Manchester United were insipid, Sheffield United impressive in a display that doubled the bottom-placed team’s victory tally: the substitute Oliver Burke’s 74th-minute winner summing up why the home side deserved to lose.
David de Gea failed to clear and instead handed John Lundstram possession near goal. The visitors were allowed too much time, even after Burke’s initial shot, and Lundstram found the player again inside the home side’s area with zero pressure – Paul Pogba the nearest offender – and the No 14 hit a first Premier League goal in off Axel Tuanzebe.
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This followed Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side falling behind the first time via equally hapless defending from their achilles heel: the high ball from a set piece, Kean Bryan the beneficiary. And while Harry Maguire managed to equalise and Edinson Cavani spurned a late chance, the Blades emerged with the victory.
Solskjær will hope this is a blip and was keen to downplay the reverse, stating there will be no “big inquest”. He can be thankful that third-placed Leicester dropped two points at Everton but Manchester City are flying and can go four points clear if they win their game in hand.
Tuanzebe, given a first league start since October 2019 after Eric Bailly was injured in training, had a disappointing game as the home side started strongly before fading badly. They dominated the ball but as Solskjær said his team lacked “magic” where it counted: near Aaron Ramsdale’s goal. There was one flowing move that scattered the salmon-shirted visitors when Manchester United advanced from halfway. Pogba was the instigator and he began imperiously – one instant no-look chip releasing Bruno Fernandes behind the lines – only for the Portuguese player’s unsure touch to stymie his run on Ramsdale’s goal.
Yet there was alarm when the visitors came close to a sucker-punch via a John Fleck pass that split the defence and gave Billy Sharp a clear shot which De Gea’s legs repelled, but only just. Manchester United’s riposte had Fernandes lobbing into Mason Greenwood whose right-to-left run had the visiting rearguard flailing. The No 11 skipped round Ramsdale but took an extra touch and the keeper could smother the ball.
But, now, came calamity for Solskjær’s men, Fleck exposing the vulnerability at dead balls. The midfielder’s corner from the right was placed into the sweet spot in front of De Gea. Both the Spaniard and Tuanzebe leaped yet neither could prevent Bryan heading in off the post.
The Manchester United goalkeeper, David De Gea, on his knees after Oliver Burke scored Sheffield United’s second goal.
The Manchester United goalkeeper, David de Gea, after Oliver Burke scored Sheffield United’s second goal. Photograph: Jon Super/NMC Pool/The Guardian
Solskjær later claimed Sharp had impeded De Gea but the bigger issue is the latter’s lack of command under aerial artillery.
This was the eighth league goal United have conceded from a set piece this season and left Solskjær stony-faced: his disquiet nearly deepened when the slumbering Tuanzebe allowed David McGoldrick to slip in before Aaron Wan-Bissaka did enough to end the danger. Moments later Anthony Martial – another who disappointed – rolled the ball home but Maguire was adjudged by Peter Bankes to have fouled Ramsdale and VAR backed the referee up, Solskjær again bemoaning this decision. United pressed until the interval but this was as close as they came to the equaliser meaning the manager’s half-time chat had become vital.
It made little difference as what unfolded was the same pattern of the home side hogging the ball but too far from goal. Greenwood did have one golden chance to equalise when Fernandes threaded him in but he fired across Ramsdale and wide. This signalled a need for patience from the home side, the challenge being to stay composed and the opportunities would surely arrive. Instead, Alex Telles wasted a corner and there was frustration when Nemanja Matic fouled needlessly, then Fernandes hit a simple pass straight out. This had become the ideal scenario for the visitors: a spoiling job with their noses in front while continuing to threaten sporadically as when McGoldrick unloaded too high at De Gea.
After the latter was again a statue at a high corner, the hosts moved upfield and claimed a free-kick. Marcus Rashford took a potshot from distance that Ramsdale gathered with ease. Yet far better was what came next. Telles swung in a corner from the left and a free-running Maguire headed expertly in.
Yet next came Burke’s winner and disappointment for Manchester United. On Saturday they visit Arsenal, where they must bounce back.