Tag Archives: doom

Yesterday’s Men

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During his time at Chelsea, every Mourinho smirk, quip and raised eyebrow had the English press pack in raptures. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a very different narrative being played out now he’s Manchester United’s manager. José is the out-of-touch dinosaur and instead it’s Pep, Poch and Jurgen Klopp getting journalists into an engorged state. That’s absolutely fine. The rush to hand out plaudits and prizes after 6 or 7 games is utterly laughable, as City’s recent coronation as ‘the invincibles’ proved quite succinctly.

When I was a kid, I can recall my old man telling me not to even bother looking at the league table until after 10 games or so. At that point, you get a fair indication of what’s what given each team will have played a couple of tough fixtures so you can properly assess form. It’s pretty obvious stuff, really… but football in 2016 doesn’t care for a sense of perspective or reality, it’s all about hyperbole. As Sparky notes elsewhere in this issue, everything either has to be “the best ever” or “the worst ever.”

The truth of course, is that United are somewhere in-between. I closed last month’s optimism-fuelled column with a note of caution regarding the impending Manchester derby – a wise move given how it duly managed to obliterate the early season feel-good factor within the space of 45 minutes. How very sobering. Even more depressingly, the resultant hangover has proven difficult to shift as we head into a very testing autumnal run of fixtures.

The 1st of these, away at Anfield, was negotiated successfully with the deployment of some vintage Mourinho nullifying tactics. As unpalatable as some might find it, the ‘go for a 0-0 and anything else’s a bonus’ mindset was entirely predictable and executed perfectly. 35% possession would have made Van Gaal wince and despite the lack of chances, in this instance the end result justified the means. With Chelsea and City around the corner, the last thing required was another defeat.

Clearly, a United team being sent out with such limited ambition is going to irritate a sizeable number of people. Mourinho’s willingness to exercise such a game plan was cited as a reason some were against him ever being given the job in the first place – his propensity for negativity being a ‘betrayal of our attacking traditions’ and all that.

Personally, I don’t see a problem. If he was setting us up to bore teams into submission every game like we tried to for much of the last 3 seasons, then I’d be complaining as loud as anyone. But he isn’t. It’s not Southampton at home, it’s Liverpool away… and the result is everything. There have been plenty of abject games at Anfield over the last 20 years, where typically we’ve turned in half-hearted performances and been soundly beaten. The last time we went there and properly dominated them was the 3-1 win back in December ’97 – it just doesn’t happen very often. So all things considered I’m quite content with a single point, thank you very much.

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If Mourinho has discovered that his time as the darling of the English press is over, it’s nothing compared to the mensis horribilis that Wayne Rooney has just endured. Despite the fact that the football watching public have long been frustrated by his fading abilities, it’s only in the last 4 weeks that the cabal of media/ex-pros and managers have finally admitted the game’s up too.

It probably took me longer than most to recognise change was needed as I’ve usually sported a pair of blinkers where Wazza’s failings are concerned. I’ve been content to overlook his leaden feet with increasingly redundant arguments about his effort and work rate – a will to win that was still good enough to craft us an FA Cup winning goal from nothing as recently as May, let’s not forget. The reality however, is that the bad has outweighed the good for months, if not years now.

The ongoing debate about his current/future position has always been skewed by the fact that many people can’t admit the most obvious detail – Wayne simply isn’t a top class midfielder. He just doesn’t possess the requisite touch and passing consistency. The notion that a striker can drop back and influence games from a deeper role as the years take their toll is a convenient one, but how many players have truly managed to achieve this? Charlton, Dalglish and Keegan perhaps… though none of these played in the current era with its unrelenting speed and intensity.

The desire is still there with Rooney, his effort and work rate haven’t diminished despite regular claims to the contrary. The problem is simply down to his declining physical state – he’s just not as quick as he was 10 years ago. The brain sees the pass/anticipates the incoming tackle, but the feet are no longer as quick to react. Sadly, it’s probably just a natural consequence of him doing this week in, week out for the last 14 years.

And for 12 of those years, Rooney has been wearing a United shirt – a key performer during the most successful era in the club’s history. 500 games, 250 goals… yet many will be delighted to see the back of him when he inevitably moves on at the end of the season. Not me. Nor am I joining in with those gleefully revelling in his current predicament and enjoying the opportunity to stick the boot in. Despite the fact his career at Old Trafford seems to be heading to a somewhat ignominious conclusion, he deserves far better than that.

Copyright Red News – October 2016

www.rednews.co.uk

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You’re Wondering Now

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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.

