It is a strange team that can battle to the end and score three times in Munich but also fold at the first whiff of a setback and concede the moment they have threatened to find a route back in the game. Welcome to Manchester United, 2023.
This was a perplexing night of football, one in which a complacent, wasteful Bayern Munich could easily have scored six or seven, despite being well below their best, yet who kept leaving the back door open for a United side whose ability to shoot themselves in the foot is becoming a prevailing and troubling theme.
If ever a game summed up where United are at the moment, it was this. Erik ten Hag blamed it afterwards on a combination of mental fragility and the glut of injuries that left him short of quality alternatives in southern Germany.
United were going well, the better team even, before a howler from Andre Onana just before the half hour mark set in motion the first of a number of implosions that make it nigh on impossible to be competitive at this level.
Ten Hag seems to have replaced a goalkeeper who struggled with the ball at his feet (David de Gea) for one who is having similar trouble with his hands in Onana and the Cameroonian’s mistake undid so much of his team’s encouraging early work, even if the manager was right to point out a litany of other shortcomings with his side’s defensive work. Credit to Onana for holding his hands up afterwards but United would much prefer he put them to better use in the game itself.
The best teams manage difficult moments well. United? Well, one setback tends to lead quickly to another and so, as shocking as Onana’s blunder was, it was also no surprise to see United ship a soft second four minutes later. That is not the only thing that will disappoint Ten Hag. No sooner had United pulled a goal back soon after the restart when Rasmus Hojlund claimed his first goal for the club, Bayern restored their two-goal cushion when Harry Kane converted from the penalty spot.
He just had to score, didn’t he?
And it was much the same when Casemiro made it 3-2 late on, Bayern going down the other end to score a fourth four minutes later. You cannot expect to win things and trouble the top teams being that brittle and United’s away record in the big matches makes for increasingly desperate reading under Ten Hag. Is it a lack of organisation? Is it poor concentration?
Ten Hag kept using the word determination and there was certainly a distinct lack of it in the way United allowed Leroy Sane to drift inside from the right, exchange a one-two with Kane and shoot from the edge of the penalty area in the lead up to the first, even if Onana should be saving that shot every time. The ball may have got a nick off Lisandro Martinez but Onana had two hands behind it and was close enough to think it should have been a fairly routine save. It has been a deeply unconvincing start to life at United for a goalkeeper who was starring in the Champions League final for Inter Milan only three months ago and Ten Hag will not be short of a goalkeeper to replace him if he feels he needs to clear his head. United had three of them on the bench against Bayern, a reflection of just how depleted they are in numbers.
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Onana looked crushed when the ball squirmed past him but he was not the only one whose head dropped. Think Liverpool 7-0, Manchester City 6-3, Brentford 4-0, Aston Villa 3-1, games in which one goal has almost immediately led to another, and Bayern fits neatly into the same category. If United’s left side had been unpicked for the first, it was their right which was flaky in the extreme for the second. Diogo Dalot did a miserable job of dealing with Jamal Musiala. The Germany international was able to cut inside the United right back on the left byline far too cheaply and then no one was close to Serge Gnabry when the former Arsenal man stroked the ball low into the far corner.
Sane, Gnabry and then Kane - there was a distinctly Premier League flavour to Bayern’s first three scorers, even if Ten Hag will despair at the sight of his team conceding so soon after Hojlund had given them a foothold back in the game after turning in Marcus Rashford’s cross. Christian Eriksen handled Dayot Upamecano’s header and a penalty was awarded after a Var review. Kane, naturally, made no mistake from the spot.
The former Tottenham striker - a man long coveted by United - had been deployed in a deeper 9½ type role by Thomas Tuchel. Bayern did not always appear to be on the same wavelength as the England captain and it was actually quite a shock to see how erratic the home team were in the first 25 minutes. United were not only in command, they should have led after Eriksen missed a great chance early on, but then came Onana’s mistake.
At 3-1, Bayern should really have put the game beyond United’s reach. They missed so many chances and it was only when Casemiro pulled another back for United that they narrowed their focus and scored again through Mathys Tal. Even then, they allowed United to claim a third, Casemiro heading home Bruno Fernandes’ free-kick, but this was a scoreline that flattered United.
They have so much to put right.