Manchester United's lack of forward movement highlighted by Aston Villa
Back at Old Trafford for the first time in almost a month, Manchester United faced Aston Villa yesterday for a chance to go fifth on the league table. But rather predictably, a moment of genius by Villa captain Jack Grealish fired the visitors into the lead, as United were completely overrun in midfield in the first half.
A cross by Andreas Pereira at the end of the half was eventually headed in for an equaliser by Marcus Rashford off of Tom Heaton. There was some improvement in the second half, as Victor Lindelof headed the Reds into the lead, only for Tyrone Mings to restore parity two minutes later.
The result leaves United still in ninth place on the league table, with the only consolation being that they are just two points behind fifth-placed Tottenham, who travel to Old Trafford on Wednesday.
While United's defensive record has improved since last season (as it should be, after a £130 million summer investment), Dean Smith's men once again highlighted the biggest problem that Ole Gunnar Solskjær's men have going forward.
Lack of mobility
Both of United's goals yesterday came from brilliant crosses into the box. Apart from the goals, clear-cut chances were few and far between.
The problem evident to any fan watching the club play this season is that there is a distinct lack of movement in and around the box. Crosses can be put into the danger areas only when you can create some space out wide in the first place.
Teams like Liverpool and Man City do so by exploiting half-channels between vertical lanes. Highly technical midfielders like David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Georginio Wijnaldum make continuous runs between the opposition full-back and centre-back, to put crosses into the box.
United's issue is two-fold. In spite of having decent ball-playing midfielders like Fred, Scott McTominay and Pereira, runs like these are rare or even non-existent. And on the few occasions that a good cross is put into the box, there's rarely anyone to attack it.
This is even more puzzling considering the attacking personnel available to Solskjær. Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Rashford are all excellent at running with and without the ball, and at least James is an excellent crosser of the ball.
The trio have just begun to develop a fruitful connection, since Martial returned from injury a few weeks ago. But movement off the ball is still as bad as it was under Jose Mourinho.
During Solskjær's honeymoon period, this movement was on display in their run of impressive Premier League wins. Those matches also showed the merit in having a player like Jesse Lingard, whose incessant runs off the ball created loads of space for others to exploit.
Since then, however, the Red Devils have relied too much on Paul Pogba's defence-splitting long balls and through balls. In the Frenchman's absence, only moments of brilliance from the forwards produce goals.
It is unclear whether the issue lies in Solskjær's instructions to his players, or their inability to execute them.
An important transfer window
A clinical striker who's hungry for goals could benefit United a lot. In one particular instance yesterday, James managed to wriggle free from Matt Targett to put an inviting cross into the six-yard box, but Rashford and Martial were ball-watching outside the area.
With a player like Erling Håland or Mario Mandzukic, it would have been a goal and three points. The importance of a player like that cannot be overstated.
But more importantly, United need a huge upgrade on Lingard, a player who can make runs off the ball and confuse defences while also providing some much needed creativity. The 26-year-old is incredibly inconsistent, and isn't someone who can start regularly for a top 6 side.
Jack Grealish or James Maddison would be ideal, but are likely to cost more than what United would be willing to spend in January.
Solskjær has a huge week coming up, with games against Spurs and Manchester City. If his side can somehow keep a clean sheet in both games, United might just secure an invaluable 6 points.
Tottenham might have won all three matches under Mourinho, but they did concede six goals in those games. City's makeshift defence with Fernandinho is unconvincing at best.
A defeat in those games, however, would signal the beginning of the end for Solskjær. For all of Ed Woodward's assurances about a long-term rebuild, there's only so much failure that a club like Manchester United can tolerate.
It could come full circle for the Norwegian boss if he loses to Mourinho's Spurs at Old Trafford on 4 December. There would be something poetic for "The Special One" about that.