During a year in which the world was turned upside down by a global pandemic, United have provided some slight reassurance that normality still exists by demonstrating the same level of inconsistency we’ve witnessed ever since Fergie retired. It’s got to the stage where it’s almost like there are two Uniteds and prior to each game (each half, actually) you’re wondering which one will turn up. The only certainty about this team is they’ll be awarded a penalty at some point.
In fairness, comically inept United haven’t been seen as often over the last few weeks. And yes, I’m absolutely certain the fact my mate Pogba has featured only sparingly during this period is purely coincidental. His absence has at least afforded some much-needed game time for van de Beek at long last. Bruno is a certain starter – the first half at West Ham demonstrated what happens when he isn’t – so it’s all about trying to find the right balance with our other midfield options.
People have rightly criticised United’s defensive frailties this season and I’d agree we still need another right back and a centre half. For me though, midfield remains the most problematic area of the squad. We’re blessed with attacking talent but as holding midfielders, Fred and McTominay’s form remains erratic and they regularly struggle to step in and impose themselves. Pogba is completely ineffective in 80% of the games in which he features (and that’s being kind) whilst Matic is just Matic – he cruises around serenely playing the ball sideways.
Whilst none of the aforementioned are bad players, as a unit they rarely convince. We need to start dominating games routinely rather than relying on the counter attack and pace. It speaks volumes that out of the six players mentioned, at this point only Fernandes can be deemed a certain starter. Ole needs to find a way to integrate van de Beek into the team alongside Bruno but it’s difficult to see how given the fact they both excel in the same position. Pogba is never going to usurp Fernandes, so it’s uncertain how he features at all since we’ve long-established he’s completely unsuited to sitting in front of the defence.
Whatever the right balance is, we just haven’t found it as yet. We have great attacking midfielders, an expensive World Cup winner amongst them, but we can’t integrate all 3 into the same line up. If van de Beek can adapt his game and forage a path elsewhere in the team we’re laughing – the 2nd half against Southampton proved this idea has potential. But with Pogba, I don’t see how he can operate in the same line up as Fernandes long term. You can’t have 2 creative types both given free rein to roam around being a maverick genius and giving the ball away liberally. It just wouldn’t work, unfortunately.
The situation presents both the club and Pogba with a bit of a problem. The longer he spends on the sidelines, the more any future transfer fee is compromised. I’m sure he’d love Real Madrid or Juventus to come sniffing but COVID kiboshed any mega-deal this year and the likelihood of anything happening next summer too. That leaves United exploring the prospect of a contract extension and improved terms for an underperforming asset in an attempt to maintain his market value. As we’ve seen numerous times over the last few years, this tactic is fraught with risk and rarely works out as intended.
Although results have certainly improved, I’m not convinced that performances have. The West Ham game perfectly encapsulated the team’s bipolar tendencies. 5 consecutive PL away wins is more than welcome but the fact we were trailing in each shows how we’re still lacking consistency. This isn’t merely picking holes. At West Ham the team were utterly abject for 60 minutes before turning things round with 3 quick goals and dominating the last half hour. We’re so reliant on Bruno Fernandes at this point it’s genuinely terrifying. He’s as important to this team as Bryan Robson was in the 80’s.
From where we were when I last wrote though, it’s been quite the turnaround in fortunes. At the time of writing we’re only 5 points off the top of the table. Despite still being a dysfunctional mess who can’t string 3 passes together for long periods, there seems to be a collective will to win in place that had completely disappeared by the end of Mourinho’s time at the club. United are watchable again at least, and for that Solskjaer deserves some credit. Of course there’s still lots of work to be done, but the fact I’ve felt compelled to watch MOTD for the last 2 weeks is evidence we’re progressing slowly.
Assuming Manchester gets out of Tier 3 in the next week or so, a select few of us might be back at OT soon since PL clubs are now permitted to have 2,000 socially distanced punters in attendance. I’ve not made my mind up whether I’ll apply for one of these tickets or not as it seems pretty pointless until we can go back and have the ‘normal’ match day again. On the other hand, the obsessive part of me that’s spent a lifetime travelling to football and gigs around the country is craving the novelty of watching a live event in person again.
Sadly, I suspect that a large number of fans won’t be coming back at all. Older reds or those with pre-existing health conditions will be debating whether or not it’s worth the risk. It’s very easy to get out of the habit of going to the match and I’m sure the extended break, coupled with fears of contracting the virus itself will result in plenty of folk knocking it on the head. Also, the devastating impact of job losses up and down the country mean that lots of people’s incomes have dried up completely. Many will have no choice.
It‘s been a really shit year. Football is supposed to be an escape from all the bullshit life throws at you but we had that taken away in March. For many of us, United is the centre point of our social lives and losing it has been tough. We can watch on television and debate all the usual nonsense via social media, but it’s not the same as plotting up routinely and going to the match together. Hopefully at some point next year we can start to put all this madness behind us. In the meantime, whatever your current situation, enjoy the festive period and I’ll see you back here in 2021.
Copyright Red News – December 2020