Vintage Manchester United in the 1990s and 2000s didn’t throw away 2-0 leads. It undoubtedly happened from time to time but it was always a huge shock when it did.
Manchester United now? No one is surprised. This team lacks the spine, character and general game management skills to turn a 2-0 lead against an average mid-table team into three points.
For large parts of the game against Aston Villa at Villa Park, United were much improved from the performance against the same opposition at home five days earlier. On that occasion, they were second best and extremely fortunate to progress to the next round of the FA Cup.
This time, they got a little bit lucky with their opening goal thanks to a howler from Emiliano Martinez, but generally they were better. There were good chances being created, forcing Martinez to make amends for his mistake, and another goal didn’t look beyond them at all.
That eventually came when Diogo Dalot and Fred both pressed Villa as a wave, resulting in the latter touching the ball to Bruno Fernandes, who buried it off the underside of the crossbar with just over 20 minutes plus stoppage time left on the clock.
They were clearly talented enough to open up that lead and it wasn’t undeserved either. But the mentality to hold on to it and see the game through to completion was a like a different story.
Once United went 2-0 up, Villa didn’t see it as game over, as though it were an invitation to them to kept at it, knowing that if they got one back, they would probably get another. United didn’t have a proper response to that because they failed to shut things down and sort of just let it happen.
Everything that has been said about United in recent weeks feeds into results like this, whether it be reports of the players struggling to adapt to training later in the day and not getting home until after dark, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s assessment that younger players don’t like criticism.
“You should be proud of yourself, look in the mirror and say, listen, I gave everything,” Ronaldo also said in that same interview, calling for a fresh mindset.
“I think all of us should do that. Because it’s a new year, we change the page, we have many things to win, we have to believe on that, if not it will be a nightmare.”
Clearly that mental reset hasn’t happened just yet.