As the old saying goes, to make a mistake once is acceptable. To make it twice, means it’s no longer a mistake. Or ‘a crime’ as my father would tell me throughout my youth. Still awaiting criminal charges for those, Dad.
For the second time this season, Huddersfield reduced us to a bereft, toothless Wolves, with no suggestion of our relatively lofty position in the league throughout each set of 90 minutes – or any suggestion of Huddersfield’s league position either. The stats are worth bearing out. Since beating us at Molineux, Huddersfield had taken one point in the league. They had scored 6 goals. They had changed their manager. All things pointed towards a Wolves victory, but we simply didn’t show up.
Now I can accept bad performances. The previous result against The Terriers was a symptom of a solid Huddersfield game plan and Wolves being spooked into submission. I wrote that one off. To do pretty much the same thing all over again in different circumstances isn’t acceptable for a side aiming for – not just being in – the top 7 in the league.
Much of the comment from the club post-match has been about how we have been ‘trying to do what we usually do’ against such opposition. But it stands to reason you simply don’t approach Manchester United in the same way you would approach Huddersfield Town. For the first half an hour, in our usual robust shape stretched across the pitch, we allowed Huddersfield to stroke the ball around quite comfortably. A team, I will reiterate, that had gained just one point and scored six goals since 25 November.
Why are we doing this? If we want to take the ‘best contender’ tag that comes with finishing 7th we have to behave in such a way. Going to bottom of the league and allowing them to slip into a groove which allowed them to express themselves more and more throughout is not the way to do it. We continually allow teams to be encouraged by being passive with our pressing. Teams like Huddersfield need knocking out of their stride early but we allowed them to dominate the ball. We should really be playing ten yards further up the pitch in a much more proactive manner, harassing a brittle side into mistakes and pinning them back with possession-based football.
Instead, when we did gain possession, our usual game plan was nullified from the outset. It was as if Jan Siewert had taken a huge blanket and draped it on top of the middle of the pitch, our players left beneath, fighting to get it off them like a panicked child. Any time we looked for our usual diagonal to the right flank, it was either snuffed out or wayward.
Our season can be broken up into phases. There was the start, the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ phase where we seemingly took all before us by surprise by actually being quite good at football. Then teams figured us out and it took for us to implement an extra midfielder to get us back into the swing of things. I feel we’re entering into a third phase and with it, there needs to be our next tactical evolution, at least against the lesser lights of the division. The issue here is that I’m not sure where it is going to come from.
The other thing that Nuno is generally reluctant to do currently is to tweak mid-game. He had every opportunity to introduce more thrust last night, but instead he went for a much more subtle change, with Morgan Gibbs-White replacing Joao Moutinho (who had been the pick of our central midfielders), while Ivan Cavaleiro for Diogo Jota was essentially like-for-like. What we did lose at that point was the ability to carry the ball that Jota has, but Cavaleiro doesn’t have to the same level. Now I won’t address the elephant in the room with regards to substitutions as everybody else already has, but carrying the ball at pace is imperative to our game. We have one outstanding individual in that regard.
There is obviously nothing Nuno can do about players underperforming like Ruben Neves, Leander Dendoncker and Raul Jimenez did. Neves and Dendoncker in particular played as if they were in the pocket of the Mafia, who clearly had a whole load on 1-0 Huddersfield, Mounie first goalscorer.
All of these factors combined for what I felt was a pretty despicable showing for a side claiming to be as good as we are. We hardly laid a glove on a team who were 14 points adrift of safety at the start of the game. Nuno, for all his good work so far, clearly has some kind of inferiority/superiority complex. going on. I’m not even sure which one it is – he just can’t seem to set us up to really dominate a game against lesser opposition. This might feel like a depressive, over-reactive piece but if we keep talking the game of a club on the rise, then we have to come up with better than what we’ve shown over the last 3 games against Newcastle, Bournemouth and Huddersfield. We were all talking up this run of fixtures as if we would cement our place in 7th, but we’ve not truly turned up in that time and have been overtaken by Watford.
We need to pick up against Cardiff by pushing them back into their half and pinning them there. Nuno has some work to do. 3 points needed.