Manchester United travelled to San Sebastian with the obligation to beat Real Sociedad by a two-goal margin to take top spot of their Europa League group. They managed one shot on target.
Last night’s 1-0 win in the north of Spain will not go down in club’s history books, except for those fans who want to fondly remember the day Harry Maguire came on in the 83rd minute to partner Cristiano Ronaldo in a two-man front line.
Erik ten Hag’s team extended their unbeaten run to nine games, but could not avoid leaving the Basque country in low spirits. They failed on their mission to advance directly to the last 16 as Group E winners and there will be a price to pay: two more extra games in a February play-off to avoid another traumatic European exit, which is exactly what this squad does not need.
The lack of a second goal exposed United, right now, as they can hardly afford to be in three simultaneous competitions. There is an alarming shortage of bodies, especially in the front line, perfectly illustrated by that eight-minute cameo from central defender Maguire as a makeshift striker.
They will now face one of the Champions League’s third-placed finishers — Barcelona, Juventus, Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Sporting Lisbon, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla or Shakhtar Donetsk — to decide who joins the Europa League’s eight group winners in its round of 16.
If there is anyone in the club who believes United needs more signings, and the sooner the better, this match strengthened their argument.
Ten Hag was well aware of the absences he was going to have. The club confirmed on Wednesday that Anthony Martial and Antony would not travel to Spain due to injury, while Jadon Sancho stayed at home ill.
Any elite squad should be ready to deal with those situations. For United, they were simply too much.
They did not manage to get a shot on target in the whole second half, when they needed a goal to snatch the top spot from their hosts on goal difference. Goalkeeper Alex Remiro did not need to register a single save in the game.
Real Sociedad counted 14 total attempts on goal, United had four. The La Liga side added 11 shots, with four of them on target.
“We need options. We have problems in the front line,” said Ten Hag.
The manager was looking for new options, and Donny van de Beek did not add many reasons to be considered as the best of them. The 25-year-old wasted another chance against Real Sociedad. He was the surprise call in the starting line-up, with Ten Hag leaving Marcus Rashford on the bench and deploying Bruno Fernandes on the right wing.
“This is his moment; he has to take it,” said Ten Hag of his countryman before the game. “From the No 10 position he can be dangerous between the lines, getting behind, and a good counter-press, so I want to see that. He has to take this moment. I know he can do it.”
Van de Beek was subbed off at the 58th minute to make room for Rashford, who started on the bench to “keep him fresh”, according to Ten Hag.
With Fernandes suspended for Sunday’s trip to Aston Villa, this game provided an audition for Van de Beek. The manager had his back after the game. “He was decent. He did what we expected him to do in many departments but, at the same time, we know he can do better. I know it very well.”
Van de Beek is still waiting for his breakthrough at United 22 months after joining from Ajax for around £40million, but the final result last night cannot be put down on him.
Actually, United were the better side after half-time.
Christian Eriksen and Casemiro were running the game, Lisandro Martinez was winning every header against Alexander Sorloth and David de Gea built on the best form he has been in this season with marvellous saves to Andoni Gorosabel and Pablo Marin.
And there was Alejandro Garnacho. The 18-year-old scored his first senior United goal in his second full start of the season.
Football-wise, Garnacho ticks every box to be a star in the making. Every time United found him in attacking positions down the left wing, Real Sociedad’s defence feared him.
The goal came after a counter-attack set up by Fernandes winning a header, a drive by Ronaldo and was clinically finished by the Argentinia Under-20 international with his left foot.
“It’s positive we have extra options in the front line with Garnacho, he’s developing very well,” Ten Hag said. “I hope he can keep that attitude, when he is reliable, you see he is a threat, he can create, he can give final passes and he can score goals, so it’s a good process.”
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The manager is now not the only voice to hint at Garnacho’s attitude problems at the start of the season, though. Fernandes was quite clear when he spoke to the game’s UK broadcaster BT Sport.
“He was good. He knows we expect a lot from him,” Fernandes said. “He’s still really young and he’s doing really well. He wasn’t at his best at the beginning of the season — in the pre-season tour he didn’t have the best attitude that he should have, but now he’s training better and getting his chances. He’s deserving of his chances.”
The dressing room is not afraid of being vocal on Garnacho’s development.
If that is what helps the exciting winger develop into the player he hints to be, it will be more than welcome.
Right now, Garnacho is closer to becoming a true problem-solver than any desperate late cameos.
(Main image: Ronaldo had another frustrating night. Photo: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
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