Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found himself in a familiar position on Wednesday night as another opportunity to win a trophy slipped through his grasp.
On this occasion United fell at the first hurdle, losing 1-0 at home to West Ham in the third round of the Carabao Cup.
While the Carabao Cup is hardly the holy grail for United, defeat at Old Trafford provided yet another harsh example, if it was needed, of where Solskjaer’s side stand in comparison to their rivals.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp made nine changes to his side on Tuesday night. Teenagers Kaide Gordon and Conor Bradley were given valuable game time. Caoimhin Kelleher, 22, saved a penalty. They comfortably beat Norwich 3-0.
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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola made 10 changes to his side on Tuesday night. He gave debuts to academy graduates Conrad Egan-Riley, Luke Mbete, Finley Burns, Josh Wilson-Esbrand, Romeo Lavia and James McAtee. They comfortably beat Wycombe 6-1.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel made 10 changes to his side on Wednesday night. He experimented with a different formation, gave Trevoh Chalobah and Malang Sarr starts and Saul Niguez the chance to impress after a shaky debut. They beat Aston Villa 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
United manager Solskjaer made 11 changes on Wednesday night. There were no youngsters given opportunities to shine, only experienced professionals on the fringes of the first team who should have been motivated by the chance to reach the next round and further their own cases. They lost 1-0, at home, in front of 72,568 fans.
After the final whistle, Solskjaer defended his decision to rotate his squad.
“You want to go through but it’s a long season,” he told Sky Sports. “We’ve got big games coming up and that’s the decision we made.”
It is a reasonable stance and, considering all of his rivals made the same decision, it is one he should not be too harshly criticised for.
However, given West Ham also opted to make 10 changes and had the disadvantage of playing at Old Trafford, Solskjaer’s side should have had enough to achieve the desired result.
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Instead they showed just how far away they are from their rivals in one key aspect: squad depth.
United spent nearly £130million in the summer transfer window to bring in Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo. And yet they are still incapable of putting together a consistent run of performances across all competitions.
They remain a deeply flawed squad with far too much dead weight. Quite simply, they have far too many underperforming players – and that showed on Wednesday evening.
There are places up for grabs in Solskjaer’s first-choice XI.
United were chasing Kieran Trippier over the summer due to doubts over Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s attacking ability from right-back. Diogo Dalot started against West Ham, but showed little to suggest he deserves the place full-time, looking absolutely exhausted as 34-year-old Mark Noble, on his first start of the season, raced past him to nearly score late on.
Donny van de Beek played in the pivot role alongside Nemanja Matic as Fred and Scott McTominay. Besides a nice pass to set up a chance for Mason Greenwood, the Dutchman did not offer much.
The list goes on. Alex Telles played ahead of Luke Shaw. He was beaten far too easily by Ryan Fredericks for Manuel Lanzini’s goal.
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Anthony Martial started up front, with Ronaldo rested and Edinson Cavani not match fit. He looked lost as a centre-forward and now has one goal in his last 24 appearances.
Juan Mata was given the keys to the midfield as the chief creator. Solskjaer summoned Bruno Fernandes after 62 minutes to try and change the game.
Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof were given run-outs, instead of Harry Maguire and Varane. They did not look like a premium partnership, with Andriy Yarmolenko and Noble both missing huge chances to make it 2-0.
Compare these back-up players to United’s rivals and the problem is exacerbated even further.
At Liverpool, Klopp has the dependable James Milner to call upon in just about any position, Kostas Tsimikas has emerged as a viable alternative to Andy Robertson, while Naby Keita, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino have all furthered their cases in recent weeks. In defence, they have four top-class centre-backs to choose from.
Chelsea have two players for just about every position, while Man City’s squad depth is obvious, as their record of five Carabao Cup trophies in the last six years shows.
In the grand scheme of things, a cup defeat by West Ham might not sting too much for United, but it is indicative of a wider problem at the club which needs solving.