Highway To Hell

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Good old Juan Mata. Whilst everyone was losing the plot after the Champions League exit, the nicest man in football™ also proved himself a master of understatement by summing up events as merely, “a complicated week.” That’s one way of putting it, though I can’t help thinking ‘calamitous’ might have been a more fitting adjective.

After Ben Yedder’s 2nd goal prompted the mass exodus from the ground, the mood walking away wasn’t one of resigned disappointment, it felt almost mutinous. I know plenty of people have never really warmed to Mourinho, but I was genuinely surprised at the level of invective being aired. This wasn’t just the usual handful of gobshites sounding off, it was more than that. It felt like a tipping point had been reached.

Jose, true to form, came out swinging. Whilst he was obviously correct in pointing out that our recent Champions League is poor and home exits are nothing new, it was pretty disingenuous of him to ignore the fact that he was brought here to try and change that. Yes, he may well have been in charge of Porto and Real Madrid when they knocked us out, but using that fact to justify failings on his current watch was somewhat spurious reasoning.

As regular readers know, I’ve always defended Mourinho and would have been happy to see him appointed as Fergie’s successor 5 years ago. We needed someone with the same self-belief, drive and winning mentality who would be completely unfazed by the size of the club and level of expectation. Clearly he has his character flaws, but then so did Ferguson. We revelled in his malevolent side and siege mentality for many years, reaping the rewards of his similarly gargantuan personality and monstrous ego.

The major difference between the two was hammered home after the Seville game, however. Whereas you always sensed Ferguson took defeats personally and everything we experienced (good or bad) could be used to impact on his players’ long-term development, there was no evidence of that from Jose’s reaction. He didn’t defend his tactics or his squad, or even seem that chastened by the result – he merely used the opportunity to defend his own reputation.

Needless to say, it wasn’t great timing by Mourinho to remind us of his previous successes over United in the competition. We’re acutely aware of his past pedigree as it’s one of the main reasons he was appointed manager in the first place. His press conference might have been better received if he’d at least sounded contrite rather than brushing criticism away and offering the somewhat lame excuse of, ‘well you’ve seen all this before, haven’t you lads?’

He wasn’t done yet. Jose was back in front of the press prior to the Brighton game, this time armed with a list of Rafa-style facts detailing each of our European exits in recent years. His tone was just as bullish as had been 3 days earlier, although this time he was at pains to stress that the Seville result needed to be viewed in context. His main point being that this United team are still a work in progress lacking experience at the very top level. A fair point I suppose, and at least this time he resisted the temptation to big up his own past achievements.

Manchester United v CSKA Moskva - UEFA Champions League

At least the defeat took the ongoing beef with Pogba off the back pages briefly, but that one is certain to rear its head again given his ongoing absence from the starting line up . The fact he was left out for the biggest game of the season speaks volumes, and that’s before you consider the minimal impact he had after he eventually came on as sub. Regardless of form, I don’t think any of us would picked Fellaini over Pogba versus Seville, especially as we were starting another 2 holding midfielders in Matic and McTominay. Relations between the pair don’t appear to have improved and as I said last month, it won’t come as much of a surprise if Pogba’s gone in the summer.

Ditto Luke Shaw, another player subject to Jose’s oft-schizophrenic approach to motivational techniques. Now we all know that Shaw needs a regular kick up his sizeable arse and it’s long been a cause for concern that his attitude and approach require constant tuning. Mourinho isn’t the first coach to experience this and I doubt he’ll be the last. However, it was only 6 weeks ago that Shaw was being praised for his consistency and a new contract was being mentioned. Was this just an attempt to alert potential suitors? If so, why the abrupt change of heart within a couple of months?

Another in the firing line is Alexis Sanchez, a player whose descent into utter mediocrity has been impressive even by recent United standards. I mean, at least Di Maria gave us 6 weeks of good form before downing tools and viewing apartments on the Champs-Élysées. It came as no surprise to see him dropped for the Brighton game as he’s been absolutely shocking since he signed. Fingers crossed we’ll start to see the best of Alexis after he’s had a break in the summer and a full pre-season behind him.

The FA Cup, as it has been on a couple of notable occasions in United’s history, could turn out to be Mourinho’s salvation in what has become a very testing 2nd term in charge. That however, remains a very remote possibility considering the state of our record against both Spurs and potential finalists Chelsea in recent years – we haven’t beaten either team away from Old Trafford since 2012.

All things considered, last week’s international break probably came at the right time to give several figures in the dressing room a few days break from each other. Just be thankful for Will Grigg and Wigan Athletic’s recent heroics, otherwise we might have been facing a genuine end of days scenario in the not too distant future. Watching City win the treble would be the most “complicated week” imaginable.

