Ahead of his 100th game as a Premier League manager on Saturday Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he was “older, wiser and greyer” for bringing up the century.
By 10pm on Saturday night the grey would have been even more pronounced, even Solskjaer had any hair left. He could have been forgiven for pulling it all out at seeing his team throw away two points against Everton.
United played some of their best football of the season in a dominant first-half display but contrived to draw 3-3 with the Toffees, who scored from every shot on target. Having thrown their half-time cushion away, United looked to have restored order before a catalogue of mistakes led to Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s equaliser with what was basically the last kick of the game.
It ticked every box for the way United have inflicted some wounds on themselves this season. Conceding from a set-piece thanks to individual mistakes was a fitting way to surrender the two points.
When David de Gea was lining up a kick downfield six seconds beyond the end of the four added minutes it was inconceivable United wouldn’t win that game. But then Axel Tuanzebe committed a needless foul on Josh King, Harry Maguire hit the panic button and dropped a couple of yards deeper than this teammates and De Gea was slow to react when the ball landed at the feet of Calvert-Lewin.
That whole passage of play felt like a team lacking maturity and control to see a game out and one that is too easily shaken under pressure, the kind of flaws that will prove costly over the course of a season.
United have improved this season, of that there can be little doubt. They’re averaging 1.95 points a game this season, up from 1.73 last term, and in the first 45 minutes against Everton they showed what an excellent team they can be, but there are still flaws that need ironing out.
Solskjaer has regularly cited United’s habit of making life hard for themselves this season – in a jokey manner – when they’ve come through tight games, but they’ve often made those games unnecessarily tight and got away with it. That won’t last forever.
In the Premier League they’ve probably had two comfortable wins all season, the 6-2 against Leeds United and the 9-0 against Southampton. Every other league victory has either required a comeback, a late winner or a nervy finale.
United were poor under pressure against RB Leipzig in the Champions League decider, just as they have been in semi-finals under Solskjaer. Keeping their composure can be a challenge for this team.
Six times this season they have conceded in the final five minutes of games and on Saturday it was a particularly costly late goal, especially when they saw Manchester City win at Anfield a day later.
United have shown they can defend with a combination of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly, while the full-backs, in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw, are both in excellent form, but there is a sense they are vulnerable when placed under pressure. While Maguire is a good captain his decision to drop deep from the free-kick on Saturday showed he isn’t necessarily the vocal leader that can organise a defence in the closing stages, when the game is on the line.
This will be a summer when United will look to strengthen defensively and while any new addition is likely to follow the usual path of a younger player with his best years to come, Solskjaer has shown he will move away from that transfer strategy if required.
The free transfer addition of Edinson Cavani was an example of that and the 33-year-old has been an excellent signing, not just for his goals but for his experience as well. He knows how to win trophies and can help guide what is still a relatively young squad.
Maybe a similar approach could be taken defensively? United might not need to sign a centre back in his early to mid-30s to play every week, but having an experienced option on the bench, a vocal defensive leader who has been around the block, might help them see out games, bringing a calmness when at the moment there is only panic.
Solskjaer has accepted previously that this squad needs more experience and recent evidence is suggesting that might be the case defensively too. It would have helped to bring on a defensive leader with hundreds of top-level games under his belt against Everton rather than Tuanzebe. That would probably have avoided the free-kick being given away in the first place and the defensive line falling apart when the ball came into the box.