Daniel Storey: Can Man United challenge for a title while shutting big games down?

Manchester United’s lack of goals is becoming a chronic issue against Big Six clubs
Daniel Storey: Can Man United challenge for a title while shutting big games down?

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the touchline during the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, Picture: Clive Rose/PA Wire.

Result satisfactory for United, lack of goals a different issue 

This was at least a different type of 0-0 to the same fixture at Old Trafford. That was characterised by Manchester United sitting deep throughout, whereas on Sunday Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team tried to press high in the first half before preferring to counter after the break. Chelsea had the better chances after the break and probably merited victory, but then United could easily have a first-half penalty.

The result is no problem for Solskjaer’s team. Leicester City lost, West Ham and Chelsea obviously didn’t win. They have virtually assured that Manchester City will win the title, but then Solskjaer publicly gave that up weeks ago anyway.

But Manchester United’s lack of goals is becoming a chronic issue against Big Six clubs. It’s clearly offset by a strong defensive record, and that’s to be celebrated, but United have now gone eight league games without a goal from open play against Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham.

That’s odd because Solskjaer got this job at least partly because of his performance (and intent) against higher-profile opponents when he was in temporary charge. Is this merely an over-compensation for the 6-1 home defeat to Tottenham that now needs correcting, or a long-term alteration in his principles?

And, more pertinently, can Manchester United make a sustainable, serious title challenge by shutting down these fixtures so deliberately?

Brighton farce takes them closer to trouble 

Brighton will reasonably argue that they were unfairly penalised and should have an equaliser, and they are probably right. But that should not mask this team’s inability to take their chances and move away from trouble. Instead they’re being sucked back in.

Referee Lee Mason is surrounded by players from both sides after Brighton and Hove Albion's Lewis Dunk scored from a quick free quick which was subsequently ruled out by VAR.

Referee Lee Mason is surrounded by players from both sides after Brighton and Hove Albion's Lewis Dunk scored from a quick free quick which was subsequently ruled out by VAR.

Brighton have now taken 66 shots in their last three matches and scored a single goal. In those three games they have taken 38% of the shots from inside the box that West Brom have managed all season. On Saturday they even took their farce to a new level, missing two penalties.

It’s hard to know what to make of this mess. Logic dictates that Brighton will eventually find the answer; continue at even close to their current rate of chance creation and the goals must come. The manager of a club in relegation trouble would usually be in line for stinging criticism, but it’s hard to know what more Potter can do.

But time is running out for that improvement to come, particularly given that Brighton’s finishing is getting worse not better.

With 12 games left, Brighton are still to play four of the Big Six plus Everton, Leeds United, West Ham and Leicester City. They might well be relegated by their own strikers.

Leicester suffer potentially season-defining injuries 

Leicester City’s squad is not deep enough to suffer a series of injuries and endure a punishing schedule while successfully maintaining top-four form. We know as much from last season, when James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, Ben Chilwell and Wilfred Ndidi all missed significant matches and Leicester lost their grip on Champions League qualification.

The same might just be happening again. With James Maddison, Wesley Fofana and James Justin already out (three of Leicester’s best players this season), Brendan Rodgers watched on as Harvey Barnes was stretchered off with a knee injury and Jonny Evans limped from the field with a muscle problem. Barnes’ ability to play again this season must surely be in doubt.

Leicester City's Harvey Barnes leaves the game on a stretcher after picking up an injury. Picture: Michael Regan

Leicester City's Harvey Barnes leaves the game on a stretcher after picking up an injury. Picture: Michael Regan

And that hurts Leicester. With only three first-team arrivals last summer — and two of them effectively replacing Chilwell and Demarai Gray — Rodgers’ squad is not built to cope with this relentless schedule that involved Europa League commitments until Thursday’s exit. Perhaps that will be viewed internally as a blessing in disguise.

Newcastle miss chance to ease the doom 

If Brighton remain upbeat because the method is solid despite the end result being broken, Newcastle are far less secure. A home point against Wolves is no reason for wild panic, but Steve Bruce’s team are missing too many chances to extricate themselves from danger. They have taken nine points from the last 45 available in the Premier League.

Worse news came with the injury crisis that now accounts for Newcastle’s three best attacking players. Callum Wilson is still a few weeks from full fitness (Newcastle have scored twice in five games without him) and Bruce faces an anxious wait to discover the extent of Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron’s knocks.

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo (right) and Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce (centre) on the touchline. Picture: Owen Humphreys

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo (right) and Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce (centre) on the touchline. Picture: Owen Humphreys

Without Wilson, Newcastle lack a poacher who makes dangerous runs and sniffs out half-chances.

Without Almiron and Saint-Maximin, they have nobody to spring a counter-attack and thus provide the defence with much-needed respite. If that pair are absent for longer than a fortnight, three winnable league fixtures become far harder to control.

Aston Villa win without Grealish... eventually 

You can hardly criticise any non-elite team for being reliant upon a player of Jack Grealish’s talent. He is so dominating over Villa’s attacks, creating more than double the number of chances of any teammate this season, that his absence will inevitably leave a whole that requires a period of time to cope with.

But Dean Smith will be delighted that he has finally broken the Aston Villa curse. Before Saturday, Aston Villa’s last 16 Premier League matches without Grealish had returned a single point and 15 defeats. For the first time in more than five years, they have a top-flight win without him.

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