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Comme d’habitude

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 bullshit 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

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Float On

I honestly can’t say I missed football too much during the extended break last season, but the time spent in exile from Old Trafford is really starting to drag at this point. Like many of you, I’ve not seen mates (and family members) for months now – the match was the social hub that brought everyone together. Going without this for a while didn’t feel like too much of a sacrifice at first, but the incoming second wave of COVID suggests it could well be another year or two before things return to normal. You know the outlook is grim when United don’t even bother taking £700 out of your bank for the season ticket renewal.

As always, the feelings of long-term paying customers don’t mean much to football’s governing bodies. There are contractual obligations to meet so the juggernaut has to continue at all costs. That’s how we faced the ridiculous prospect of starting a new season without the benefit of an adequate break following the last one. Unsurprisingly, United lurched out of the blocks like a Sunday League team suffering the after effects of a particularly lively Benidorm stag do. Should we have expected anything different when most players arrived back for training only 2 weeks prior to the Palace game?

Nevertheless, the season’s opener exposed the threadbare make up of the squad once you scratch beneath the starting XL. The fact Solskjaer was forced to start Pogba, freshly recovered from COVID yet miles off match fitness said it all. I’m a little bemused by the fact Pogba is still held in high regard by many. I know people are entitled to have their favourites and look beyond their foibles, but his cheerleaders seem to exist on another planet… the planet of being a bit clueless about what constitutes a great footballer. Pogba is clearly a fantastic player inside his own head, it’s just a pity his unrivalled levels of self-belief are somewhat at odds with his routinely dire on-pitch contributions.

Talking of routine, United’s transfer dealings this summer followed an all too familiar path. The more optimistic amongst us were hoping the club might have built on the positive-ish conclusion to last season and endeavoured to bridge the yawning gap between ourselves and City/Liverpool. I mean, the Bruno Fernandes signing hinted at the positive impact timely reinforcements can bring, right? There are several gaping holes in the squad and the manager reiterated the need to strengthen further when he spoke to the press back in April.

It’s all very predictable. The club teases imminent signings with a series of press briefings that causes a deluge of social media activity as the eReds lose their collective shit in anticipation. Over the course of several weeks, excitement leads to frustration which by the close of the window turns to outright fury. Blame shifts from Solskjaer to Woodward to Matt Judge to the Glazers and then back to Solskjaer again. Every summer plays out like this now, a moronic pissing contest in which gullible twitter idiots compete to see who can become the most upset and outraged.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming I’m immune to the gossip and content with the status quo. I’d like nothing more than the club to demonstrate some real ambition by flexing the financial muscle it loves to boast about, but I’ve learnt not to expect too much from the hapless leadership of this current regime. It’s 15 years since the Glazers took over and we all know the script by now. They aren’t going to sanction a £500M spend and risk finishing 3rd again next season. That was never going to happen. It was especially unlikely given that revenue has dropped off a cliff in recent months. Their priority is staying profitable enough to keep up with loan payments and financing the twice yearly £11M dividends they pay themselves.

Everyone knows what the team requires. We’ve needed a right winger since Nani left and Valencia converted to a right back. As per usual, there’s a reluctance to invest what’s needed to secure the best available. It’s worth noting that several ex-players approached about the vacant DoF role have each gone on record criticising the club’s recruitment in recent weeks. It’s no wonder that role still isn’t filled if potential candidates aren’t convinced they’ll be given the mandate and resources to return the club to the top. Wayne Rooney clearly mapped out what the club should be doing in last week’s Sunday Times. Sadly, United would never test Spurs’ resolve by going after their best players now – as we did repeatedly during the Ferguson era.

So instead of Harry Kane, it’s 33 year old Edinson Cavani on a free transfer. How’s that for a signal of the club’s ambition? I suppose on the plus side we’re not shopping in China for more ex-Watford players, but on the whole I’m getting strong feelings of deja vu here. I’m sure Ole will express his delight and stress how the player’s experience will be vital in aiding the youngsters’ development, but I’m just not buying it. So much for the ‘cultural reboot’ that was supposedly in progress. Cavani, whatever he does this season, is just another big name, stop gap that’s evidence of the club’s ineptitude in the areas of recruitment and squad development.

The lack of pre-season and another poorly executed transfer window shouldn’t excuse what we’ve seen on the pitch thus far. Doubts persist about Solskjaer’s ability as a coach because his players should be doing better, irrespective of our failings in the transfer market. Whenever the team makes any progress it doesn’t take much for things to completely unravel again. We don’t respond well to any kind of setback and seem tactically clueless in comparison with most other teams in the league. If Brighton could finish United would be bottom of the table now.

The Spurs game was a debacle. No leadership, no accountability and an utterly shambolic defensive performance. I was never convinced by Chris Smalling but anyone can see he’s a more reliable centre half than either Lindelof or Ivorian Chaos. We’ve got that pair of clowns competing for a place alongside Maguire whilst Smalling was kept in quarantine waiting for his flight back to Rome. If we weren’t going to sign a quality centre half, perhaps we should have considered keeping one who’s a significant upgrade on the other options at our disposal?

Last season the team probably overachieved by finishing 3rd. Instead of prompting further investment the club’s hierarchy have made it very clear that CL qualification represents the pinnacle of their ambition. It’s all well and good scouring the globe seeking out highly rated youngsters but that isn’t going to improve the fortunes of the first team this season or next. The short to medium term plan appears non-existent other than trusting that Klopp and Guardiola won’t be around forever. 

