Typically, in a season that has become predictable in its unpredictability, United have settled into a decent run just as things are drawing to a conclusion. Whether we’re witnessing the final days of Van Gaal’s tenure or not (surely we are), there’s an excellent chance that as he departs for the sanctuary of his Portuguese villa in a few weeks’ time, he’ll be doing so as a ‘title’ winner. I can hear him now, his methods validated, all those hours of mind-numbing boredom a distant memory. “The English they never stop complaining, I won them a title! The FA Cup is a very important trophy in that country… they hadn’t won it for 12 years.”
Unfortunately, although silverware will be very welcome and moments like the goon that greeted Martial’s winner live even longer in the memory, it won’t be enough to save Van Gaal, ultimately. After a trying first year in which he at least delivered a top four finish, this season has been a backwards step and a huge disappointment overall. Although the final moments could well see him brandishing the cup and addressing an appreciative crowd in Albert Square, the dreadful monotony of the football witnessed between November and March shouldn’t be forgotten.
The quarter final replay at West Ham and the Wembley semi were stark reminders of what’s been missing far too often – genuine excitement. There are always peaks and troughs during a 60 game campaign, but barring a handful of moments from Martial and Rashford, the season mostly panned out as an excruciatingly long, uneventful slog. Win some, lose some, draw some… doing just enough to stay in the chasing pack without ever looking like we were growing in confidence and making progress. Wins were earned with scrappy performances, leads thrown away too frequently and the regular defeats didn’t prompt any kind of determined response or stunned reaction.
Van Gaal admitted himself that he’d run out of ideas at Christmas – a virtual resignation note – but he somehow survived and limped on. Since then, on each occasion his position has appeared untenable, a result has come along and bailed him out. The home draw against Chelsea, a win at Anfield, crushing Midjtylland, beating City away; all of these appeared as the sack seemed inevitable – but they still don’t mask the reality of where United find themselves. 9 wins out of the 17 league games since Christmas doesn’t demonstrate an upturn in form or provide any kind of justification for keeping him on next season. FA Cup or no FA Cup, it’s still not good enough.
During the Ferguson years, we used to hear a lot about players being selected to play for United based on personality as much as their abilities. Fergie spoke at length about youngsters’ family backgrounds being considered, and transfer targets being researched with a forensic level of detail level to ascertain whether or not they possessed the requisite character to fit in. Somewhere along the line we appear to have lost it because the team is now inherently soft. I don’t mean soft as in ‘crap in a fight’, it’s more about a lack of mental strength. The amount of times we’ve switched off in games this season or completely failed to impose ourselves for long stretches, demonstrates that something eludes us that we had in abundance previously.
The season was summed up for me at the end of January, driving home from OT having just witnessed a 1-0 defeat to Southampton. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a fair bit of time for Chris Smalling given how he’s one of few who have actually progressed in recent times, but his reaction to the defeat that day nearly made me switch to the opposite side of the road and plough into oncoming traffic. When asked about the result, he chirped up that the players were “disappointed not to draw”. Just consider that for a moment. Disappointed not to draw. At home. Against Southampton.
That, dear readers, said it all to me. The next captain of Manchester United went on national radio to express his feelings after another pathetic home defeat and the strongest response he could muster was to suggest the team were sad they didn’t hold on for a point. Seriously, if that was genuinely representative of the dressing room reaction then the whole team needs something very drastic. I’m not talking Mourinho, forget Fergie’s hair dryer – they deserve Roy Keane with full beard, coming off a 48 hour bender, mislaid his house keys so denied any sleep levels of rage.
If there is a managerial change in the summer, one hopes it helps to instil some desire and a collective sense of responsibility to the current group of players. I’m sure they’d be the first to proclaim “of course we care!”, but do they care enough in that crazed, siege mentality sense that turns disparate individuals into a team of serial winners? I just don’t see anything like that level of togetherness, currently. It’s hard to detect much of a bond between management and players, as Van Gaal’s methods appear to be tolerated rather than trusted. Admittedly this is speculation based on hearsay, body language and tersely conducted interviews – but the gloomy demeanour of everyone involved speaks volumes.
Van Gaal looked and sounded very subdued at the semi-final press briefings, both pre and post-match. Perhaps it was the pressure, maybe a sense of relief, but he no longer sounds in any way confident at the prospect of remaining in situ beyond May. Questions about the future were dismissed with a wave of the hand and he only wanted to discuss the performance. Fair enough, you might argue – but it’s very much a marked contrast from the indomitable bluster he’s come out with all season.
There will very probably be a number of people reading thinking, “what’s the problem?” Typically unappreciative fanzine scribe having a good moan and picking holes after his team has just reached a cup final. “Can’t you just be happy for once?” Well, clearly not. Winning the cup would be a great day out and a much needed fillip for everyone connected with the club, but that’s all it’ll be – a brief respite. Over the last 3 seasons we’ve strung 3 consecutive wins together just 10 times, whereas in Fergie’s last season alone we managed 8. Van Gaal is a good man who’s made hard work of a tricky rebuild, now we need someone to come in who’ll take us back to the top.
Enjoy the summer and I’ll see you in August.
Copyright Red News – May 2016