SHEFFIELD, England — Sometimes football simply makes no sense whatsoever.
Manchester United were dreadful for large parts of their game at Sheffield United and deservedly found themselves 2-0 down with 18 minutes remaining. In the blink of an eye, they were 3-2 up and heading for a completely improbable victory, only for substitute Oliver McBurnie’s last-gasp equaliser to earn the home side a 3-3 draw.
A point was the very least that Chris Wilder’s men deserved after a performance full of guile and endeavour that illustrated exactly how they have come to find themselves sixth in the Premier League table with more than a third of the season already behind them. Had they finished on the losing side, it would have been cruel in the extreme.
That they even found themselves facing that predicament was testament to the pluck shown by a young Manchester United team who, for all the reservations about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, continue to look like a team who are playing for their manager. Newly available after his shock dismissal by Tottenham Hotspur, Mauricio Pochettino is likely to stalk Solskjaer for some time yet, but this Bramall Lane escape act showed that the incumbent of the Old Trafford hot seat still retains some credit in the bank.
One of the things that is most frequently held against Solskjaer is his apparent belief that he can bring the glory days back to Manchester United simply by trusting in youth and encouraging his players to honour the club’s attacking traditions, but the point gleaned in South Yorkshire was proof that, on occasion, such an approach can actually pay off.
It was to his academy graduates that Solskjaer turned as the away side belatedly went after the game in the second half and they repaid his faith handsomely. Two teenagers — 19-year-old left-back Brandon Williams, with his first goal for the club, and 18-year-old substitute Mason Greenwood — brought the visitors level before Marcus Rashford gave the men from Manchester a scarcely believable 3-2 lead with 11 minutes of the game remaining. It was the first time two teenagers had scored in a Premier League game for the club since Wayne Rooney and Giuseppe Rossi found the net against Sunderland in October 2005.
Daniel James may not have come through the Old Trafford youth system, but the 22-year-old Wales winger plays with the kind of pace and verve that Solskjaer wants to become the team’s trademark. He teed up Williams for the visitors’ first goal in the 72nd minute, a crisp half-volley into the bottom-right corner, and it was James’s darting run and one-two with Anthony Martial that paved the way for Rashford to steer the ball into an empty net for the goal that — briefly — put the visitors in front.
The second goal was a 100 percent homegrown affair, with Rashford crossing from the right and Greenwood — who had been on the pitch for only four minutes — darting between a pair of defenders to slide the ball past home goalkeeper Simon Moore, who was standing in for another former Manchester United youth-team player in the shape of loanee Dean Henderson.
Throwing the kids on had worked so well that Solskjaer decided to pitch another one into the fray. But the move to introduce Axel Tuanzebe in place of Martial robbed the visitors of vital counterattacking pace and after gradually being forced back, they finally buckled in the 90th minute when McBurnie gathered fellow substitute Callum Robinson’s poked cross on his thigh and stabbed a volley towards goal that David De Gea could not keep out. Even then the drama was not over, a VAR review for a potential handball against McBurnie keeping the 32,024 souls inside the stadium in suspense for a few moments longer before referee Andre Marriner finally delivered the verdict that the goal would stand.
“It’s not always about tactics,” said Solskjaer, who hailed the “character,” “desire” and “belief” shown by his players in the second half. But despite their improved recent form, there was plenty on display here that helped to explain why his side lie nine points below the Champions League positions in ninth place.
Phil Jones embodied the visitors’ difficulties. Brought into the starting XI in place of the injured Scott McTominay as Solskjaer switched to a back three, the one-time England international endured a nightmare first 45 minutes. Left sprawling on his back like an upturned tortoise by Lys Mousset in the build-up to John Fleck’s 19th-minute opener, he did not reemerge for the second half, with Jesse Lingard (chalk up one more for the academy) taking his place.
There was little time for Solskjaer to assess the impact of the change, which facilitated a move to a 4-2-3-1 formation, before Mousset doubled Sheffield United’s lead in the 52nd minute. The French striker robbed Andreas Pereira and swapped passes with Fleck before cantering to the edge of the box and expertly steering a shot into the bottom-right corner.
With Paul Pogba still on the sidelines, the visitors once again suffered from a stark lack of creativity in midfield. Fred and Pereira may both be Brazil internationals, but as they repeatedly conceded possession in tame fashion, it was left to Fleck and John Lundstram to show what modern central midfielders really look like. Freed to stream forwards by the bold and intelligent manner with which Wilder has built his Sheffield United team, the pair had their opponents on the ropes repeatedly.
In the end, neither team managed to land a knockout blow. But how it finished as a draw was anybody’s guess.