Man United was defeated by Real Sociedad in a dramatic penalty shootout at Old Trafford on a night when Erik ten Hag’s bizarre calls backfired.
Lisandro Martinez had his back to the goal, his arms taut, and the ball had deflected onto his hand. Penalty, but one that had to be reversed. Inexplicably, the European VAR system upheld a decision that was as heinous as several in the Premier League last week.
Manchester United was drab, and their star players were ineffective against La Liga’s ninth-placed outfit. After Brais Mendez’s conversion and Erik ten Hag’s role reversal, there was more than a half-hour remaining on the clock to avoid defeat.
The half-time exits of Christian Eriksen, the first-half standout, and Diogo Dalot were both intentional and complacent. United slowed their momentum just as much as the Italian referee, who was strangely supported by his compatriot on the VAR. Boos was back at full strength, both for the players and the errant official.
Football bureaucrats must be careful not to interfere with the game. Nobody is on the same page; the Premier League and Uefa competitions interpret handball differently. The game remains the same, but the rules have changed.
United did not hold a post-match press conference in light of the Queen’s death, which was announced at 6.30 p.m. from Balmoral. The Europa League may be uninspiring, but the final score should be rendered meaningless by United’s next four games against FC Sheriff of Moldova and Cypriot team Omonia.
However, some of Ten Hag’s judgments were perplexing and demanded explanations. He can’t use the terrible penalty call to cover for United’s disjointed performance after they came in on a four-game winning streak. When United had invested £398.73 million in the starting XI, the six changes did not look to be rash rotation.
United will have gone nearly six years without winning a trophy, and finishing in the top four in an intensely competitive Premier League will be a difficult task, especially since Chelsea has moved to untangle their unraveling with the dismissal of Thomas Tuchel and the appointment of Graham Potter, United’s scourge twice this year.
This may be a Europa League or bust season for Manchester United. The competition gave them a backdoor back into the Champions League in 2017, and they cannot turn their backs on the Uefa Cup, which meant that 2016-17 was their sole successful season in the post-Ferguson era.
The tie devolved into frivolity, with academy recruits Alejandro Garnacho and Charlie McNeill introduced in a futile attempt to save the game. United should take note of the joyous scenes in the away end and the Basque area of the directors’ box. It meant more to Sociedad than it did to United.
Exasperation returned to the spectators as a result of the slowness with which the ball was moved from the defensive third to the offensive third, as well as the catastrophic Fred and Cristiano Ronaldo’s penchant to be whistled offside.
From the Stretford End, there was a heartfelt appreciation for the Gorton-born McNeill, a memory that will live on in the FA Youth Cup winner and boyhood red’s mind. On a gloomy night, that was United’s one bright spot.
The atmosphere inside Old Trafford was surprisingly quiet. The players’ warm-up was not accompanied by a pre-match tune blasting from the speakers, and the majority of fans were visibly depressed.
For a more subdued ambiance, the advertising hoardings were blacked out, and the Europa League song was muffled. The minute’s quiet was observed with the same reverence as United’s last-minute arrangements. Both squads wore black armbands.
The dejected Fred, in the playmaker role that Eriksen is known for, set the tone for the season’s third defeat. Ralf Rangnick successfully moved Fred into a more advanced role last season, although as a No.8 rather than a No.10, and he struggled against Sociedad. When Eriksen first replaced Fred, his curling cross just eluded an elated Ronaldo, who cheered the goal.
With his relocation, Fred was given a hospital pass, and he was constant in giving his teammates hospital permits. It seemed nonsensical to start with a 6, an 8, and a 10, especially since Eriksen was effective when he sauntered into the final third. In his complete debut, Casemiro was careless and cumbersome.
Eriksen and Dalot were almost definitely withdrawn during the interval. Reassuringly for United fans, the duo returned for the second half already bathed and dressed in tracksuits.
Eriksen’s replacement, Bruno Fernandes, promptly centered for Ronaldo, only to botch his header. It was a night when a single hand determined the outcome.