The relentless schedule and lack of crowds has stripped football down to its base components. Even Sky and BT seem to have twigged there’s little point in hyping fixtures played in front of empty stadiums. Each game fades from memory within hours and focus immediately shifts to the next one. The Premier League currently resembles those Guinness Soccer Six tournaments that existed back in the 80’s. It’s knockabout, exhibition match fun devoid of any real credibility.
We’re now fast approaching 12 months since the first national lockdown. Although post-COVID football is no substitute for the real thing, it’d be churlish to deny it doesn’t possess some charm. There’s only so many box sets you can tolerate and I think we’ve all reached the stage where everything decent on Netflix has already been consumed. Watching United every 3-4 days breaks up the week nicely, even if we are viewing a slapdash, small screen adaptation of the sport.
Like drugs, alcohol or music, football has always offered an outlet to escape the mundanities of life. The daily grind feels especially uneventful at present and football’s contribution towards keeping the nation’s sanity intact shouldn’t be underestimated. When my future grandkids enquire about my memories of living through a global pandemic, I won’t paint a bleak picture of government incompetence, social isolation and heavy drinking. Instead, I will look them in the eye and fondly recall Liverpool’s non-event of a title win and Bruno Fernandes scoring an extraordinary number of penalties.
The chaotic timetabling and lack of preparation time have actually had a positive impact on football to some extent. Recent seasons have seen City and Liverpool rack up gargantuan points totals that have obliterated any pretence of competition. It’s not necessarily their fault of course, the entire point is to win as many games as possible. It just feels a bit demoralising when the top sides have lapped everyone else when the league is barely past its half-way stage. This season has been the recipient of a welcome dose of the unpredictable to help enliven proceedings.
Aside from a drubbing at Villa, Liverpool started the season in much the same form as they ended the last. Before Christmas it appeared another title win was on the cards given the rate at which everyone else was dropping points. The subsequent implosion that occurred was as sudden as it was spectacular. How do you get from being undefeated at home for 4 years to losing 4 on the bounce? Christ, even Everton have got in on the act. It’s truly the worst title defence since Blackburn Rovers. Sadly, it remains unlikely that relegation will follow.
As Liverpool’s great unravelling occurred something equally unexpected happened. Yes lads, Manchester United went top of the Premier League table. For 2 glorious weeks we were even being referred to as (no, don’t laugh) title contenders. Unfortunately, hitting such giddy heights afflicted the team with a devastating outbreak of altitude sickness. This was cured via a spellbinding run of 6 points from the next 15 available, leaving us in the all too familiar position of being 10 points off the lead with Pogba on sabbatical again. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
Despite the best efforts of the Portuguese magnifico, issues persist within the team that have been evident for a long time. There’s still a desperate need for a commanding centre half. Lindelof gets bullied too easily and whilst Bailly looks decent alongside Maguire, he can’t be relied upon due to his woeful injury record. The right hand side remains as problematic as ever. Wan Bissaka has clearly been encouraged to develop the attacking part of his game but his crossing ability remains haphazard at best. For the most part he’s adopted the Antonio Valencia maxim of ‘when in doubt, smash it as hard as you can’.
Despite those longstanding gripes, I can’t help feeling that the main thing that scuppered any chance of maintaining a serious title challenge has been a lack of goals. And yes, that’s despite United being the league’s leading scorers at this point. If the squad had a proper goalscorer at its disposal (I’m not counting the 34 year old Cavani) there’s every chance we’d still be right up there. Rashford has made an solid contribution operating from the left mainly, but we’re so over-reliant on Bruno to deliver at key moments it’s ridiculous.
There was a short period last year where the penny seemed to have dropped with Anthony Martial. For a first time in his stop-start United career he appeared to have added some consistency to his game, adding scruffy goals to his repertoire and doing a good impression of looking sharp and focused. It didn’t last, sadly. This season he’s looked a shadow of that player. The perpetual frown is back and a goals tally of 4 in 20 league games for a Manchester United No.9 is obviously nowhere near good enough.
All strikers can endure a barren spell, but Martial seems to suffer a full-blown existential crisis every 6 months. Ole only ever has positive things to say about ‘Anto’, but surely he must have his doubts after witnessing his centre forward strolling round and looking bored shitless for months? I’m no body language expert but I honestly can’t think of anyone who’s ever looked less enthused at the prospect of playing up front for United. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so judgemental here. I mean, it’s doubtful my work colleagues would describe me as the life and soul of the office either.
It’s easy to forget the mess that Solskjaer inherited when he took over. Whether he remains the board’s preferred choice or not, he’s done well to slowly construct this squad and nudge it in the right direction. Despite the regular setbacks, United have been entertaining to watch for much of the season. Indeed, the biggest compliment I can pay Ole is that watching games no longer feels like a chore. The dark days of Van Gaal and Mourinho, characterised by terrible signings and no coherent long-term plan appear to be behind us finally.
Due to City selfishly embarking on a marathon winning streak, any prospect of silverware this season looks to be confined to either the FA Cup or the Europa League. One suspects that if Solskjaer is going to remain in the job for the next few years, he quickly needs to demonstrate the ability to guide his players beyond semi-finals. Now would be the perfect time to back up evidence of progress with a trophy, strengthening both his credentials for the role and the belief he’s capable of leading the team to even greater heights.
Copyright Red News – March 2021