Man United's penalty incident illustrates club's lack of leadership on the pitch and in the dugout
WOLVERHAMPTON, England -- Manchester United are making progress under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They are fitter, younger and seemingly hungrier than in recent seasons, but it took only a missed penalty by Paul Pogba -- another missed penalty by Paul Pogba -- to highlight just how far this team must go before being anywhere close to being ready to challenge for honours again.
On the face of it, a 1-1 draw against Wolves at Molineux after losing 2-1 here in the Premier League and FA Cup last season is a sign of progress for United. But there is a distinct lack of experience and leadership in Solskjaer's young team -- at an average age of 24 years and 173 days, this United side was the youngest of any to play in the league this season. That led to Pogba taking his fourth unsuccessful penalty since the start of last season, with Wolves keeper Rui Patricio diving to his right to push away the Frenchman's 67th-minute spot kick. The save was a desertion of the sort of luck that United benefitted from last season.
Eight days ago, Marcus Rashford scored from the spot during United's 4-0 opening-weekend victory against Chelsea at Old Trafford. The penalty maintained Rashford's 100% record from the spot for United and England, and he has taken some pressure kicks in that time for club and country. Yet at Molineux, Pogba brushed him aside and decided to take the glory shot himself, perhaps because he had won the spot kick after being fouled by Conor Coady.
In a team stocked full of experienced players and characters strong enough to intervene, Pogba would surely have been told to walk away and leave the penalty to Rashford, considering his record has been so patchy in recent months. But there are no Roy Keanes, Eric Cantonas, Gary Nevilles or Rio Ferdinands in this United team, and nobody felt strong enough to step up and take the ball from Pogba.
And Solskjaer's post-match explanation of the incident only added to a sense of United being rudderless at times on the pitch. According to the Norwegian, both Pogba and Rashford are the club's penalty takers, so even he can't bring himself to make an executive decision about who is No. 1 and who is No. 2.
"The two of them are designated penalty shooters," Solskjaer said. "It's up to them to choose that this is their time.
"Sometimes players are confident enough to score. Paul has scored some for us, but today Patricio has made a good save.
"The two have been very confident before, last week Marcus scored. I'm sure he would have loved it this time, but Paul thought he could score, and I like that confidence. I've no problem with players saying, 'This is mine.'"
Former United captain Neville, speaking on Sky Sports, described the situation as "embarrassing," however.
"They should decide in the dressing room who is the penalty taker," Neville said. "It's embarrassing. This is a Manchester United penalty, this is not a tombola, this is not under-fives on the school field."
But while it isn't "under-fives," the youthful nature of United's team will be a pertinent factor in their performances and results this season.
Molineux is a tough place to visit, and Nuno Espirito Santo's team will once again challenge for a European spot this season, but the naivety of Solskjaer's players should have alarmed the United manager during this game. They were unable, through a lack of seasoned experience, to control the tempo of the game, and looked to be shipping water long before Ruben Neves cancelled out Anthony Martial's first-half opener on 54 minutes.
The increased energy Solskjaer's preseason training regime has instilled shone through late in the game, when United finished strongly, but they were too hot-and-cold during the 90 minutes. They registered just two shots on target throughout the contest: Martial's goal, and Pogba's missed penalty. Solskjaer admitted after the game that this was a night when his players learned some important lessons.
"We are a young side and we learned on the pitch today," he said. "You have to learn on the job, you can't discuss it afterwards."
Yet for players to learn and become the kind of resilient team capable of challenging for major honours, they also need decisiveness from their manager, and the penalty situation suggests Solskjaer lacks the assertiveness to take this team to the level the club demands. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, doubt was nonexistent in the minds of the United players. They only knew certainty. But by allowing his players to decide who takes penalties, Solskjaer has opened the door for his players to storm through and do whatever else they want, whenever they want to do it.
Giving players autonomy to do that works when you have a team full of experience and leaders, but not when they are so young that they look to the bench for guidance. This United team still needs plenty of that leadership, which is why Solskjaer needs to make the big decisions and not the leave them to the likes of Rashford and Pogba.