What Comes Around

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All things considered, it’s been quite a month. The remarkable upturn in form since Solskjaer took the wheel reached an almost otherworldly level on that incredible night in Paris. A fortnight later and the giddy thrill of victory still hasn’t fully subsided. It doesn’t matter if we lose the next round 10 nil on aggregate, the fact we unexpectedly made it through to the quarter finals will remain the overriding memory of this season and a fabled moment in the club’s entire history.

Only time will tell if the likes of Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood will play major roles in attempts to return United to the game’s pinnacle in future years, but they will always have that night to look back on whatever happens. Whether they retire as MUFC legends or as mere footnotes with half a dozen appearances each, what an amazing experience for them to have been a part of so early in their careers. Titles and medals are one thing, but those rarefied moments of pure, unadulterated glory that football can deliver are far more precious. Memories, innit? Absolutely priceless.

With all this overachievement and cavorting going on, it’s not surprising that performance levels took a bit of a nosedive post-Paris and we came away from Arsenal and Wolverhampton empty-handed. The players rightly deserved all the plaudits coming their way after a stellar couple of months during which they managed to salvage a season that was looking like a complete write-off, but let’s keep things in perspective here. This whole period since Christmas has been enormously good fun but Solskjaer isn’t actually a real-life, miracle worker.

This is still the same squad containing several players who stunk the place out completely between August and December. Yes, we all know that relations between key dressing room figures and the previous manager had gone toxic, but as convenient as it might be to lay all the blame squarely at Mourinho’s feet, that isn’t a particularly accurate reflection of what was going on and nor does it tell the full story.

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Numerous players were culpable of consistently failing to perform for the previous managerial regime(s), so it figures that they are still likely to post a sudden, unexplained leave of absence now. It’s not all doom and gloom, far from it. It’s just a reminder that we’re still dealing with a couple of larger than life, hugely-revered ‘personalities’ who are eminently capable of going completely awol and failing to reach the most basic level of performance when pitted against bang-average, journeyman opposition.

To put it another way: most of the complaints aired over the last 2-3 years about the make-up of the squad and the need for further upgrades are still completely valid. 3 months of improvement and a renewed sense of optimism about the place doesn’t solve all the problems that need to be addressed. On face value, a pair of full-backs, a central defender and a wide player are what’s required at the very minimum. You could add a deep-lying midfielder and a world class striker to that list if you were going all-out and trying to fix everything at once.

Obviously, any spending spree is fraught with difficulty and doesn’t guarantee much at all. A player like McTominay has grown immeasurably in recent weeks, revealing himself as a genuine contender despite barely anyone rating him as any kind of prospect previously. If he gets a run in the side and continues to progress rapidly it could negate the need for a big money acquisition. That’s just another ‘if’, however. United aren’t in the business of ‘ifs’ and this era of football demands instant results. Solskjaer, regardless of the incredible start he’s enjoyed, won’t be granted the luxury of 12-18 months treading water. Short-termism rules so the current upwards trajectory simply has to continue.

Half the problem comes from the online fanbase United are so desperate to keep entertained. It’s mad to think that the club only opened a twitter account as recently as 2013 given their breathless enthusiasm for pumping out relentlessly banal video-clips and boasting about ‘engagement’ numbers. The Sanchez signing was a classic example of trying to make a huge statement regardless of the player’s suitability. I guess it’s easy to criticise in hindsight but was there ever any kind of plan in place to try and integrate him into the team and play to his strengths? We’ve certainly never seen any evidence of one.

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Only a few years ago, United’s transfer policy wasn’t influenced by attempts to generate memes and create a splash on social-media; everything was focused on making improvements to the team. I know that post-Ronaldo we were often frustrated by the parsimonious budget in place and Fergie’s risible attempts to seek ‘value in the market’. On the whole however, this mindful approach paid far better dividends than the scatterbrained recruitment strategy we’ve witnessed in the years since his retirement.

Given there’s evidence to suggest Ole favours a more level-headed style of management than either Van Gaal or Mourinho, it would be nice to see a more focused, coherent approach to squad-building and recruitment from now on. The twitter hoards might crave blockbuster signings and massage Woodward’s ego whenever he manages to land a big fish, but this calibre of player hasn’t done us any favours in recent times. Falcao, Di Maria, Sanchez, Pogba and Lukaku arguably… I’m struggling to see how any of these have had an entirely positive effect on the team’s progression.

Football remains a very simple game that has been over-analysed and needlessly complicated over the last decade. If the last couple of months have shown us anything, it’s that Manchester United are in a far better position doing what Manchester United have always done. Keep it simple, play attacking football and always trust in youth. If we stick to the path laid out by Sir Matt Busby and followed by Sir Alex Ferguson, history shows us everything should work out just fine. 

