As well as saving me a considerable sum of money, the lack of Champions League football appears to have had the effect of making the season progress remarkably quickly. Perhaps it’s just my addled brain, but it only feels like 5 minutes since Van Gaal arrived, doesn’t it? However, a glance at the calendar and the annual onslaught of Slade and Jona Lewie over the airwaves provide confirmation that we’re already in mid-December.
Despite complaining of Champions League fatigue in previous years, when the group stages resembled a mind-numbing series of easy hurdles before inevitable progression to the knock-out stages, it’s (unsurprisingly) proven a big loss this season. For a start, trying to bed in new players and a new formation would have proven a less fraught process with our usual, congested fixture schedule. Instead we’ve endured lengthy gaps in-between games after getting turfed out of the League Cup early doors and ever present menace of international football.
Secondly, something that I hadn’t previously anticipated, I’ve missed routinely turning up at Old Trafford on cold, dark November nights. Indeed, Stoke the other week was the first home game of the season under floodlights. Despite it often feeling like a pain in the arse when I’m knackered after work and the weather is crap, there’s a familiarity to that midweek routine that’s been absent this season. I meet my mates for a couple of pints in town, we jump a cab to the ground, then pay minimal attention to the actual match and instead argue/abuse each other and generally put the world to rights for 90 minutes.
It’s doesn’t feel right watching City or Liverpool on telly when United should be playing, so I’ve studiously avoided every single minute of the Champions League this season. I was delighted to hear Ronaldo downed Liverpool and equally amused that City have struggled thus far, but I can’t bring myself to actually watch them. Having spent years telling City fans that European football was “none of their business”, it’s only fair that I impose a similar mandate on myself whilst United are marooned in the European football wilderness. I’ll start watching again when they’re both knocked out, which will hopefully be very soon.
Given the wholesale changes that were made in the summer and an appalling run of injuries since then, it’s no surprise that it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to see a settled team that is beginning to look comfortable with Van Gaal’s oft-mentioned ‘philosophy’. I’d argue that the biggest difference over the last few weeks has been the return of Michael Carrick, that and finally experiencing a bit of good fortune in a season where we’ve been on the receiving end of some ridiculous decisions against us.
After a terrible August which extinguished any lingering pre-season optimism, since then our form hasn’t been all that bad if you can overlook Chris Smalling’s brainstorm and the resultant non-performance at Eastlands. There’s not been very much to get excited about, but players are slowly starting to look more comfortable with the new system and their roles within it. As I said, crucially, we’ve also had to contend with the worst injury record in the league and some awful refereeing. I hate resorting to moaning about refs, it’s the hallmark of a loser – but Martin Atkinson failing to spot a blatant penalty at Sunderland and then at Leicester, Mark Clattenburg choosing to disregard Varney’s foul on Rafael and then milliseconds later, giving a pen for minimal contact, were both absolute shockers.
The Arsenal game could potentially be seen as a turning point – the first big league game won in over a year as we were finally the recipients of some good fortune. An awful 1st half featuring three teenagers in defence, Shaw (this is getting ridiculous now) injured after a quarter of an hour and United being completely outplayed. Then we are gifted a flukey own goal, Rooney scores on the counter attack and all of a sudden, we’ve somehow come away with an unexpected victory.
Factor in a handful of unspectacular home wins and United, whisper it, appear to have discovered something resembling a run of form. I’m typing these words with extreme caution because after a similarly mixed bag of results at the start of last season, we recorded 4 successive league wins last December before everything went very pear-shaped against Spurs on New Year’s Day. Still, I can’t help myself studying the league table and thinking, “hmmmm, can we?” Chelsea have at last faltered, so a win at Southampton on Monday will put us in 3rd, 8 points behind them. Winning the league won’t happen, clearly… but I haven’t quite reached the stage where I can fully admit that to myself yet.
As long as we can stay within 10 points or so, I reckon I can maintain this level of delusion/optimism until at least March. Then as we lose a couple more games and Chelsea/City win the league, we’ll only have to endure a disappointing end to the season with nothing to play for, as opposed to a 6 month period watching them disappear into the distance now. There can’t be any repeat of last season where everything unravelled to the extent the team gave up and couldn’t be arsed in the end. Even if we don’t win it, let’s at least finish 3rd (which should be a minimum aim given the absolute state of the rest of the league), continue our much improved home form and get ourselves sorted in preparation for a proper title challenge next season.
In the meantime, if you’re stuck for gift ideas this Christmas, join me in wishing for a centre half so we can solve that particular problem before it becomes a running joke on a par with our 5 year wait for a decent midfielder. It took all of 3 weeks before Evans, Jones and Smalling were missing in action, so I’ve now abandoned hope that any of them will manage to play 5 games in succession without succumbing to to a broken leg or a bad case of impetigo. We desperately need someone, anyone in fact, capable of heading a football, tackling a bit and not being injured. The potential candidate’s ability to speak Spanish would be welcome but is not essential.
I don’t watch enough football to know who the player is, but there must be somebody out there. I never rated Gary Cahill when he was at Bolton, but someone like him would be perfect. He only cost Chelsea £7M but he’s barely missed a game in the last 3 years. A proper old fashioned stopper who wins headers, makes tackles, lumps it into touch and goes up for corners to score the odd goal. How hard can it be? Don’t talk to me about Mats Hummels. Dortmund are a spent force, he’ll cost an absolute fortune and he’s always injured. Find us the next Gary Cahill, Louis.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Copyright Red News – December 2014