If press reports are to be believed, Dortmund communicated the asking price for Sancho months ago. So why did United spend the entire window pursuing the deal if they had no intention of meeting their valuation? Instead, we spent deadline day in an unseemly scramble for free transfers, loan deals and weighing up bids for Championship players. Clearly, little has changed since the farcical summer of 2013 that signposted the beginning of Woodward’s tenure. The club remains a dysfunctional mess to this day. 

Copyright Red News – October 2020

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The Beat Goes On

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Having argued quite vociferously against the resumption of the Premier League, I’ll happily concede that it turned out to be quite watchable in the end. Winning helps of course. 11 rapid-fire games with United looking focused and determined for the most part. Despite being confined to watching on TV, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the last 6 weeks of football as much as anything in any period since Fergie retired. Not that that’s saying much.

The realisation hit me that watching football on telly shorn of the compulsion to attend in person (a growing trend in recent seasons, admittedly) is actually quite underrated. It’s an absolute doddle, this part-time supporter caper. There’s little stress involved, it doesn’t cost anything like as much as buying a ticket and you don’t have to mix with the ever increasing number of complete bellends who spoil the match day experience. Having spent nigh on 40 years looking down my nose at mere ‘fans’ and quietly revelling in my self-appointed top red status, it turns out the armchair lads are actually onto something.

I jest of course. Despite the novelty of watching United string a few wins together, it all had a hollow ring to it. We watched 6 weeks of walking-pace, contractual obligations being played out with piped in crowd noise to provide the illusion of authenticity. It was a bit like watching the longest post-season tour in history… or a particularly unmemorable World Cup where everyone knew who won before the draw was made. It was entertaining to a point and provided some relief after weeks of below-par crime dramas and basketball documentaries on Netflix, but let’s not pretend it was football. Not proper football, anyway.

The post-apocalyptic, Bizarro World version of the Premier League briefly afforded us the chance to make history. At one point it looked like we might be in with a shout of lifting the inaugural Covid League title awarded to the the team with the best record post-lockdown. Unfortunately we had to settle for 2nd place as dropped points meant City picked up the germ plated, commemorative trophy. This made it a Coronavirus double for the blues, still buoyant after their extra-time victory in the CAS Cup.

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Despite paling in significance with the real thing, there was still plenty to digest. For the first time in a long time, a United manger successfully figured out his strongest line up and boy, did he decide to rinse it. As we limped over the finish line at Leicester the team was basically running on fumes. The only big disappointment came at Wembley where Ole justifiability gambled on resting a few players. That didn’t work out at all as the performance showed. We’re still in need of further reinforcements clearly, but that single setback shouldn’t detract from the progress made since January.

The main reason for the improvement is Bruno Fernandes. Not only has he arrived and made an excellent contribution himself, his enthusiasm appears to have had a positive effect on everyone else around him. The attitude of many of the squad has been questionable, both collectively and individually for a number of years. Fernandes comes in and it’s like they’re trying their best to impress the new kid in school who everyone agrees is cool. Shaw is moving up and down the touch line faster, Matic looks halfway mobile and perhaps most shocking of all, Pogba has declared himself match fit.

In the final game at Leicester, Bruno looked absolutely shattered after 10 minutes. He still didn’t stop all afternoon despite the feet no longer doing what the brain was telling them to do. Having a player like that in the team, a proper natural leader actively looking to take responsibility rather than shirk it is absolutely priceless. His head doesn’t drop and he leads by example, every single game. He might not be THE captain, but he’s A captain. Successful football teams tend to have 4 or 5 players demonstrating these qualities.

Despite quickly becoming the star turn, it’s not been all Bruno. Ole deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s used Mason Greenwood this season, integrating him slowly into the set up and knowing precisely the right moment to unleash him as a first choice starter. Greenwood himself is something else. 17 goals for an 18 year old, 3rd choice striker is a ridiculous return in his first season. It’s not just the goal return though. As he’s shown already, he’s a very capable all-round footballer.

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The decision to shift Lukaku in order to give this kid more game time doesn’t seem so controversial 12 months on. Unlike the human water buffalo, Greenwood is great with the ball at his feet and supremely comfortable in possession. He knows when to do the simple things and when to attempt the extraordinary. There’s no need to blow any more smoke up his arse right now because we all know how talented he is. It’s hard not to get excited about how good he could be in a few years if he continues to develop as he has throughout this season.

Coming up next we’ve got more televised summer football in the form of the Europa League’s conclusion being played over in Germany. It’ll be a bittersweet feeling should United progress to the final (not a foregone conclusion by any means) as European finals are those occasions where you feel compelled to be there. I’ll be made up for Ole if he wins his first trophy as a manager but it won’t be the same without 40,000 reds ballooning round Cologne to mark the occasion. I suspect town could be interesting that night though.

In the same way that Liverpool’s title win became inevitable months ago, I’ve reached a similar conclusion about the prospect of City winning the European Cup later this month. It’s going to happen sooner or later so it may as well be this year. Liverpool are champions and Leeds have won promotion so I figure we take the hit and make it an annus horribilis hat-trick. They won’t be able to experience it properly and it’ll be the worst final in living memory regardless what happens. At least our blue brethren will be spared the usual scramble for excuses after they fail to sell out their allocation. Every cloud and all that.

Copyright Red News – August 2020

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