Football was clearly irrelevant after the evening’s news, but once UEFA ruled the game should go ahead, Manchester United duly completed their Europa League tie against Real Sociedad.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II cast a pall of sadness over Old Trafford and a heartfelt tribute before kick-off united those present in a minute’s silence from the monarch. Players and officials wore black armbands, flags above the stadium flew at half mast, pitchside billboards were extinguished and United released a statement offering condolences and gratitude for the monarch’s “huge contribution in public life”.
Once the match started, Erik ten Hag’s side ended in a first-ever defeat against the Spanish club and the first in five matches due to a controversial second-half penalty from Sociedad, so United are already catching up in the group stage.
A full charge from Antony going from Sociedad territory to near their flag from the right corner and shutting down Takefusa Kubo was the highlight of a worrying first half for United in defence. Their visitors were hardly more robust in the department as the drop of a high ball from Alejandro Remiro’s Casemiro – it hit Aritz Elustondo – signaled a similar tremor from them.
Against opponents United eliminated in the round of 16 two years ago, Ten Hag recalled Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo, while Victor Lindelof made his first start of the season and Casemiro his first for the club. Sociedad had David Silva, arguably the best footballer on Sheikh Mansour’s Manchester City property for a decade there, operating as a floating No.10, but that was United’s bandleader Christian Eriksen. who dominated before the break.
A pass from the classy Dane had Anthony Elanga haring along the left. Another was chipped at Ronaldo, who failed to connect. When Eriksen fed Elanga again, a flurry took him past Andoni Gorosabel and a corner was claimed. When he was thrown, Diogo Dalot and Maguire each missed testing Remiro from close range. Eriksen then designed a bewitching dummy and then tapped Ronaldo who cursed himself after failing to finish.
Imanol Alguacil’s side, however, have had their own questions about United’s flaky full-back. Clearings from Lindelöf and Maguire were unconvincing and Casemiro’s nutmeg by visiting left-back Aihen Muñoz from forward position was not part of the defensive shield’s job description.
For the second half, Lisandro Martínez replaced Dalot and Bruno Fernandes was introduced for Eriksen. The Portuguese instantly hung up a ball for the usually lethal Ronaldo with his header, but he fended off a golden chance to put United ahead. Moments later, the 37-year-old, who had yet to score this season, shot 20 yards out.
United hadn’t been so fragmented since their first two defeats, appearing as a unit yet to drill in the manner of Ten Hag, not one that had won in their last four outings.
Alexander Sørloth, as a substitute, should have punished United’s last defender, but a wild header was no surprise given the quality so far.
Now, however, came Marco Di Bello’s questionable penalty decision. Silva pulled the trigger and the ball hit Martínez on one leg and then deflected off one arm. VAR didn’t advise the referee to look again and Brais Méndez beat David de Gea to the latter’s left. In response, Casemiro headed down but off target from a Fernandes cross as United continued to frustrate.
For the finals, Ten Hag brought in Alejandro Garnacho and Jadon Sancho, but United still lacked fluidity and were unable to keep up with the Sociedad runners. After Charlie McNeill made his debut – in place of Tyrell Malacia – Sancho’s lack of composure from close quarters when he should have equalized summed up United.
Yet if at the final whistle they had lost a football game, it was a dark night where the result didn’t really matter.
Manchester United lose at home to Real Sociedad to delay Ten Hag’s progress