Half-close your eyes, squint a little, do not think too hard and you could just about persuade yourself this was nearly a classic Manchester United comeback. But just as they were preparing to hail the youthquake, three goals by players aged 22 or under including one from Mason Greenwood, the third-youngest Premier League scorer in their history, Oli McBurnie popped up to point out that this is an imperfect simulacrum.
It bears certain clear similarities to Manchester United, it has a manager who is clearly Manchester United, it plays with the tropes of Manchester United and yet somehow it is not quite Manchester United.
For about 10 minutes they were brilliant and scored three times. The less said about the other 80 minutes the better.
Delight, by all means, in the vibrancy and belief brought by Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. Celebrate the smart half-volley by Brandon Williams that began the fightback. But let nobody forget just how poor the away side were in the first hour, how they were bewildered by Sheffield United’s movement until Lys Mousset was forced off midway through the second half, how they were physically dominated, how, as Ole Gunnar Solskjær admitted, they seemed to want it less.
It was Mousset’s departure with a tight hamstring as much as anything Solskjær did that changed the tenor of the game. United suddenly played with the verve of old, got to the ball first, seemed always to have an extra man. Yet having dragged themselves back into the game and then into the lead, they could not hold on. Something was lacking – guile or leadership or desire or experience. That, perhaps, is the danger of an overreliance on youth: swings of form and emotion are magnified.
Whatever it was, it is safe to say the United of old would not have leaked the 90th-minute equaliser. Nor would they have been as abysmal as United were for most of the game – before Williams’s strike, United’s only shot on target had been a thoroughly unmemorable drive from Anthony Martial. Nor, it is fair to say, would they have drawn 3-3 here and felt as if they had got away with one.
Ed Woodward may continue to brief that Solskjær is part of the long‑term project at Old Trafford but any doubts the board may harbour will surely be magnified by the availability of Mauricio Pochettino.
Solskjær, his midfield depleted, opted for a back-three for the first time in the league since the draw against Liverpool, which meant a first league start of the season for Phil Jones. It did not go well and there was a sense of mercy about his withdrawal at half-time. Jones is 26 but the days when he was a designated Future England Captain feel a long time ago. It may even turn out that he and Jack Rodwell are not the platform on which England’s 2022 World Cup glory is built.
Jones is like one of those depictions of evolution but in reverse, forever getting lower and lower as though not entirely convinced a policy of bipedalism really pays, preferring the slide tackle or the diving header, the scrambled clearance or the stumbling block to anything more orthodox, such as standing up and kicking the ball. The Ascent of Man has become the Descent of Man United.
Jones was on the ground as John Fleck scored the opening goal, having been outmuscled by Mousset. Solskjær later referred to him as Jonah, which raised an obvious question: if you were setting off on a voyage from Nineveh, whom would you less like to have on board, the luckless defender or the blighted Hebrew prophet?
Sheffield United, for their part, fielded a reserve-team keeper who had not played a league game in 18 months and a 37-year-old centre-back who has started four league games in the past two seasons, yet Solskjær’s side still could not lay a glove on them for three-quarters of the game. Injuries offer some mitigation but only some. Other teams also have absentees and Sheffield United in their entire history have spent less on players than United spent on two defenders last summer.
What, anyway, does it say for the state of the modern Manchester United that Scott McTominay’s absence is so sorely felt? His qualities are unflashiness and consistently doing the basics well and yet he has become the straw that binds the brick and, when he is not there, all that remains is a muddy splodge. Nothing can be built from that.
Solskjær seemed delighted his side did not give up but that surely is the bare minimum requirement. A third of the way through the season United are 20 points behind the leaders. If the foundations of a glorious future are being built, they are very well disguised.