After 13 unbeaten matches in the league, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side lost a match everyone expected them to win at a canter, pouring a bucket of cold water on aspirations at Old Trafford.
Not only did they fail to reclaim top spot from Manchester City, who still retain a game in hand, but the shock loss to the Blades threw up a number of old failings from the start of the season everyone thought had been vanquished.
Title-chasing Manchester United were stunned by Sheffield United on Wednesday evening
The Blades recorded a famous victory at Old Trafford as United’s title chance took a big blow
United passed up the opportunity to reclaim top spot in the Premier League from Man City
Of course, this defeat doesn’t end United’s chances of winning a first title in eight years but the nature of it would certainly have alarmed Solskjaer as his team slipped well below recent standards.
With Pep Guardiola’s City starting to look like their old imperious selves with 11 straight wins in all competitions and a run of 18 unbeaten since late November, these are the issues United must address to stay in the title picture.
Solskjaer continues to persist with Anthony Martial as his centre forward ahead of Edinson Cavani despite the Frenchman’s run of underwhelming form.
Martial has scored only five times in 25 outings this season and last found the net against Aston Villa on New Year’s Day, that close range header one of only two Premier League games.
One of his best performances of the season came in the reverse fixture with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane back in December when he scored United’s second and then set up Marcus Rashford for another.
Anthony Martial (left) put in another underwhelming performance as he struggles for goals
But this time around he looked completely lost amid a swarm of light pink shirts as the Blades defence didn’t allow him a yard of space to contribute anything.
In the BT Sport studio, United legend Rio Ferdinand described Martial as ‘invisible’ which is becoming the case in too many games.
Ferdinand also lambasted the striker for not tracking back to cover in defence in the slow motion car crash that was the visitors’ winning goal.
Cavani, by contrast, looks far sharper whenever he’s on the field. The Uruguayan also has five goals for the season but in six fewer games that Martial. He also has double Martial’s tally in the league.
Rio Ferdinand took aim at ‘invisible’ Martial (right) and criticised him for not tracking back
There’s a growing case for Edinson Cavani (left) to start games ahead of Anthony Martial
There is an increasing clamour among United fans for Cavani to start games ahead of Martial and with good reason.
Solskjaer may also take the view that a couple of games on the bench for Martial will shake him out of the funk he’s been in for most of the season.
Falling behind in games is a habit United just haven’t been able to kick. Fortunately, in most of them, they’re able to mount a stirring comeback to repair the damage.
That didn’t happen on Wednesday night thanks in part to Sheffield United’s organisational brilliance to keep them at bay and also because of their own calamity at the back.
The winner was the kind of defensive shambles United had worked so hard to get out of their system since the troubled early weeks of the season.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka (left), Nemanja Matic (centre) and Harry Maguire react after the first goal
Harry Maguire, David de Gea and Axel Tuanzebe all had opportunities to put the ball into touch before the Blades were allowed all the time in the world to pass the ball back into a shooting position.
The marking was so slack it was as though United’s defenders doubted their opponent’s capability to score a second goal however close they got.
In the end, Oliver Burke’s shot took a deflection off Tuanzebe’s knee and went into the roof of the net.
It was a reminder that United are a long way from looking defensively sound even if they are winning matches on a regular basis.
Sheffield United’s second-half winner took a deflection off Axel Tuanzebe’s (right) knee
In defence of Tuanzebe, it was his first Premier League start of the season and he wouldn’t have been involved had Solskjaer not wanted to rest Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly hadn’t taken a knock in training.
But conceding such poor goals could easily cost United any chance of winning the title.
Can’t break them down
Credit where credit is due to Sheffield United, who defended brilliantly. Phil Jagielka was one of many who didn’t put a foot wrong all night as wave after wave of pressure crashed and rolled back.
With what was essentially a back five and the industrious John Lundstram and John Fleck shielding them, Chris Wilder built a wall of Sheffield steel that Man United’s much-vaunted attack couldn’t get past.
An inability to break down sides who come and defend deep, especially at Old Trafford, had become a real issue for Solskjaer’s side.
