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Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

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Well December went well, didn’t it? It all started so well with that memorable win at the Emirates, but sneaking out of there with 3 points unfortunately meant that we’d used up an entire month’s worth of luck in the space of 2 hours. By the time Boxing Day arrived it felt like Van Gaal had returned like the Ghost of Christmas Past. The players appeared to sense this too and joined in by attempting a macabre re-enactment of the infamous Norwich home game that ruined Christmas 2015.

Factor in a 0-0 draw against Southampton a few days later and it momentarily felt like we’d regressed 2 years. We haven’t, thankfully… I genuinely believe that. It was just a hefty kick in the bollocks that needs to be kept in perspective. Since I wrote here a month ago we’ve played a dozen games and suffered a major dip in form. Injuries, fatigue, a post-derby hangover… blame whatever you want. Yet we’re 2nd in the league and comfortably reached the CL knock-out stages – so we’re not doing all that badly.

Let’s be realistic here: over half of United’s squad still comprises of haphazardly recruited, distinctly underwhelming footballers – good players, but not great players. Most will be replaced as soon as their contracts are up. Forget the net spend figures and Jose/Pep comparisons being bandied about as they’re irrelevant for the most part. Looking at the talent we have in place, I maintain that we’re overachieving with what we’ve actually got.

Unfortunately, the gargantuan ball ache that nobody anticipated this season was Manchester City’s ridiculous form. The fact they’ve amassed an unprecedented points total at this stage skews the picture to the point that any progress made by United has been obscured. 2 years ago we’d have been 3 points clear at the top of the table with 47 points after 22 games. Instead, we’re sat 15 points off the pace so understandably, the mood about the place is poised somewhere between subdued and clinically depressed.

So, what to do? According to your average, internet-based moron, being 15 points behind City and with everyone feeling a bit sorry for themselves, it’s time to sack the manager. Quite how anyone could reach that conclusion is baffling, but such a mindset does exist out there. Can you imagine the alternative to Mourinho at this juncture? I can. United hovering just above mid-table with Giggs and Phil Neville in charge whilst Paul Scholes sits in the ITV studio claiming we’re ‘doing pretty well’ all things considered. Meanwhile, the entire footballing world pisses themselves laughing at our expense. No thanks, I’ll stick with Jose if you don’t mind.

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That doesn’t mean to say I don’t think Mourinho has to change if he is to succeed in the long-term at Old Trafford. I think we were all guilty of underestimating the extent to which Guardiola would impact on City’s fortunes this season, but does Mourinho have to ability to drag this current United squad up to their current level? Either by instilling some radical shift in mindset and tactics, or by making some unforeseen changes in personnel.

To put this another way, Ferguson re-invented his United teams numerous times due to the shifting demands of what he deemed necessary to succeed. He famously gambled on youth in 1995, built a team of warriors to out-battle Arsenal, then set about constructing a side that proved even more consistent than Mourinho’s powerful 2005 Chelsea vintage. Basically, we might need a re-think if we’re going to get anywhere near City over the next couple of years – it’s not enough just to keep our fingers crossed hoping they won’t quite hit the same heights next season.

Take Lukaku as an example here – signed at huge expense to lead our attack for the next 5-6 years. Although his goals contribution has been respectable, I don’t think I’m being that unkind in suggesting he’s not the most fluid, all-round footballer to have graced the No.9 shirt at OT. Even as a flat-track bully, he doesn’t do that much bullying and he manages to miss as many sitters as both Rashford and Martial combined. I’ve no desire to kick Romelu whilst he’s down here at all, he’s clearly trying his hardest. I’m merely suggesting that Jose might benefit from re-visiting his plan of having him as our attacking figurehead for the next 5 years.

If you don’t agree with this harsh assessment of Lukaku’s form, then take some solace from the fact that regular whipping boy Jesse Lingard has improved immeasurably since being singled out for a slagging off here a couple of months back. Whilst Lukaku and the returning Zlatan have looked well off the pace, Lingard has carried the team over the last couple of months and proven himself United’s most potent attacking threat by miles. Fair play to him. I will happily admit to being wrong and I genuinely hope he maintains this new level of consistency he’s reached. I still think he’s a bit of a dickhead, and acknowledge the fact he’s quite entitled to hold the same opinion of me.

Despite the team’s solid progress overall, we’re left facing the grim prospect of watching City steamroller towards the title for the next few months. As unpalatable as this may be, we’re just going to have to suck it up as every minor setback befalling United is inevitably blown out of all proportion. We’ve still got much to play for despite the league summit being out of reach; still in the FA Cup and worse teams than ours have won the Champions League in the not too distant past. I appreciate I’m clutching at straws here, but how sweet would that be? Shades of ’68 as City win the title whilst United usurp them by claiming the big one. Lingard screamer to win it in the last minute, anyone?

