Mourinho finally decided to give Martial a chance. The Frenchman saw 23 minutes of action in two matches against Sevilla and was first off the pitch despite providing an assist in a win over Chelsea. Amidst the rumours of impending departure, he had an anonymous cameo. One missed shot and a single dribble won in 32 minutes couldn’t save his team.

Eventually, West Brom’s third corner of the match resulted in Matić heading the ball straight into Jay Rodriguez’s path for a simple finish. The man who was a serious candidate for the England national team five years ago has gone a long way since. A terrible cruciate ligaments injury nearly ruined his otherwise very promising career; then, he chose to leave St. Mary’s rather than being the third or fourth option to Manolo Gabbiadini, Charlie Austin and Shane Long. The goal in Manchester was his 7th of the 2017/18 season. If he was still kicking the ball for Southampton, that would making him Saints’ joint-leading goalscorer.

Ecstatic J-Rod. He scored only his second goal in seven career appearances against United.

Meanwhile, in José Mourinho’s camp, Romelu Lukaku remains on 15 league goals while no other United player has even manage to break into double figures. Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham each have three such players; absolutely underwhelming Chelsea has two. The August form, marked four 4-goal wins in the first seven matches, is gone with the wind while the goalscoring prospects of the team remain rather bleak. In five days, they’re playing against fairly clutch Tottenham in the FA Cup. This shall be the match to decide whether the trophy cabinet at Old Trafford gets an anything out of the 2017/18 campaign.

If that last-resort trophy quest fails, there are several scenarios possible. The most likely one would involve another big-money transfer or two and giving Mourinho one last shot at the Premier League. Alternatively, should Joel and Avram Glazer refuse to fund the reinforcements, some of the dissatisfied characters like David De Gea or aforementioned Martial might leave. There’s also an unlikely, but not entirely outlandish possibility of Don José himself getting the bullet. In a post-match press conference, The Special One said a word or two about his players ‘making it too complicated for themselves’. Didn’t he have nearly two years to make it simple?

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