On Sunday, Manchester United failed to beat a West Brom side on course to be one of the worst in Premier League history by the season’s end, that had conceded two or more goals for nine games in a row beforehand, and had got worse since turning to famed ‘firefighter’ Sam Allardyce.
But when United captain Harry Maguire faced the television cameras after the final whistle, he was just as concerned about marginal 50/50 refereeing calls in this game and others than his team’s failure to turn up until half time, or do enough otherwise with 73% possession to win.
Maguire acknowledged that United ‘can do more’, but his reflection of the performance overall implied it was much better than it was. He was adamant that Victor Lindelof was fouled when West Brom scored the opener. He also brought up his own disallowed goal against Burnley recently, and harked back to a foul on David de Gea that was missed against Sheffield United.
An official report on the latter conceded it was a mistake, but to keep going on about it now when United played poorly then and have played poorly since looks a bit pathetic. These were all decisions that could have gone either way, but United were playing Sheffield United, Burnley and West Brom, three of the Premier League’s bottom five – teams they should win comfortably against regardless.
Against West Brom, Maguire went down amid slight contact in the West Brom penalty area and referee Craig Pawson pointed to the spot, only for VAR to intervene and ask the official to take another look. He decided to overturn it and Sky Sports co-commentator Gary Neville expressed his lack of surprise because the touch on Maguire’s shoulder wasn’t enough to make him tumble.
It was a desperate moment from the United skipper as he appeared to feel the touch, realise there was potential for a penalty and fell to the ground in stages. It was all very stilted.
Despite his physical stature, Maguire is seldom a commanding physical presence. During another moment in the game, he went down looking to win a free-kick under minor pressure from a West Brom player. He didn’t get it and had to jump up and chase the ball because it wasn’t a foul.
Lindelof is similarly guilty of a lack of physical presence and often looks ‘soft’ for a centre-back. Maguire insisted his partner was fouled by Mbaye Diagne when the West Brom striker opened the scoring. Some referees might have whistled because at one stage Diagne did have his hand on the Swede’s face, but the reality is that there wasn’t actually very much in it.
Diagne had already won the contest by then and met the ball first. Lindelof wouldn’t have had the issue had he attacked the ball himself with any sort of aggression, but he was waiting on his heels, let his opponent get in front of him and lacked the strength to do anything about it.
It was a weak moment and it shows weak mentality to cry about it afterwards. For Maguire to focus on those moments in a post-match interview feels extraordinarily tinpot.
It is not a good look for the captain of a club with Premier League title and Champions League aspirations when United should be comfortably superior to poor teams like West Brom. A few marginal calls against them shouldn’t matter.
If United players are getting outmuscled on a regular basis, there is obviously more to it than just not getting the decisions. They need to be stronger and more aggressive. Nemanja Vidic may have been an expert in the art of winning defensive free-kicks, but he never lacked aggression in his defending, the way he marked players or attacked the ball in the penalty area.
If the West Brom draw was an isolated one-off, like we thought losing at home to Sheffield United – at that stage the worst team in Premier League history – was going to be, it might be different.
Whether it be complacency, fatigue or failing to deal with the pressure, United haven’t been good since hitting the top of the Premier League in January and have swiftly fallen back into the chasing pack. The only blip in recent form here has been the 9-0 win over Southampton.
“I’m not making up excuses,” Maguire said at one stage of his defence of United. But complaining about marginal refereeing decisions absolutely is an excuse, and not a good one in the context.