It's official: Man Utd must sign a defensive game-changer to be genuine title challengers

Harry Maguire Manchester United 2020-21
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For the second successive week the Red Devils dropped points as naive errors at the back saw them held by struggling West Brom

Match statistics: West Brom 1-1 Manchester United

It was not that long ago that Manchester United looked like genuine Premier League title contenders, but those hopes are drifting away quickly now.

This United team is a work in progress; a project which at times this season, while they were sitting top of the table, looked to be progressing ahead of schedule.

Despite that, the most ardent of United supporter would not have realistically expected their side to have been competing for the title this season. And, over the last week or so, the Red Devils have been reminded as to why.

Bruno Fernandes’ talismanic impact in attack has inspired Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to be top scorers in the English top flight this term, but a major piece of the jigsaw is lacking at the back.

If there was any doubt as to why United are prioritising signing a centre back this summer, then the first 45 minutes against West Brom emphasised the reasons.  

Eight days on on from conceding three poor goals against Everton, they showed their fragility yet again at The Hawthorns.

Just 83 seconds into the game, Harry Maguire showed a lack of authority as he yet again dropped far too deep to deal with a cross into the box.

Behind him David de Gea failed to come and deal with Ainsley Maitland-Niles' curled pass, leaving Mbaye Diagne to beat Victor Lindelof in the air and head the hosts into the lead.

Harry Maguire West Brom vs Man Utd Premier League 2020-21

There was an element of misfortune in that VAR did not review the goal for Diagne climbing all over Lindelof, but in truth the Sweden international was weak and should have done better.

This was a West Brom side who had won just twice all season, conceding the most of any team in the league and only finding the back of the net 18 times. Yet against United's suspect back line they managed to look dangerous every time they whipped a cross into the box.

Robert Snodgrass forced De Gea into a save after climbing above Luke Shaw while Diagne was again picked out in the area from a Matheus Pereira set-piece, with United lacking the authority they require from the arrival of a world-class centre-back.

Virgil van Dijk’s signing was key to Liverpool winning the league while Ruben Dias looks like he will be a big part of Manchester City’s inevitable title win this campaign. United now need an addition of that calibre before they can truly start to consider themselves title challengers.

The defensive slip-ups only served to sum up what was a sloppy performance overall from United as they lacked either the desire or class to take all three points against Sam Allardyce’s side.

Solskjaer, who is usually the picture of calmness on the touchline, was clearly furious with his team’s positioning. Fernandes took the brunt of one particular rollicking from the Norwegian, with Solskjaer having to scream at the Portugal international to play more centrally rather than take up Anthony Martial's space on the left-hand side.

Fernandes himself was clearly frustrated, but he remains one of the few players in the United team who can muster up a moment of real quality when the chips are down.

Yet again United were indebted to him here, with Fernandes's superb volley from Shaw's cross ensuring United went into the break level, but that was as good as it got for the visitors.

Bruno Fernandes Manchester United 2021

For all their possession, of which they had 73 per cent of it, they failed to really attack with any venom or bright ideas.

“You're not going to come here and create 10 chances against West Brom,” Maguire said to Sky Sports post-match, yet every team that had played West Brom between the start of November and the end of January had managed to create at least 10 opportunities against the Baggies.

Martial put in another blunt display before being replaced by Mason Greenwood while Edinson Cavani did not get a look in, ending the game with no shots, no chances created and just 21 touches.

Solskjaer had called for his team to be "clinical and ruthless" in front of goal, but Sam Johnstone was not called into action enough before his stoppage-time finger-tip save denied Maguire a winning goal.

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As it happened, Maguire was at the heart of much of the late drama, as he was first brought down for a VAR-overturned penalty before his error under pressure from Diagne forced De Gea into a crucial double save.

United did not deserve any more than a draw, and they have now picked up just 10 points from their last seven games.

The title talk is now back on ice, and Solskjaer knows exactly what needs to be top of his shopping list in the summer if they are to mount a serious charge next season.