Copyright Red News – January 2018

www.rednews.co.uk

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Nowhere Fast

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I honestly try not to get too wound up about football these days, but I was approaching apoplectic after Huddersfield away. The performance, the post-match monsoon and the hordes of deliriously happy locals made for a thoroughly toxic combination that’s still irritating me now, nearly a month on.

Firstly, Huddersfield itself. Wow, what a place. Now it’s easy to be dismissive of the provincial backwaters we get to visit on our travels, but this lot earned top marks in the ‘how to behave when Man United come to town’ stakes. We’re talking Swindon levels of giddiness, here. The fact they’d barely managed a shot on target in their previous 7 games and then set about United like they’d received a bye to the World Cup final was predictable enough, but seriously… a brass band? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything so completely and utterly Yorkshire.

Once upon a time we’d go to these places and swat them aside like the swaggering, metropolitan sophisticates we like to think we are, but those days are long behind us. That first half… where to start? Herrera loves to talk the talk about ‘getting’ United and what it means to play for the club but it shouldn’t draw attention away from his regular sub-par performances. Lingard too gets a lot of stick, but also has many defenders due to the ‘boyhood red’ thing. I’m sorry, but running round aimlessly whilst doing lots of pointing just doesn’t cut it. It happens too many times. It’s one thing taking Swansea apart in the League Cup, but when it really matters he’s routinely nowhere to be seen.

Now from the merely bad, to the downright atrocious. People have justifiably pointed out that we shouldn’t write-off Victor Lindelof too early due to the likes of Pallister and Vidic having inauspicious starts to their ultimately fruitful United careers. However, the fact he looks acutely unaware of whether to head the ball or whether to pass it doesn’t bode well for a 23 year old central defender. ‘Rabbit in the headlights’ doesn’t even begin to describe his afternoon. Delving even further into the past, Pat McGibbon and William Prunier both endured similarly nightmarish debuts and neither was ever heard of again.

In truth, the entire afternoon was the culmination of what had been coming for about 6 weeks. Injuries mounting up, the first choice XL dismantled and we steadily reverted to the stumbling, directionless football witnessed for much of the last 4 years. We can carry the likes of Mata and Mkhitaryan with a full strength team, but they lack the cojones to get you through situations like being 2-0 down facing essentially crap, albeit temporarily inspired opponents like Huddersfield.

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After this setback, the team roused themselves to earn a hard-fought, narrow victory over Spurs before suffering the now annual defeat at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable due to Mourinho deviating from his usual Cat A away game script by sending the team out to attack. Sadly, that was the only surprise of the afternoon as otherwise it was standard United at Chelsea fodder. A few bright moments, home team settle down, we concede after a defensive lapse and then rally too late to do anything about it.

We never seem to get any luck there, but in truth we didn’t deserve much this time out. Aimlessly punting long balls towards Fellaini for the last 10 minutes is a tactic that has failed us repeatedly, so I’ve got no idea why we still persevere with it. I can just about stomach the ultra-negative, defensive football Mourinho employs at times as at least it can bring results. Launching it forward to the big feller in the box NEVER works though. It’s desperate stuff, and we’ll never become a truly great side whilst it remains our only viable Plan B.

Despite recent results accentuating the sense of doom around the place, it clearly isn’t the root cause. As numerous commenters have noted, Jose is oozing bad vibes at the minute and doesn’t look happy with life at all. On face value, United are still doing okay. 7 wins and 2 draws from the first 11 games isn’t terrible by any stretch. We’re 2nd in the league and virtually home and dry in the CL group stages, but you wouldn’t guess that based on Mourinho’s expression or any words out of his mouth over the last few weeks.

So is it the lack of progress on his new contract, Woodward’s failure to land Perisic in the summer or merely a passive-aggressive response to the plaudits heading City’s way at present? Who knows. In all likelihood it’s a combination of each of these factors. Mourinho’s many detractors would no doubt claim this is just par for the course, given his previous managerial gigs have imploded following similar periods of pent-up acrimony.

I suppose worst case scenario is that this is all part of some underhand masterplan to try and force an exit and fall into the open arms of PSG. Taking a completely impassive stance, you can see why such a switch might appeal. It would be a shithouse move for sure, but avoiding the spectre of Guardiola domestically whilst taking him on with an unlimited budget in Europe must seem quite an enticing prospect.

On the other hand, this could all prove to be nothing more than speculative clickbait. I don’t want Jose to be content with being 8 points behind in November. I expect him to be angry about it and for his foul mood to persist as long as we’re trailing behind City. I also expect him to exert maximum pressure on Woodward to land designated transfer targets and to vent his dissatisfaction whenever they don’t happen. The constant background noise, his sour disposition… well that’s just how he gets results. This is just Mourinho being Mourinho, isn’t it?

