I watched Manchester United’s latest game yesterday afternoon, the first time I’d seen the Reds play since the extremely fortunate FA Cup victory over Sheffield United a fortnight ago: both games since then fell foul of my shift-patterns. Despite the pleasant surprise of three shots from United in the first twenty minutes – one of them actually on target though not dangerous – it was more of the same. The late goal conceded came as a surprise only because Southampton had, up to that point, shown as little prospect of scoring as the home team.
That’s the biggest thing at present: there are absolutely no expectations of anything when United play, and there are especially no expectations of scoring. I’ve recently been watching a selection of YouTube videos of highlights of old United games, Eighties, Seventies even, and the difference is palpable. Even when at their worse, these old sides demonstrated a constant willingness to attack, and an ability to score goals. The current United line-up, no matter what permutation, is clueless. They are lacking in all confidence. Worse, they are lacking in idea. Even at their most forthright and pressing, they are distinctly a team who no longer now how to score goals.
I continue to blame Louis van Gaal, and even he’s blaming himself. The booing was pretty vociferous yesterday, and he’s said the fans were right to boo. The commentators yesterday condemned it back-handedly, saying the fans should get behind their team, but when that team offers what it has been offering all season, how can any thinking fan get behind them? What should they do? Lie blatantly?
Surprisingly, there are still people who – seriously, and not just because they are ABUs, wanting United’s dismay to continue forever – argue that United should retain van Gaal, that he is doing the right things, building a stable team, a disciplined team. United are still fifth even now.
I find this attitude unbelievable. van Gaal has brought this situation about, by the application of his philosophy, to which he clings. It is not working, self-evidently. And equally self-evidently, van Gaal does not know what to do to fix things. He does not know what to do to make his philosophy work on the field, he has neither the will nor the imagination to change things. He has made the team fragile beyond belief: does anyone really think, watching the players when they step out, that they have in them any shred of belief that they can win? Under van Gaal, I have seen too many games against clearly inferior opponents – forgive me Sheffield United, but it’s true – in which the team, individually and collectively, does not know what to do to even get into the Penalty Area.
But van Gaal will not stand down. Come what may, he will have to be sacked if he is to go. He even talks down the chances of improvement. Currently, he is making it plain that United are not seeking new players in the current transfer window, which has only a week left in it. Despite yet another full-back being injured yesterday, van Gaal will not contemplate at least buying a replacement for that position.
His pride, his stubbornness, might in other circumstances be admirable. Here, it only makes him look like a rabbit, frozen in headlights. He is a rabbit in headlights, unable to move, not even to run away to safety.
As for any possible replacement, I admit to only one idea, and that still firmly negative. In the past week, I’d started to relax over the idea of a Jose Mourinho succession. He’d been available for weeks, virtually hanging around outside Old Trafford pleading to be picked up, and United hadn’t made the slightest effort to explore that possibility: the event that could separate me from my club seemed to be receding.
Then the papers broke the story this morning that Mourinho had actually pleaded for the job: a six page letter, detailed breakdowns of how he’d overhaul the team, and a promise to change his managerial ways, at least as to how United would pay under him (the reports didn’t convey whether or not he’d promised he wouldn’t be such a self-centred dickhead but I suppose that was the point on which credibility would have been lost forever).
Between going to and returning from Tesco, no quick thing on a Sunday, the ‘news’ had been furiously denied by Jorge Mendes, Mourinho’s agent, but van Gaal is once more neck deep in the brown and sticky stuff, and the fear lurks not deep below the surface.
There’s another week before the next trial of patience, and it is a trial. Watching United play live is a deadening, lifeless process. Without expectation, without hope, emotion is drained from the experience, to the extent that in the rare event of a goal, it has to be exceptional – as a goal, I mean – before any excitement is created. The reverse is equally true: goals conceded, games lost prompt only a shrug of resignation. This is what we are, on the 24th January 2016, and no route of escape is visible, except, we may hope, at an angle not amongst the standard three hundred and sixty.
Meanwhile, Leicester are back on top of the table. As I type, Arsenal, who have been reduced to ten men, are a goal down to Chelsea, with half an hour played, which will ensure the Foxes a three point lead if the score is perpetuated. Much as I loathe the idea of backing Chelsea, tactics once more come into play.
I’d love to see Leicester win it. If they do, at least I’ll get some overt emotion out of this season. I have no natural connection, no emotional conviction towards Leicester, just a wish to see the apple-cart well and truly upset. It’s more than I dare hope that Manchester United will provide me this season, even as I still watch their games out of commitment.