Opinion: Seven magic minutes show what's possible
How to make sense of a match that twisted and tortured the emotions with almost sadistic frequency?
For 70 minutes or so, those of us in the away end at Bramall Lane had our mouths agape at the timidity of Manchester United’s performance; at the way in which Chris Wilder’s well-drilled Sheffield United side breached our midfield; the way they stretched our three-man central defence to somewhere beyond the point of elasticity.
But then, from nowhere, sprang a comeback of such breathtaking fluency, you could have been forgiven for thinking that one of the great United sides of old had been teleported in from another realm, by order of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Daniel James, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial flowed forward with spectacular ease, and it was a wonder United did not score more than three in that manic 10-minute period.
Photos from the sharp endGallery
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“It’s great when it happens like this, innit?” laughed the lad next to me, carrying his five-year-old son on his shoulders, who emitted a smile as wide as Barton Road Swing Bridge.
Then, just as a superb and important three away points seemed to beckon, a minor stramash in the United box led to a scrappy equaliser for the Blades. Utter deflation.
Inevitably, it meant post-match focus reverted back to discussion of those 70 dispiriting minutes when the Reds seemed unable to cope with the commitment and intensity of Sheffield United’s unique style. It’s always interesting walking away from a match you’ve attended and then comparing your own view with what you read on social media or hear on the BBC’s phone-ins.
In my experience of talking to fellow fans, those who attend games often take a broader perspective. They don’t forget the poor performances that have taken place under every single manager in this club’s history – even Sir Alex Ferguson.
While Twitter lives in the moment, those who went to MK Dons in 2014, or the 5-1 defeat at Maine Road under Sir Alex in ‘89, remember that bad days are part of football, no matter how successful your club is in a specific period.
Yesterday afternoon, I left the ground feeling weirdly positive. Sheffield United are above us in the table, like it or not, and we headed to South Yorkshire with three central midfielders unavailable – McTominay, Pogba and Matic – and plenty of other injuries denting the squad.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted our tactical approach hadn’t worked in the first half and by the time the right balance had been found, we were 2-0 down. But still, in that seven-minute bombardment of the Blades’ goal, United found the attacking articulacy they showed for a longer spell against Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford in our last Premier League game.
As a fan, I’m reassured by such bursts, as they show that the level we can get to is exciting, marauding, fast football. I think it’s fair to say that’s it’s the type of thing most Reds want to see from their team. And we’ve reached that thrilling level more often under our current manager than under any other during the post-Ferguson era.
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Ten minutes per game is not enough. However, it’s perfectly understandable that a team with so many youngsters will lack consistency. Brandon Williams has played just a handful of senior games. Daniel James only made his first-team debut for Swansea last year. Andreas Pereira is inexperienced in the deeper midfield position he had to play yesterday because of other absences.
You’d expect that a Sheffield United team riding high in the table, who’ve already got results against Chelsea and Tottenham – and come close to beating Liverpool – would give such a team a serious examination. And that’s exactly what occurred. But we still found something “inside of us”, as Marcus Rashford said afterwards.
Goalscorers aged 18, 19 and 22 – all of whom have come through the Academy – produced, showing courage, bravery and panache in a difficult away environment as tough as any other you’ll find in the Premier League. The challenge for Solskjaer’s men is, of course, to reach that fleeting level more and more consistently.
The challenge for us, as Reds, is to realise that ‘patience’ and ‘transition’ are not just buzzwords to pay lip service to. They mean remembering where the team is, what its deficiencies are, that the manager has admitted there is still work to do in the transfer market. And not just after wins, when we’re feeling magnanimous. The wider context is never more important than ever after a poor performance or result.
We know where Manchester United should be: competing for the Premier League title, competing for the Champions League. Those seven minutes at Bramall Lane showed that our current side is capable of reaching a high level, that it has considerable potential. They suggested that the talents of Rashford, James, Greenwood and Martial (all of whom are under 24) could be the foundation stones of a seriously good attacking team.
How long will it take us to reach a point of unerring consistency? Who knows? But as I walked back into Sheffield after the final whistle, I was holding on to those seven minutes – along with the performances against Chelsea, Leicester, Liverpool, Partizan and Brighton – and dreaming of a time when we might look back and see them as the tentative first glimpses of a brighter future.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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