Copyright Red News – November 2017

www.rednews.co.uk

Adiós Señor Pussycat

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“Are you looking forward to the game on Saturday?”, I was asked prior to the trip to Anfield. Of course I wasn’t. In all my years watching, I’ve rarely gone there confident and expecting to win and this year proved no different. It doesn’t matter who’s playing or if either side is in form, ultimately you’re just hoping to get out of there without having suffered a defeat. There was a brief spell in the late 90’s where United would go there looking to exploit their obvious weaknesses and win, but for the most part it’s a tortuous 90 minutes to endure.

Mourinho’s approach to these type of fixtures (ie any tough away game at home or abroad) often comes in for criticism, but in truth it’s not that far removed from how Fergie usually set his stall out. If Lukaku had buried that chance in the first half during that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period when United actually took the game to them, the day would have been hailed as a perfect smash and grab. Given the fact he didn’t and we barely managed to string 3 passes together for the rest of game, I was quite content with the point. Utterly painful viewing though, that last 10 minutes.

If Anfield proved anything, it’s that United are in no way the finished article yet. The free-scoring, relatively simple start to the campaign has been encouraging but faced with the first real test against non-useless opposition we couldn’t have looked much more uninspiring if we’d tried. With Spurs and Chelsea incoming, we desperately need to get back some of the momentum gained during August/September to avoid nosediving into a similar slump to that witnessed this time last year.

The sense of foreboding isn’t exactly helped by our mounting injury list. I don’t know what it is with this club, but year-on-year we seem to have 7-8 players missing as a matter of routine. Is it all down to bad luck or are we just doing football wrong or something? I’ve got absolutely zero statistics on this but City never appear to have half their team missing in action. Do you reckon there’s some special footballer medicine we can try? Not trying to insinuate anything here but perhaps we should ask Guardiola what he gives to his players? That stuff seems to work pretty well.

Losing Pogba at the precise moment he was starting to look imperious was a classic United injury. Then Fellaini comes in and starts to resemble an actual footballer and he goes down too. Brilliant. The biggest miracle amidst suffering several long-term absences, is both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have remained fit for the last couple of months. I mean, how? This freak occurrence is surely some sort of record in itself and can only mean that double leg fractures for the pair must now be imminent.

Mourinho’s post-Benfica claim that “I never speak about injuries” (whilst speaking about injuries), clearly isn’t the only thing irritating him at the moment even if he suggests otherwise. It didn’t take a genius to work out the source of long-term Mou mouthpiece Duncan Castles’ Daily Record piece suggesting that Jose could depart at the end of his current deal; and that no talks had begun on the contract extension most assumed would be on the table by now.

Placed alongside some recent quotes of him bigging up the “fantastic” PSG, I expect this was little more than a public word in Woodward’s ear that he might want to pull his finger out on any new proposal, with Jose clearly miffed one hasn’t been forthcoming already. PSG would certainly love to secure Mourinho’s services in future, a fact that United must surely be aware of and which serves to strengthen Mendez’s hand even further in any forthcoming negotiations.

So basically, this doesn’t look like anything to get too worked up over. Probably nothing more than a standard case of agent briefing journalist to help clear the path towards his client receiving a whopping new pay rise. In fairness, the United board probably needed the reminder that this needs to be addressed sometime in the near future. As ever, suspicions persist their day-to-day priorities are focused more on generating new revenue streams as opposed to trivial matters like securing the manager on a new 5 year deal.

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The latest ‘strategic partnership’ announced sees the club jumping into bed with the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia to help “create a sustainable and thriving football sector.” (Translation: play in several lucrative friendlies.) How lovely. If this is United’s attempt at keeping up with Barcelona and City, “we need to develop an alliance with tyrannical dictators with an appalling record on human rights too!”, then I can only despair. I suppose this latest move does at least explain the club’s long-held reticence towards investing in a women’s team.

Quite how an alliance with the Saudi regime fits in with United’s commitment towards corporate social responsibility is unclear. This is what it says on the club’s website

Everyone at the club is committed to tackling environmental and social issues at regional, national and international level, using the Manchester United brand to leverage support and create awareness of the issues facing the planet.

I’m assuming this will now be amended to “we don’t actually care that much because we’re making lots of money.” All the atrocities Saudi Arabia is regularly accused of (try corporal punishment, sexual slavery, torture and human trafficking for starters) aren’t conjecture or hearsay, they happen there every day. I just find it incredibly sad United are entertaining these despots when they’re in an almost unique position of being able to reject such overtures if they wanted. When City leapt into the arms of Thaksin Shinawatra and later Sheikh Mansour, we poured scorn on their willingness to turn a blind eye to the source of their new-found wealth. United heading down a similar path is every bit as depressing.

Copyright Red News – October 2017

www.rednews.co.uk