It took 77 minutes of the game against Sheffield United, but eventually Manchester United came up with a fitting tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton.
Charlton was famous during his playing career for spectacular strikes from outside the box and the former England and United forward, who died on Saturday aged 86, would have approved of Diogo Dalot’s winner at Bramall Lane.
Dalot’s goal, whipped into the top corner from 25 yards, earned United a narrow 2-1 victory against the Blades as Erik ten Hag’s team won back-to-back Premier League games for the first time this season.
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Speaking ahead of kick-off, the Dutchman said he wanted to win for Charlton, but also urged his players to do it in a style that the former Ballon d’Or winner would have enjoyed. United did the first bit but fell short of the second part of Ten Hag’s challenge.
This is still a team — whether because of injuries, a lack of confidence or a mixture of both — which looks vulnerable and Sheffield United, the Premier League’s bottom side, may well look back believing they should have got more out of the game. Despite having just a solitary point to their name this season, they were the better team for most of the first half and when Scott McTominay got the opening goal after 28 minutes, it came completely against the run of play. It certainly wasn’t a performance to suggest Man United’s difficult start to the campaign is over just yet.
“We wanted to remember Sir Bobby and I think we did it in a decent way,” said Ten Hag afterwards. “We are happy with the win of course. Find a way to win and that was the approach to this game.
“The first half was not the best from our side but from the second half we controlled the game and won with a great goal.”
After six defeats in nine games, it’s now two wins from two either side of the international break and, if Ten Hag’s players need any extra motivation to help turn around their season, they only need to look at Charlton and what he stood for.
He was an academy graduate who survived the 1958 Munich air disaster which killed eight of his teammates and went on to be a central part of Sir Matt Busby’s reborn team which won the European Cup just 10 years later.
He was the club’s record appearance holder and record goal-scorer for decades and helped England win the World Cup in 1966, the same year he was named as the best player in the world.
After retiring, he became a club director but he had an enthusiasm for football which meant that he was occasionally joining in training sessions when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager well into his 60s. Charlton’s work ethic, his spirit and his ability as a creator and scorer of goals is something the current crop would do well to aspire to — something not lost on Ten Hag, who could do with a few players like him.
“He set the standard as a Manchester United player,” said Ten Hag. “What he achieved is an example for us and for all of us it should be an inspiration for us, not just to get a win but also with his standards.
“We have to pay a contribution, pay our big goodbye, remembering Bobby Charlton because what he did was magnificent. He was outstanding on the pitch and off it.”
With a European clash against FC Copenhagen on Tuesday and the derby against Manchester City on Sunday, this could turn out to be a pivotal week in United’s season.
Bottom of their Champions League group after two defeats, they need to beat the Danish champions at Old Trafford to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the knockout rounds, while victory over City would instantly make things appear far more rosy.
There are issues for Ten Hag to solve like how were Sheffield United, who have now lost eight of their nine games since promotion from the Championship, allowed to be on the front foot for so long in the first half, and why do United keep conceding goals almost immediately after scoring? Having allowed Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Galatasaray all to hit back, they did it again when McTominay gave away a penalty just two minutes and 55 seconds after putting United in front.
In the end, it wasn’t as costly as it could have been and on a day when United honoured one of their greatest ever players, Dalot’s winner meant it was marked with a much-needed win.
But remembering Charlton is to remember what every United team should be about, and Ten Hag still has work to do to make sure this current squad meet the benchmark the Manchester United legend set.