Copyright Red News – March 2019

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Down To Earth

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Well it had to happen sometime, didn’t it? When the draw for the CL group stages was made back in December, most people anticipated a bit of a pasting and that’s what we received at Old Trafford the other night. I’d suggest we shouldn’t be too despondent given what’s occurred over the last couple of months. It’s testament to the fantastic progress made that many people I spoke to felt confident going into the PSG home leg, so the 2nd half capitulation must have come as a bit of a surprise in some quarters. It was a timely reality check for all concerned, nothing to get wound up about. We’ve come a long way in recent weeks, but PSG are a top side whilst United most certainly aren’t still… despite recent appearances to the contrary. 

When you consider where we were in mid-December, what Solskjaer has achieved in such a short space of time is nothing short of remarkable. The players now look hungry and motivated, there’s a coherent game plan in place and for the first time in literally years, the man in charge seems to have a grasp of what our best starting XL is. To put all that in place within 8-9 weeks is a fantastic achievement. The players are happy, the fans are buoyant and results have improved immeasurably. Olé has made it all look easy when it most certainly isn’t. Our travails over the last 5 years have proven that beyond doubt. 

His first masterstroke was relegating Lukaku to the subs bench. Yes, we know he can score goals but as a mate pointed out recently, it doesn’t change the fact he possesses the touch of a phone box. He provided a couple of wonderful assists at Arsenal in the cup recently, but moments like that from him are far too infrequent. Mourinho spent a lot of money on the bloke and felt obliged to play him every week, which I can understand, but don’t we look so much better with players with a reliable first touch who can move the ball on quickly?

The other major Mourinho blind spot that’s been addressed is Fellaini, thankfully shipped off to China and out of our lives forever. I read so much utter crap about him in the immediate aftermath of his departure that it made me wonder if I’ve been watching the same player over the last 5 years. Firstly, I’m fully aware he scored 5 or 6 important goals during his time at the club. That doesn’t change the fact he was a bloody awful footballer who proved more of a hindrance than a help on the vast majority of occasions he was brought on as the much-vaunted ‘Plan B’ his deluded cheerleaders continually refer to. 

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It’s quite simple. I don’t care if a player simply ‘tries hard’. Of course players should try hard, it goes without saying. Viv Anderson ‘tried hard’, Colin Gibson ‘tried hard’, Alan Smith clenched his fists a lot and ‘tried hard’. They were still shite. Fellaini lumbered round, shinned the ball into touch and gave away fouls for the best part of his United career. His mere presence on the pitch prompted a brain-dead, lump-it-forward mentality that saw us dismantle a 20 year legacy of nuanced, pressing football in the final minutes of games where we desperately needed a goal. I’m sorry, he’s probably a nice feller and all that but I prefer to deal with the reality of what I actually witnessed time and time again. He was absolute rubbish and dragged us down to the level of a pub team at times. 

Once Lingard and Martial had been withdrawn due to injury, it didn’t take long for United’s fragilities to reveal themselves in the PSG game. Mata is no replacement for Martial when pushed out wide and Sanchez remains so hopelessly out of form that it now looks terminal. Given the miserable 12 months he’s endured since his much-hyped arrival, it’s difficult to see a way back for him from here. Solskjaer has done the right thing in taking him out of the firing line and limiting his time on the pitch, but whenever he’s briefly called upon it only provides further evidence he’s a completely spent force at this juncture. 

Much like Di Maria during his short stint at United, it clearly just isn’t working out. Unlike Di Maria though, there doesn’t seem to be any underlying domestic issue and he isn’t demonstrably agitating for a move away. Sanchez looks for all the world like a man that’s reached his peak career-wise who’s hurtling down the steep decline towards mediocrity as his long-trusted abilities elude him. I just don’t know what the answer is. Presumably I’m not the only one as I expect the coaching staff are pretty much stumped at this point too. Maybe his dogs aren’t settled? Perhaps the piano needs re-tuning? I’ve no idea to be honest. 

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Looking ahead over the next month, we’ve got some absolute belters coming up. Today we have the opportunity to upset Liverpool’s title challenge, there’s the return leg against PSG in a couple of weeks, closely followed by Arsenal away and City at home. Not wishing to sound dramatic, but a couple of months ago the prospect of that run of fixtures would have seen me tampering with the boiler and removing batteries from the carbon monoxide detector.

We won’t win each of these games coming up, in fact we will more than likely get our arses handed to us on a couple of occasions. That’s no problem, I can live with that. For the moment, I’m just content with the fact United have at least become watchable again. Football has become something to look forward to and each game no longer feels like a soul-crushing exercise in self-flagellation and excruciating boredom. Nice one Olé, that will do nicely for now. 

