The handy thing from Sky’s point of view about having Gary Neville as a match summariser is that when there is a Manchester United controversy, as with the penalty fiasco at Wolves on Monday night, he is not only the voice of reason but the authentic echo of Sir Alex Ferguson’s thoughts on the matter as well.
“They should decide in the dressing room who is the penalty taker – it’s embarrassing,” was Neville’s immediate reaction. “This is a Manchester United penalty, it’s not a tombola or a game for under-fives on the school field.”
That, one can confidently suppose, is the way things were arranged when Neville was playing and Ferguson was in charge. One can also suppose that Ferguson would have flown off the handle to a considerable extent with a player who jostled the last successful penalty-taker out of the way and then failed with a chance to win the match. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, by contrast, made excuses on behalf of Paul Pogba and could only be seen as weak in comparison. At best he seemed overly protective of Pogba, perhaps wary of picking a fight with this particular player at this particular stage in his Manchester United career.
Neville is absolutely correct about the need for a regular penalty taker, and it can also be added that if two candidates are present on the pitch then the player who scored the last goal from the spot should have priority. A designated penalty taker would not only spend a little time each week practising in training to keep up his confidence and improve his technique, he would be ready to be called on at any time in a game without the need for sudden mental adjustment or preparation.
Pogba had been the player fouled for the penalty at Wolves, and though that does not necessarily explain his inability to convert from the spot, with hindsight it might have been better to step back and let a cooler head take the kick. At schoolboy level for a long time there was an unwritten rule that it was a bad idea to let the fouled player take the penalty, coaches were generally happier entrusting the kick to a full back who had been miles away from the incident.
Neville is also right the obvious disagreement between two senior players looked bad. It smacked of poor leadership which once again is a buck that stops with Solskjær. Yet Pogba’s worst crime was undoubtedly failing with the kick. Score that goal, win that match, and Pogba is the back-page hero, boldly taking responsibility to help United win the points when his heart is widely assumed to be set on a move elsewhere.
It was not the worst of penalties, simply a good save from Rui Patrício, and it ought to be said that Marcus Rashford might also have failed to score. You never quite know, though there is clearly nothing to be gained from sorting these things out on the pitch, in the heat of the moment, rather than in the calm of the dressing room or training ground. If Solskjær did not know that before – and don’t forget he is even more of a conduit for Ferguson’s thoughts and principles than Neville – he certainly knows it now. He looked a picture of dejection in his padded seat at Molineux towards the end of the game, and he hardly retrieved the situation with his unconvincing post-match reaction.
Solskjær, a bit like Pogba, is still on trial at the moment. Things could go either way, and a manager in his first full season at a club as enormous as Manchester United needs the outward signs to line up in his favour. United have still not made a bad start to the season, four points from two tricky opening games is a good return. Six would have been a lot better, the sort of start that sends confidence surging through a team, but United managed to look a gift horse in the mouth with the predictable result that positive reviews have been replaced by negative ones.
Small things, attention to detail, matter a lot in football. Ferguson and José Mourinho were masters at being prepared for practically anything, and both those managers were among the best around at making sure their instructions were carried out to the letter on the pitch. While it would be unduly harsh to judge Solskjær by the standards of those two, behind his blithe facade he must be aware that leadership comes from the top.