Copyright Red News – March 2018

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In this age of #mufcfamily twitter cranks and rolling 24 hour sports news coverage, you don’t really get many surprise transfers anymore. Those seismic moments where you switch on teletext to find out United have signed Eric Cantona or you bump into a mate in college who tells you Andy Cole has been announced. These days, the minutiae of each deal becomes a deathly dull narrative that often drags on for weeks.

Refreshingly then, the manner in which the Alexis Sanchez transfer came to fruition was something of a modern day novelty, as the entire saga was boxed off and sorted within the space of a few days. Of course, United then did their very best to make the announcement as cringeworthy as possible by making the poor bloke play a wonky version of ‘Glory, Glory Man United’ on the piano dressed in his full kit. Seriously now, whichever social media savant dreams this stuff up on the club’s behalf, just stop it.

Ditto the dog thing. Jesus Christ, just because a few Arsenal divs completely lose the plot and decide to display the saddest banner in football history, it doesn’t mean United fans should feel obliged to do the same. It’s not that I lack a sense of humour about this kind of thing (actually I do), it’s more of a predisposed inclination for us not to advertise the fact our support comprises of a sizeable proportion of complete and utter berks. Smother yourselves in Pedigree Chum and send them birthday cards for all I care, just don’t go putting up banners in the ground welcoming a pair of fucking Labradors.

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The Huddersfield home game saw the 60th anniversary of Munich remembered. Keen to be in place for the minute’s silence taking place prior to kick off, I made a point of forgoing my usual pre-match routine and being in the ground early for once. (Will be disappointed if I don’t receive an email from the club acknowledging this, incidentally.) Firstly, it was a nice gesture by United to present everyone with a programme, book and pin badge marking the occasion, but the build up to the silence left me shaking my head.

In previous years the club have got the tone of these things spot on, but this year’s was very off-key. You don’t pre-empt a minute of respectful contemplation by playing the usual pre-match playlist at ear-splitting volume up until a few seconds before the referee blows his whistle. It all felt a bit crass, a poorly misjudged precursor to what in previous years has been a sombre and reflective moment. I’m not criticising the club for the sake of it here, it’s just the staging of this (likewise the decision to have Fred the Red lining up with the team) needs re-thinking in future.

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Following this weekend’s revelations, I guess we need to talk about Paul. In fairness, the only genuine surprise here is that rumours of his alleged discontent have taken so long to surface. As I said when he signed, he’s a Raiola player and Raiola players never stay anywhere very long. Or as another Red News contributor succinctly put it to me this week, “lie with dogs, get fleas.”

Although he’s been brilliant on occasion, for the most part his form has been as erratic as his haircuts. I’m sure all of us were hoping for far more than what he’s actually delivered over the last 18 months. One suspects much of the goodwill between Raiola and United/Mourinho has evaporated since Mkhitaryan was nominated as the makeweight in the Sanchez deal, so it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if he’s now in Pogba’s ear suggesting it might be time for a change of scenery.

If Raiola has received word that Madrid or Barca are interested then expect this nonsense to continue until United sanction his departure in the summer. I won’t be that despondent to be honest. I think we all suspected Spain was his preferred destination all along and we were just a highly lucrative stepping stone to that outcome. As ever, it’ll all depend on whether they can come up with a commensurate package to what he’s earning at United; and if they’re willing to fulfil any extraneous demands Raiola himself dreams up. On the other hand, it’s also worth acknowledging that Poggers might just be poorly as he claims. If so, sorry about this misunderstanding and get well soon, Paul x

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Aside from the errant Frenchman, the other talking point du jour is VAR. Now until this weekend, I assumed that VAR worked a bit like it does in cricket. If there’s a contentious decision, the referee calls for the VAR man to have a look at it and he clarifies whether or not it’s offside or handball or whatever. No. Of course not. Obviously that’s far too simple a process for football to adopt. Instead the FA has implemented a needlessly convoluted system where you’ve got some weirdo Michael Cox-types in an underground bunker in Bletchley (or something) watching games and then pressing a big red ‘grassing up’ button to alert the referee when they see something they don’t agree with.

So the system they’re using is slow, interrupts the game’s flow and lines used to determine offside decisions are confusingly non-linear. It all appears a bit rushed and unpolished, so it’s no surprise the Premier League are giving it a wide berth at the moment. All a bit embarrassing for the FA – they must know the system they’ve developed is shit but they feel obliged to persevere with it. So what to do? Here’s the perfect solution: ensure the system gifts United a spectacularly unwarranted goal in the next round. Can you imagine the reaction? There will be a public outcry, governmental intervention and laws passed ban VAR’s usage within 48 hours. Problem solved, no need to thank me.

