Manchester United have suffered quite a few sickening reverses in the post-Alex Ferguson era, but few of them boasted the elegant comic structure of the 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday.
From conceding a simple goal to Palace's first attack of the game, to Marcus Rashford recording United's second penalty miss in successive games, to the joy of Daniel James's late equaliser which was immediately extinguished by a Palace winner in injury time. At the final whistle the crowd was too stunned to boo.
On Friday, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had batted away questions about his preferred penalty-taker with a light touch. Paul Pogba’s penalty miss at Wolves had not made him rethink his policy of having two nominated takers.
“We’re practising penalties and Marcus and Paul are still on them. Don’t be surprised if Marcus or Paul scores the next one, I’m sure they will. Absolutely no fighting amongst them. It’s not that I’ve left it to the players to sort out, we’ve nominated two . . . It’s not like there’s anarchy and just, do whatever you want.”
The best penalty takers are not necessarily the best players but the ones who are able to remain calm in the moment
But of course nobody was really suggesting that Rashford and Pogba were at each other’s throats or that anarchy reigned in the dressing room. The issue was whether Solskjaer had been correct – first of all to adopt that vague penalty policy, and then to persist with it after Pogba had failed last Monday night.
Taking penalties is the most robotic skill in football. The best penalty takers are not necessarily the best players – Lionel Messi’s career penalty success rate of 77 per cent is almost exactly average – but the ones who are able to remain calm in the moment. From the point of view of a manager, anything that promotes doubt or uncertainty in the mind of the kicker is to be minimised.
For Solskjaer to say that he has nominated two penalty-takers is a contradiction in terms: they can’t both take it. In any case, few teams include more than a couple of players contesting the right to take the penalties. By nominating two, you are really nominating nobody. You are dodging the decision.
How does the Solskjaer system work in practice? Pogba is the senior player, so we know that if Pogba fancies the penalty he will take it, and if Rashford is taking it, it looks as though Pogba has chickened out. If Pogba misses people will wonder why Rashford didn’t take it, and if Rashford misses, people will say he might have scored if he hadn’t been worrying that everyone else might secretly be thinking “Pogba should be taking this”.
It’s obvious that this uncertainty creates an unnecessary layer of drama around the penalties, and Solskjaer should have addressed it after Pogba’s miss last week. Naming a preferred penalty taker is no guarantee that they will score, but at least it means they have one less thing to be worrying about as they prepare to shoot.
Building for the long-term has never been easy, and it's even more complicated when the club is the biggest and richest in the league
As Solskjaer reflected afterwards, score these penalties and we could be sitting here happy with nine points. The point was that United’s performances have been better than their results, and that might be true. But the problem with this penalty drama is not really that United missed two penalties and dropped several points. They might have missed the penalties anyway. The problem is that missing them in the way they did has made Solskjaer look weak and indecisive. And that’s something he really cannot afford at this point in his United career.
Over the summer it became clear that he was going to try to put together a team the way Ferguson used to: building for the long-term. That's why he got rid of Romelu Lukaku, who lacked too many of the basic skills of a top-class centre-forward. There was no point in trying to build a team around such a limited focal point. Better to see if Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford can do it. That's why United are trying to get rid of Alexis Sánchez on loan to Inter, even though they will end up having to pay at least two-thirds of his wages. They are prepared to write off €15 million a year to get him out of there because there is no future in having Sanchez around. Better to give the game time to someone like Daniel James.
Building for the long-term has never been easy, and it’s even more complicated when the club is the biggest and richest in the league, with the most demanding and dissatisfied fans. The team Solskjaer picked to start against Palace had an average age of 24. They play in front of a gigantic crowd with an average age in the mid-40s. Many of these fans were sitting in the very same seats 20 years ago, watching the Treble team that Solskjaer played in and that almost none of the current generation of United players can remember.
Ferguson bedded down the roots of the Treble team in the summer of 1995, when he controversially sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis and replaced them with academy players: David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt. A lot of people at the time thought he was crazy. We know how it worked out in the end.
Solskjaer is trying to put Ferguson's long-term methods to work in an environment that has become much less forgiving
But Ferguson had the luxury of a margin for error. That young United team could go five league matches without a win leading up to Christmas 1995, and still slip no lower than second in the table. Go five matches without a win in today's Premier League and you will lose 13 to 15 points on the leaders. The Treble team won the league with 79 points. That might get you third in today's Premier League, but it would be touch-and-go until the end.
Solskjaer is trying to put Ferguson’s long-term methods to work in an environment that has become much less forgiving over the last 20 years. Setbacks and frustrations are guaranteed. If he is going to survive in the job to see this project through, he needs to avoid further self-inflicted embarrassments.