Manchester United conceded a late set-piece goal once again to gift AC Milan an away goal in their Europa League last 16 game as the sides drew 1-1 at Old Trafford.
United overcame a tough start thanks to a questionable VAR decision when Franck Kessie’s fine strike was ruled out for handball, despite replays seemingly showing the ball never struck his arm. A shocking first half performance from the home side came to an end and saw Anthony Martial substituted with an injury, allowing Amad Diallo to come on at half-time.
It took less than five minutes for Amad to make his mark, as he broke the deadlock with a beautiful looping header over Gianluigi Donnarumma after an excellent pass from Bruno Fernandes. The Reds barely threatened after that though as Milan bossed the midfield and eventually found an equaliser in stoppage time thanks to a Simon Kjaer header from a corner, which Dean Henderson should have done better with.
It would be wrong to suggest that Milan didn’t deserve a draw at the very least from the game, but when you consider that United were ahead in the 92nd minute it automatically tells you that it was their game to win.
After brining on Amad at half-time, Ole made a further three changes in the game. All at the same time, with around 20 minutes to go and with the Serie A side in the ascendancy he opted to take off Bruno Fernandes, Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and replace them with Fred, Brandon Williams and Luke Shaw.
That instantly handed the initiative to Milan, who were now essentially invited into United’s final third to sustain pressure on their goal. While they didn’t create many clear-cut chances up to the goal, it was the intent of the substitutions that changed the game even moreso into the Italian’s favour.
You’d have thought that Solskjaer would have learnt from past mistakes, too. Against Everton recently he brought on Axel Tuanzebe to try and see out the game with the Toffees in the ascendancy and they scored in the 95th minute from a free-kick being swung into the box. Going back further the same thing happened against Southampton at Old Trafford last season, with the Reds dropping points thanks to an injury time Michael Obafemi goal from a corner.
Rather than trying to get some control of the game to see it out, he chose to just flood the pitch with defensive players. That meant that even when they did get on the ball they had no outlet and the ball just ended up going straight back to Milan for their attacking to start again.
It says something that with one set of substitutions, Solskjaer managed to go from 1-0 up with a balanced 4231 formation to a 5-3-2 formation with three left-backs on the pitch and his starting defensive midfielder playing as the most advanced midfielder now, with the two players who’d started their evenings on the right wing now playing as strikers.
These decisions change the entire mentality of the team on the pitch, almost admitting to them that they’re going to have to dig in for this result now rather than continue to play as they were.
To be clear too, there is nothing wrong per-say with making defensive substitutions so long as you don’t outright change the mentality of the team. Bringing on Fred for Bruno alone would have done the same job he was intending to do but still would have had three attacking players and a back-four. Different personnel, but mostly the same shape – just a bit of control and sturdiness added to a side that were holding on to a short lead.
As United continue to concede these late goals, especially from set-pieces, and the manager continues to make odd in-game decisions that negatively effect the outcome of games, they cannot progress to the level they want to at the business end of the season.
A game that was entirely theirs to lose has now been thrown away and it’s advantage Milan heading to the San Siro for the second leg next week.