There may be a feeling of déjà vu about Manchester United at the moment. Much like the end of last season, they turned a potentially disastrous campaign into an acceptable one, with European excitement on the horizon. Progress was clear, in particular with their style of play.
And like the tail-end of last season, talk around recruitment centred on the forward areas. On Tuesday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wouldn’t rule out signing another striker, even with Edinson Cavani staying for another year. The wantaway Harry Kane? A recycling of the Jadon Sancho saga?
But just like last season, the number one priority should be 50 yards back in central defence. They didn’t strengthen there last summer, but if they had, that 12-point chasm to Manchester City wouldn’t be quite as wide.
The last three games have arguably been the biggest indicator yet of what Harry Maguire is to United. In turn, it has highlighted the need for a world-class partner.
Axel Tuanzebe is still unproven at this level. Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly have shown over spurts that they are adequate, maybe even good, top-four centre-backs. But good isn’t good enough for a United side who want proper, sustained challenges for titles, not for two heady weeks in January.
Joe Bryan’s goal was the 28th United have conceded at Old Trafford in the Premier League this season, the most since 1963. They may be second in the table, but the 43 goals they’ve conceded so far this season places their defence in joint-fifth. They’ve only conceded one fewer than Brighton in 15th.
Ultimately, United must shave off at least half a dozen goals. Only two Premier League champions this century have conceded over 40 goals – United themselves in 1999/2000 and in 2012/13. The last four champions have conceded on average 29 goals.
Progression from second to first is not linear, and United should be building from the back.
“The first half was the picture of the whole season for me,” Timo Werner told Sky Sports after the game and you knew exactly what he meant. The Chelsea forward was controversially denied a penalty after being kicked by Youri Tielemans before seeing two goals disallowed – one for offside and the other for handball.
“I was close but not really close,” he added. “I think it is the unluckiest season I have ever had and will have maybe. Offside, a clear penalty and then I want to make a header, I get a little push and I head it against my arm. But when you are so unlucky but you still reach the Champions League final and maybe reach the Champions League next season, everything is good.”
That is due in part to the quality of his team-mates, of course, but it is also down to his own determination. Werner kept making the runs and in the end, he did force the error – Wesley Fofana tripping him just inside the penalty box to allow Jorginho to score the crucial second goal.
The Chelsea supporters were chanting his name for large parts of the match and were still hailing him at the end. They know that he is a talent and they appreciate his efforts. They are not alone.
“I like his spirit, his energy. He keeps going,” Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink told Sky Sports. But the kind words from the former Chelsea striker came with a caveat. He still wants more from Werner.
“When you are a striker at a big team, you wait for these moments in big games. These are the moments you have to be there to put the ball in the back of the net and for me, he has not done that enough.
“What I do like is that he gets himself in positions to get opportunities. The last bit, he has to do better. He has to be calmer and more calculated.
“His goal return is not enough and he knows that. He is getting opportunities. He is always there for that final ball. Will he become calmer? Time will tell but he keeps getting the chances and he is stubborn.”
Score the winner in the Champions League final and the picture of Werner’s season could change in an instant.
If Brighton’s match with Manchester City was behind closed doors with the usual atmosphere of hearing a pin drop at the other end of the stadium, then the Seagulls would not have roared back from 2-0 down. That’s a fact.
This was a prime example of how a home crowd can be that extra motivation. It was 10 vs 11 on paper after Joao Cancelo’s early sending off but really it was 10 vs 12. The extra man in the stands made all the difference from the moment Leandro Trossard reduced the deficit to 2-1.
Usually City – imperious at the back all season – would have pushed up bravely and tried to maintain possession as much as possible but the sheer noise inside the Amex pushed them deeper towards Ederson’s goal. Even the mighty Ruben Dias couldn’t hold back the tidal wave of pressure that was created in the stands and delivered by a brilliantly sharp Brighton performance on the pitch.
Yves Bissouma was a driving force in the midfield, pushing City back at every opportunity with a display full of class and that packed a punch. The talk of a summer move away won’t be going away. Everything he does, he does with great speed which makes him a very tricky customer to deal with as Rodrigo found out. Bissouma was all over him. No player made more tackles (5) or won the ball back for his side (8) over the 90 minutes. The home fans sang his name loudly at full-time on a night they won’t forget in a hurry.
The fans are back. And so is home advantage.
Tuesday’s 2-0 win at Southampton confirmed Leeds’ finish in the top half of the Premier League on their long-awaited return, and it was exactly the kind of performance that demonstrated why they deserve it.
They played the patient game, riding the wave of Southampton pressure in the first half as the Saints were boosted by the return of their fans. Admittedly, the hosts suffered from a lack of finishing product, but Kiko Casilla – making his first start since January – made some good saves while Luke Ayling and Liam Cooper also threw themselves in front of anything that came their way.
After the break, Leeds found the gear that wins you Premier League games. Rodrigo and Raphinha finally had the chance to make some superb passes, and Patrick Bamford was wonderful up front again for Leeds. He scored his 10th away goal of the Premier League season and 16th overall, with the chance to finish close to the exalted 20-goal mark still in focus.
The victory at St Mary’s was Leeds’ 10th league away win of the season, and they did not draw on the road this term – only the second team to do so after Spurs in the 2018/19 campaign. They have been a dazzling addition to the Premier League and fully deserve their top-half finish.
Sunday will give their fans the chance to finally see them in Premier League action as they host West Brom, and here’s hoping they have the performance and result they need to finish a successful season off in style.