Manchester United’s failures against West Brom were largely to do with the attack, which struggled to break down a team which had shipped a whopping 24 goals in its previous six home Premier League matches.
This time – unlike in the reverse fixture on November 21 – they were not bailed out by the awarding of a penalty, despite Harry Maguire’s protests.
United have made a bad habit of falling behind away from home – and while their unbeaten league run was extended to 18 games, it wasn’t a statistic worthy of celebration after a 1-1 draw against a side which is destined for the Championship.
And yet, if you focus solely on the underperformance of an attack which had to rely on a piece of magic from Bruno Fernandes to score against the leakiest backline in the league, you would fail to shine a light on what is arguably a more concerning state of affairs at the other end of the pitch.
United became just the third Premier League team this season to be outperformed on Expected Goals (xG) by West Brom and that was down to both attack and defence not functioning as they should.
It took just two minutes at The Hawthorns to show that United’s defence is not up to scratch. All it took was one hopeful cross into the box from Conor Gallagher to show it as Mbaye Diagne bullied Victor Lindelof to head in his first Premier League goal past David de Gea.
They may not have conceded another goal, but United’s centre-back pairing of Maguire and Lindelof succeeded in making Diagne look unplayable.
West Brom manager Sam Allardyce said the journeyman striker could have had a hat-trick and for once he was not over-exaggerating.
Having brushed aside Lindelof for the opener, Diagne did the same against Maguire in the second half, racing past the United captain to test De Gea one-on-one, while he also burned Lindelof to get on the end of Darnell Furlong’s late low cross.
West Brom had scored 18 goals in 23 matches before Sunday but were made to look a real threat by simply putting balls into the box and the channel for their lone centre-forward to challenge for. He invariably won those duels.
Diagne won nine aerial duels – more than both Maguire and Lindelof – and managed to fire off four shots at goal.
Maguire and Lindelof are well established as United’s first-choice centre-back pairing, but Sunday’s performance had you wondering whether that status had been earned by performances, or simply by default.
A look at United’s bench showed why, with Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe the only other options available to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; a talented but injury-prone defender and an inexperienced 23-year-old who is yet to prove himself worthy of a regular starting berth.
Phil Jones may remain at the club, but United have cleared the deck in the position recently. Chris Smalling was sold to Roma in October. Marcos Rojo was offloaded to Boca Juniors earlier this month. Timothy Fosu-Mensah left for Bayer Leverkusen.
All those departures were grounded in sense, but they have left United short of options in a key position. If they weren’t already sure, Sunday’s match made it obvious that new blood is an absolute must in the summer.
United need only look to rivals Manchester City to see the benefits of strength and depth in central defence. Pep Guardiola’s side are running away with the Premier League for a variety of reasons, but one of them is their solid defence, which has conceded just 14 goals in 23 games – 10 fewer than any other side.
John Stones’ revival has been impressive, but so have the performances of Ruben Dias, who was signed for around £64million from Benfica last year despite Aymeric Laporte apparently having the position locked down. If Nathan Ake hadn’t struggled so much with injury – and Eric Garcia wasn’t so distracted by Barcelona transfer speculation – then City would have five strong options at centre-back – and that is before you even consider Fernandinho, who has performed the role admirably in the past.
The problem, then, is obvious. The solution, however, is less straightforward. United need a new top-quality central defender this summer, but competition will be fierce and will be complicated further by the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic.
The club found around £40m to sign Donny van de Beek in August to strengthen a position that didn’t really need strengthening. Now they will have to find more funds to plug a hole which is threatening to become a gaping one.
Bayern Munich have already jumped the gun on the arms race by agreeing a deal with one of the most sought-after promising young defenders in Europe. RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano is off the market and you can bet that other options won’t be low-hanging fruit for United’s recruitment department to pluck off a world-class centre-back tree.
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Manchester United’s European campaign resumes this week as they travel to Turin to take on Real Sociedad in the first leg of the Europa League last 32.
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Although Chelsea have enjoyed some success by signing up Thiago Silva after his contract expired at Paris Saint-Germain, a similar move for Real Madrid veteran Sergio Ramos is not the long-term answer.
There are other options, including Sevilla’s Jules Kounde, but they won’t come cheap.
It was only 19 months ago that United shelled out a world-record fee of £80m to sign Maguire from Leicester City – they also spent £30m on Bailly in 2016 and £30m on Lindelof in 2017. This summer, two years on from that Maguire deal, they may be forced into making a similar financial commitment in the same position.