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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

www.rednews.co.uk

Things Change

Pensive louis

Like the majority of supporters, I’ve been mildly enthused with the changes Van Gaal has put in place since last summer. The football hasn’t been great, granted, but I’ve been towing the line and trying to focus on the positives. He’s cleared out numerous has-beens and never-gonna-bes, he’s brought in some decent players and he’s doggedly tried to instil this new ‘philosophy’ (more of which later). Whatever belief I had, however, has now been spent. Call it a moment of clarity, a rattle-out-the-pram incident, whatever… that final 48 hours of the transfer window on top of the last 20 minutes at Swansea has seen me flip-flop into the non-believer camp.

Swansea. It’s now over a week ago but I’m still finding it hard to shake the utter abomination of a performance that followed Mata’s goal. Luke Shaw aside, we were an absolute disaster. From the moment Fellaini entered proceedings, there was only one way it was going to end up. Seriously, is that it? That’s the extent of Plan B? Abandon all thoughts of playing football and lump it up front to the big lad? It’s so appalling it’s almost laughable – the kind of thing I’d stop myself doing when my lad’s under 7’s team were about to lose another game. It’s 2015 and that’s what we’re reduced to? That’s part of the philosophy? Seriously, every other manager/coach in the country must be pissing themselves.

Under Ferguson (and no apologies for mentioning him, he’s our main point of reference and set the standards for modern-day Manchester United), we were famed for our approach to chasing games in the dying minutes. It wasn’t done by simply ballooning the ball forwards, it was done by increasing the pressure, tempo and intensity until the opposition simply capitulated. This was coached into the players from the day they joined the club. We did it all the time… so frequently it became second nature. A reflex, almost – without thought or hesitation.

United under Van Gaal don’t play to their instincts, they play to a philosophy that demands stilted, possession football which stifles any attempt at creativity. Wander out of position, you get dropped. The amount of times players are seen glancing towards the bench rather than looking to each other for direction is telling. We’re inflexible – to the point the team lacks a collective personality and struggles to adapt to changing conditions (not the weather) mid-game.

So by looking towards the bench, what do the players actually receive? Very little, it appears. I can’t recall Van Gaal making a single call from the touchline, not one. Instead he’s sat on the bench clutching a dossier full of instructions which have presumably been relayed in painstaking detail during the days beforehand. Again, this just seems utterly baffling and unworkable. Things happen in football matches which require teams to react and improvise… United simply don’t at present. The message is clear, the team’s brain sits on the sidelines and deigns to speak to you when he sees fit. Until such time, you just do what you’ve been told.

Thankfully, due to real-life commitments, I managed to swerve deadline day on SSN this year. 12 hours of Jim White, Guillem Balagué and their ghastly supporting cast of unemployable ex-pros wasn’t worth a day’s holiday; so I was content to be stationed in work with nothing but text messages and internet access to keep me informed of ongoing developments.

Martial

Obviously, very little work got done. After the relative calm of deadline day last year, this year’s saw a return to the bumbling catastrofuck of 2013 aka ‘Fellaini Day’. Then, as now, we’re left surveying the aftermath and thinking, ‘what on earth has happened there?’

The club’s approach to acquisitions now appears to be completely at odds with the football we’re witnessing. Whereas everything is meticulously considered and precise on the field, with zero surprises mandatory; our method of signing players is more on a par with Van Gaal’s end of season speech – somewhat eccentric and largely incomprehensible. Instead of signing the central defender we’ve needed all summer, we sold one instead. Rather than sign a new keeper, we sold another… in fact we very nearly sold another three.

Whether the De Gea non-transfer was United taking revenge on Madrid for the Ramos dealings, or Perez failing to install Adobe Reader in time, I have no idea… and no real interest if I’m being honest. What’s clear though, is that we’re left with a £30M asset whose head is elsewhere and who doesn’t want to be here. It’s all very embarrassing – and reflects badly on the credibility of any long-term plan in place. All summer we maintained that De Gea wasn’t going anywhere, then that suddenly changed with 12 hours remaining. If the intent was to sell him all along, then Madrid should have been set a deadline to conclude a deal weeks ago. It was amateur hour. Cityesque, almost.

Becoming embroiled in last day dramas doesn’t indicate a calm or measured approach, instead it smacks of vital decisions being made on instinct alone. Anthony Martial at £36-52M may turn out to be a world beater, but at the moment he’s just a teenage kid who nobody had heard of this time last week. Expecting him to come in and seamlessly adapt to the Premier League isn’t just a speculative punt from Van Gaal, it demonstrates the club moving to an unprecedented level of desperation.

If Martial comes in and looks the part, then brilliant – I’ll be the first to apologise for ever having doubted the man. In the meantime though, it’s now clear that this signing could either make or break Van Gaal at Old Trafford. For such a master pragmatist and keen philosopher, he’s made a monumental gamble here. At the moment it resembles something of a public unravelling or a last-throw-of-the-dice. Time will tell whether instead, it proves to be his masterstroke.

Copyright Red News – September 2015

www.rednews.co.uk