Copyright Red News – February 2018

www.rednews.co.uk

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

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Well December went well, didn’t it? It all started so well with that memorable win at the Emirates, but sneaking out of there with 3 points unfortunately meant that we’d used up an entire month’s worth of luck in the space of 2 hours. By the time Boxing Day arrived it felt like Van Gaal had returned like the Ghost of Christmas Past. The players appeared to sense this too and joined in by attempting a macabre re-enactment of the infamous Norwich home game that ruined Christmas 2015.

Factor in a 0-0 draw against Southampton a few days later and it momentarily felt like we’d regressed 2 years. We haven’t, thankfully… I genuinely believe that. It was just a hefty kick in the bollocks that needs to be kept in perspective. Since I wrote here a month ago we’ve played a dozen games and suffered a major dip in form. Injuries, fatigue, a post-derby hangover… blame whatever you want. Yet we’re 2nd in the league and comfortably reached the CL knock-out stages – so we’re not doing all that badly.

Let’s be realistic here: over half of United’s squad still comprises of haphazardly recruited, distinctly underwhelming footballers – good players, but not great players. Most will be replaced as soon as their contracts are up. Forget the net spend figures and Jose/Pep comparisons being bandied about as they’re irrelevant for the most part. Looking at the talent we have in place, I maintain that we’re overachieving with what we’ve actually got.

Unfortunately, the gargantuan ball ache that nobody anticipated this season was Manchester City’s ridiculous form. The fact they’ve amassed an unprecedented points total at this stage skews the picture to the point that any progress made by United has been obscured. 2 years ago we’d have been 3 points clear at the top of the table with 47 points after 22 games. Instead, we’re sat 15 points off the pace so understandably, the mood about the place is poised somewhere between subdued and clinically depressed.

So, what to do? According to your average, internet-based moron, being 15 points behind City and with everyone feeling a bit sorry for themselves, it’s time to sack the manager. Quite how anyone could reach that conclusion is baffling, but such a mindset does exist out there. Can you imagine the alternative to Mourinho at this juncture? I can. United hovering just above mid-table with Giggs and Phil Neville in charge whilst Paul Scholes sits in the ITV studio claiming we’re ‘doing pretty well’ all things considered. Meanwhile, the entire footballing world pisses themselves laughing at our expense. No thanks, I’ll stick with Jose if you don’t mind.

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That doesn’t mean to say I don’t think Mourinho has to change if he is to succeed in the long-term at Old Trafford. I think we were all guilty of underestimating the extent to which Guardiola would impact on City’s fortunes this season, but does Mourinho have to ability to drag this current United squad up to their current level? Either by instilling some radical shift in mindset and tactics, or by making some unforeseen changes in personnel.

To put this another way, Ferguson re-invented his United teams numerous times due to the shifting demands of what he deemed necessary to succeed. He famously gambled on youth in 1995, built a team of warriors to out-battle Arsenal, then set about constructing a side that proved even more consistent than Mourinho’s powerful 2005 Chelsea vintage. Basically, we might need a re-think if we’re going to get anywhere near City over the next couple of years – it’s not enough just to keep our fingers crossed hoping they won’t quite hit the same heights next season.

Take Lukaku as an example here – signed at huge expense to lead our attack for the next 5-6 years. Although his goals contribution has been respectable, I don’t think I’m being that unkind in suggesting he’s not the most fluid, all-round footballer to have graced the No.9 shirt at OT. Even as a flat-track bully, he doesn’t do that much bullying and he manages to miss as many sitters as both Rashford and Martial combined. I’ve no desire to kick Romelu whilst he’s down here at all, he’s clearly trying his hardest. I’m merely suggesting that Jose might benefit from re-visiting his plan of having him as our attacking figurehead for the next 5 years.

If you don’t agree with this harsh assessment of Lukaku’s form, then take some solace from the fact that regular whipping boy Jesse Lingard has improved immeasurably since being singled out for a slagging off here a couple of months back. Whilst Lukaku and the returning Zlatan have looked well off the pace, Lingard has carried the team over the last couple of months and proven himself United’s most potent attacking threat by miles. Fair play to him. I will happily admit to being wrong and I genuinely hope he maintains this new level of consistency he’s reached. I still think he’s a bit of a dickhead, and acknowledge the fact he’s quite entitled to hold the same opinion of me.

Despite the team’s solid progress overall, we’re left facing the grim prospect of watching City steamroller towards the title for the next few months. As unpalatable as this may be, we’re just going to have to suck it up as every minor setback befalling United is inevitably blown out of all proportion. We’ve still got much to play for despite the league summit being out of reach; still in the FA Cup and worse teams than ours have won the Champions League in the not too distant past. I appreciate I’m clutching at straws here, but how sweet would that be? Shades of ’68 as City win the title whilst United usurp them by claiming the big one. Lingard screamer to win it in the last minute, anyone?

Copyright Red News – January 2018

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