Copyright Red News – February 2019

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All Change

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And just like that, he was gone. The fact Mourinho lasted as long as he did this season is quite remarkable considering he seemed to make his mind up he was leaving back in August. He knew it was coming, the players knew it and we all knew it too. The last few months were an absolute disaster. The poor results racked up and Woodward eventually had no option but to pull the trigger. No complaints at all there – it was an entirely correct decision. 

I’ll always like Jose for many of the reasons people despise him. He radiates an overpowering sense of boredom and intrinsic distaste of modern football and footballers that I find completely relatable. He appeared to detest many of our players for exactly the same reasons I do. The problem is, it’s okay for me to feel like that as I’m an anonymous, middle-aged fanzine writer who will happily admit to feeling completely underwhelmed by football in 2019. However, it becomes a bit of an issue when your club manager is gripped by the same sense of ennui and withering distaste for everything and everybody connected with the game. 

I hope Mourinho takes a break now, a very long break. I know he messed up hugely at United and was the chief architect in his own downfall, yet I’d still side with him over the players he found himself at war with. The main problem (in my opinion anyway) was that he was completely unable to wipe the slate clean when he should have arrived here refreshed and ready for a new start. Jose can’t let the past go. He had all his baggage out on display and like a recent divorcee rushing into a rebound relationship, previous experiences tainted his decision making. He’s a bitter man who’s at war with himself as well as the world in general. I wish him well, the miserable bastard. 

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Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, all-round United hero and possibly the nicest man in football. Within a matter of milliseconds, everyone was partying like it was 1999 as there was actual, watchable football being played. It appears it really was that simple and contrary to popular opinion, Woodward is very possibly a football genius. Seriously though, despite a simple run of games prior to grinding out victory against Spurs last Sunday, Ole has clearly had a positive effect on the team’s mindset and 6 wins out of 6 speaks for itself. There’s a long, long way to go before we can confidently say things have turned around but it’s been a really encouraging start.

Unfortunately I have to lower the tone at this point by passing comment on Mr Pogba’s recent conduct. Not content with making a complete tit of himself by smugly revelling in Mourinho’s departure all over his social media accounts, he then decides to rouse himself and start playing like an absolute world-beater at the precise moment Jose left the building. So is he taking the piss? Answer: Yes, he clearly is. It might just be me that’s taken major umbrage here, but Pogba dancing round the pitch after scoring against Bournemouth looked every bit as inappropriate as a Tory MP grinning for the cameras after opening a food bank. 

Paul lad, you really just need to get your head down and play now. Not just when you fancy it, how about every week regardless of who’s in charge of picking the team and deciding tactics? Right now, you still owe us big time for doing precisely nothing to help the cause over the last few months. Do us all a favour, eh? Drop the incessant posturing and just try and play to the best of your abilities every single game. We really would appreciate it. 

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Needless to say, it’s going to take a lot more than a handful of goals and a couple of defence-splitting passes for Pogba to redeem himself in my eyes. What happens the next time he has a crossed word with Solskjaer or any future manager who neglects to massage his ego momentarily? Will the toys be thrown back out of the pram or was that 4 month sabbatical he took exclusively reserved for Mourinho? I’m just not buying it, lads. The guy’s a clown and Fergie had him sussed out years ago.

I don’t really need to point out that this horrific season has been compounded by the fact that Liverpool are currently odds-on favourites to win the league. The fact we find ourselves silently willing City to overhaul them makes an already grave situation feel even more desperate. It was little more than an inconvenience when Chelsea and Arsenal were winning titles and punctuating our two decade run of success. Actively hoping City win the league to stop Liverpool feels almost depraved in comparison. What have we become?

I couldn’t quite get my head round the fact a few reds I know were able to settle down and watch City v Liverpool recently. Some wrong ‘uns on twitter actually seemed quite enamoured with the prospect. Don’t get me wrong, I’d already reconciled myself with the fact I wanted City to beat them but there’s no way I could contemplate watching. I’m not being all top red about it but sitting through that would have felt uncomfortably voyeuristic. I’d rather keep my head down and brace myself for the consequences should the unthinkable happen. 

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Continuing on the same theme, a few deluded souls appeared to take some solace from the fact Wolves subsequently knocked the scousers out of the cup. Personally, I’m struggling to see how that was a good thing at all. Klopp isn’t is daft as he acts and he knows they’ve got a smallish squad. Fending off City is going to be tough so any free weekend will prove a blessing as the season progresses. Make no bones about it, Liverpool losing that game was completely by design. Of course he’ll look silly if City eventually overhaul them and they finish potless again, but if they end up winning the title it’ll be rightly be seen as a genius move. God forbid it actually happens. 

Copyright Red News – January 2019

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