Ethan Ampadu (left) and Phil Jagielka (right) try and keep Mason Greenwood quiet
But increasingly, they’d been finding ways to break down these massed defences to win all three points, as in the games against West Bromwich Albion, Wolves and Burnley of late.
It’s clear Solskjaer has worked hard to address this failing of last season but his player looked totally clueless when crowded out by Sheffield United.
The fact the home side had 16 shots but only four actually on target showed how they started resorting to long range efforts having failed to penetrate the Blades defence. Enjoying 76 per cent possession brought them no joy.
Sheffield United played Chris Wilder’s game plan to perfection for their second league win
We all know that Solskjaer’s United are at their most lethal when up against opponents who attack them, leaving space to counter at speed.
But it could prove to be this failure to break down the lesser opponents that prevents them winning anything. Contrast United on Wednesday night with City’s ruthless 5-0 demolition of West Brom 24 hours earlier.
Too reliant on Fernandes and Pogba?
An old chestnut but when Bruno Fernandes – and, of late, Paul Pogba – fail to fire, United look a second class team. Both have been excellent in recent weeks but lacked that spark on Wednesday night and the team as a whole suffered.
Fernandes marks a year as a United player on Friday and what a transformative impact he has had. 28 goals and 18 assists mean he’s been involved in 46 goals in 52 games since signing from Sporting Lisbon.
These are incredible returns but the flip side is that United have arguably become a bit too reliant on that Fernandes magic to get them out of holes.
Paul Pogba (left) and Bruno Fernandes (middle) have carried United through in recent weeks
He did it against Liverpool in the FA Cup on Sunday, showing off one of the many strings to his bow by firing home a lovely free-kick to win the game.
Fernandes did slide Mason Greenwood through for a very good chance on Wednesday but most of his evening was spent being crowded out and directed down cul-de-sacs.
Pogba has been improving with every game in the last couple of months, showing the consistency of match-winning form United fans have waited four years for.
But aside from a couple of moments when he danced past two or three players in midfield, he too was muted.
Bruno Fernandes acrobatically controls the ball on a rare occasion he got behind the defence
In-form Paul Pogba was kept at bay by Sheffield United during a quiet performance
Other players will need to step up and provide that spark. Martial and Greenwood are two that spring to mind. We may also see more of Donny van de Beek, Juan Mata and Daniel James as the season progresses.
As the ultimate super sub, Solskjaer knows better than anyone that everyone gets their moment in a long, hard season and must be ready to seize their chance. It can’t always be the same players making the difference.
It’s time to prioritise
Continuing that theme of everyone playing their part, the season is about to get very hectic for United.
They travel to Arsenal for the teatime kick-off on Saturday, then host Southampton next Tuesday before a home game with Everton that may be moved forward because of the midweek FA Cup fifth round date with West Ham.
The week after that, United pick up their UEFA Europa League campaign with a testing last-32 assignment against Real Sociedad.
With a chaotic fixture list, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to prioritise the competitions
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Saturday Arsenal (A)
Tuesday Southampton (H)
TBC Everton (H)
TBC West Ham (H)
FA Cup fifth round
February 13 West Brom (A)
February 18 Real Sociedad (A)
Europa League last 32, first leg
Solskjaer will always maintain that United enter every competition to win it but the reality is his squad lacks the depth of quality to compete properly on all three fronts.
It simply isn’t feasible for the likes of Fernandes, Pogba, Rashford and Maguire to play every single game between now and the end of the season. This isn’t 1999.
United will face another 18 Premier League games – almost half a season’s worth – a possible four more FA Cup games and possible nine Europa League fixtures between now and the end of May.
So Solskjaer needs to prioritise and it’s a tricky one because the feeling persists he needs to win a trophy to really make his mark as United boss.
The FA Cup is probably his best bet as it’s less arduous than the Europa League but the Premier League is obviously more important than both.
If United still find themselves in the title picture by the time they meet Sociedad, it may be prudent to ring the changes for the European games and keep the main players fresh for league fixtures.
Solskjaer must think pragmatically even though his heart will tell him United should try and win it all.