Sigh. So the gloomy outlook described last month turned out to be depressingly accurate – 1 win, another 2 stupefyingly dull 0-0’s, and our best performance coming as we cruised out of Europe on a night where circumstances dictated that the usual Van Gaal playbook was abandoned. Rather than taking off, the season has instead veered off-track and nosedived into a ditch.
As far as United bad weeks go, this has been an absolute humdinger. Drawing at home to West Ham was a poor start, but then defeat in Germany and being comprehensively outclassed by Bournemouth has taken us to new, uncharted levels of gloom. I’m not even sure it can be classed as a crisis because all this happening comes as no surprise whatsoever. I’m no football sage but I called it to a couple of mates immediately after West Ham, “next week, we’ll go out of Europe and Bournemouth will beat us.” I wasn’t being facetious either, it was an entirely serious prediction.
Of course there are mitigating circumstances. The injury situation has reached farcical levels now, with half the team sheet comprising of players no one but seasoned Academy watchers had even heard of until 2-3 months ago. Pereira, Varela, McNair, Borthwick-Jackson, Lingard… Christ almighty, even Nick Powell has been exhumed. You can get away with including 1 or 2 of these lads at a time but expecting them to flourish en masse in an already misfiring, dysfunctional team is wildly optimistic. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Our 1st team is goal shy and struggles to break sides down, so why expect a team of reserves and youth players to fare any better?
It’s been suggested that this sudden influx of fresh faces and an attacking display in spite of losing to Wolfsburg should be seen as grounds for optimism – indeed, I’ve heard the phrases ‘brave performance’ and ‘hope for the future’ uttered over the last week. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Of course United went on the offensive in Germany, we had no other option given the urgent need for goals to qualify. This didn’t demonstrate any change in Van Gaal’s mindset or provide evidence he’ll now decide to abandon the safety first approach – he was simply forced into doing something different for once.
The most telling moment of the entire European campaign was with 30 mins left in the penultimate game versus PSV. That was the time when we needed to push on and press for a winner that would’ve assured qualification. And what did we do? Precisely nothing. There was no discernible attacking threat in the final half hour as instead our possession game became more and more ragged. Belief visibly drained from everyone on the pitch, Mata finally introduced with just 5 minutes left, the opponents ending the match looking the more likely to score. All in all, it was textbook United under Van Gaal. We were out then… and it was fully deserved after such a timid home performance against limited opposition.
Van Gaal himself appears to have changed over the last couple of weeks. Whilst he’s always been a stoic figure on the bench, when facing the press he’s always come across as dogmatic and assured. All of a sudden he doesn’t seem quite so consistent in the noises he’s making. The standard of refereeing has had a mention, certain players have been singled out and best of all, supporters’ expectation levels are now being questioned too. Picking holes in his claims is unnecessary, but the fact he’s decided to start criticising fans when he’s had a very easy ride and relatively little stick from that direction speaks volumes. This, let’s not forget, was the ebullient character confidently instructing us to “boo me, not the team” just a few weeks ago.
Even more perplexing, is Van Gaal’s assertion that the team is making progress… which we undoubtedly are providing you disregard the abysmal football witnessed week in, week out and instead squint your eyes and study the stats from a certain angle. I just don’t think going out in the CL group stages and losing on pens to Middlesborough in the League Cup is going to prove progress enough when it comes to deciding if his services are to be retained beyond the end of the season. Yes, things are slightly better than when Moyes was here, but if Moyes had been given £250M to spend with a further 18 months in charge would things really be that much different now?
Nothing Van Gaal has done gives me much confidence we’re going to be seeing a noticeable upturn in fortunes any time soon. The signings (Martial aside) haven’t had any impact, with most looking like bang average additions to an already bang average squad. Depay has been mostly terrible, inheriting Nani’s football brain minus his first touch; Sneiderlin is completely and utterly Southampton; Schweinsteiger looks every inch the 31 year old warhorse whose legs have started to fail him. The only player who looks to have progressed under Van Gaal is Chris Smalling who’s having a fantastic season. Our best performer, once again, is the goalkeeper… which says a lot about the paucity of entertainment on offer each week.
No doubt in January we’ll see another couple of expensive signings. A goalscorer would be nice considering we sold two in the summer and it’s difficult to envisage Rooney ever being good ever again – sorry Wayne, it pains me to admit it, but even a long-term, staunch believer like me wakes up to reality eventually. Defensive cover too must surely be a priority considering we’re currently down to the bare bones of an already threadbare squad, plus I don’t think it’s actually legal to start playing U-13’s at senior level.
What United are most desperate for though, is a playmaker. One of those rarely seen, mythical creatures capable of coming in and releasing the potential that’s lurking within each of the other current underachievers. Problem is, even if we did unearth the next Eric Cantona, do you honestly think that Van Gaal would share the vision? Sadly, I’d hazard a guess that he wouldn’t… and that’s ultimately one of the main reasons he won’t be here much longer.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
Copyright Red News – December 2015