It was one of those where you’re left feeling conflicted at the end.
Proud because they put in a proper shift and took the so-called ‘biggest club in the world’ all the way. Proud too because, along the way, they played some good stuff, created plenty of chances and resembled an actual football team.
But, at the same time, we were again left with so many what-ifs. Loads of the buggers.
And the frustration. Grrrr… the bloody frustration.
An opportunity missed to put one over one of the ‘Big Six’ who were there for the taking – a shell of a team made up of expensively acquired individuals, who collectively are worth a mere fraction of the sum of their parts.
Frustration too because we succumbed yet again to the Cristiano Ronaldo show and for the fourth time this season were subject to that stomaching-churning “Siuuu!” crap.
To return briefly to the what-ifs, there’s only one place to start.
Ben Gibson will not need telling.
As our most experienced defender he’ll know all too well that you can’t do drag-backs in your own eighteen-yard box at Old Trafford (or anywhere) and get away with it, just as you can’t give Ronaldo half-a-yard to get the run on you at a corner.
Both were whoppers, the first more obvious than the second, and collectively they may well have cost us the win.
There’s little point in analyzing it – Gibson will have replayed both in his mind a hundred times last night – but neither are gifts that can be afforded in any game of football, let alone when you’re a team that perpetually struggles at the wrong end of the Premier League.
Rarely do we get to benefit from errors of that ilk because errors of that ilk are rare in the Premier League.
What made it doubly disappointing was that this all occurred off the back of what was Gibson’s best performance of the season against Burnley.
For what it’s worth, it did look to me as if Tim Krul should probably have saved Ronaldo’s free-kick, but with so many credits in the bank, it’s hard to criticise the Dutchman. He’s been brilliant for us and no one is harder on Tim Krul than Tim Krul.
But, of course, amid all the very Norwich City stuff, there were things happening that have been all too rare this season. Good things.
Like Teemu Pukki making those trademark sprints into the channel and somehow, miraculously finding the ball at his feet; like the City midfield passing to each other and doing so with pace and precision; and the creation of goalscoring opportunities helped by having more than just a lone Pukki in the opposition’s box.
This was all aided, of course, by Ralf Rangnick deciding that City were such a soft touch he could get away with using Paul Pogba as his deepest lying midfielder and playing Jesse Lingard in an advanced role, but we’ve played against plenty of poor, disjointed teams this season who’ve still managed to blow us away.
That didn’t happen yesterday. As ever though, it’s difficult to ascertain how much of it was down to Dean Smith’s change of shape and tweak in personnel, and how much was down to United’s half-@rsed ill-discipline.
I suspect, in true football post-match interview tradition, it was a bit of both.
But there can be no doubt that Smith’s decision to play Pierre Lees-Melou in the Stiepermann, wandering-10 role has paid huge dividends over the last two games.
Like Stiepi, the Frenchman does occasionally give the ball away cheaply and will sometimes slow things down at the very moment they need speeding up, but his knack of getting the ball on the half-turn and then driving at defenders has added a new dynamic to our attacking play.
By getting on the ball in that space betwixt United’s defence and errant midfield and running with it, he was able to draw out either Maguire or Lindelof and, in doing so, open up a channel for Pukki.
And it worked time and time again.
Kieran Dowell too, when he drifted inside to the 10 position, did it to good effect, with both players proving adept at finding a nicely weighted, accurate pass to find the Finn in those spaces. In particular, Dowell’s reverse pass to set Pukki away for the second goal was a rare thing of beauty in 2021-22.
Questions have obviously been asked of the second-half substitutions made by Dean Smith, with Przemysław Płacheta and Billy Gilmour being asked to perform roles that had been done well by Kenny McLean and Dowell.
As it transpired, both changes were made for the right reasons – Dowell because he was blowing out of his backside and McLean because he has a suspected broken toe – and neither sub could be directly apportioned blame over the United winner that happened two minutes after their arrival.
But why Gilmour and not Lukas Rupp? And why Placheta and not Jon Rowe?
I guess, in Smith’s defence, he may have seen Placheta’s much talked about but rarely seen pace as a potential route to goal with City, at the time of his arrival, playing largely on the break, but unfortunately every Gilmour appearance now screams of the-more-he-plays-the-less-we-pay.
I hope I’m wrong.
But, either way, it’s a loan move that just hasn’t worked out. He’ll one day be a good Premier League player but he isn’t one yet. He needed a Championship loan, not a PL relegation battle, and we needed an experienced head, not a trainee.
As Robin Sainty said in his EDP piece of a couple of weeks ago, Gilmour (and Chelsea) will have gained massively from his experience here, while we have gained very little.
But it’s not Gilmour’s fault – he was offered an opportunity and took it. We should remember that before launching broadsides at the lad.
He’ll not be a talking point next season though. Neither will Mathias Normann, Brandon Williams or Ozan Kabak, all of whom will be returned to senders.
Yet the last couple of weeks have acted as a timely reminder that what’s left actually may be a more effective unit than it appeared, say, one month ago. Add Andrew Omobamidele and Adam Idah back into that group, bring through a couple more of the youngsters alongside Rowe and maybe, just maybe, we could yet become a decent Championship outfit again.
What happens if we do become that decent Championship outfit and what happens beyond that is a discussion for another day, but in order for any of that to even be a thing we desperately need one player, in particular, to still be pulling on a yellow and green shirt.
I refer of course to Pukki.
Take the Finn out of the equation for next season and *everything* changes. It feels right now as if he is literally the difference between a top-six finish and Championship mediocrity.
It’s good that the club has triggered its option to retain his services for another season after this one, but that makes by no means certain he will be a City player at the start of next season.
Yet he has to be. Somehow he has to be.
The thought of him departing is unpalatable, to say the least.
It’s a decision that’s in hands of others though and all we can do as fans is remind him how important he is to us and how much he’s revered here. Whether some nice words and adulation though can replace a final payday that doubles or triples his current deal is in the lap of the gods.
What yesterday did tell us, other than the fact no one’s better than City at shooting themselves in the foot, is that Pukki in a City shirt truly is the GOAT.
Please stay Teemu.
While you’re here…
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