The above title is a sub-heading on the Guardian web-site for this afternoon’s League Cup Final between the Scousers and the Bitters, a game I will not be watching because, you know, one of them has to win.
But as for where it will be won and lost, the answer’s obvious: at Wembley.
They’re not playing the bloody thing in Scunthorpe, you know.
There have been a number of times this year that I have inveighed against television series that have been tedious, boring and unedifying. The un-missed Fortitude springs to mind, as does the current, thankfully short-lived run of Arne Dahl.
But the televisual crown for most desperately dull two hours plus of my life 2015 was decidedly won on Wednesday night.
There’s no point in checking the channels for what programme has caused this outbreak of despair: I was watching a live stream of the Manchester United vs Middlebrough League Cup Fourth round tie.
The dull statistics are that the game ended goalless after thirty minutes extra time, after which Middlesbrough won the penalty shoot-out 3-1. The plain fact is that this was a tedious, sagging, dragging unadventurous game in which United demonstrated all the plentiful faults of their style of play under Louis van Gaal, and the whole thing was boring as hell.
Back in March I wrote a piece about how I had lost faith in van Gaal and his approach to United and their play, a loss of faith that I temporarily recanted when United went to Anfield and bossed Liverpool out of the game. I have maintained a reserved position subsequently, as United have had a more successful start to the new season, including topping the table for a week.
No more, though. This being a League Cup match, United did not field a full-strength team but, with the possible exception of striker James Wilson (an England U-21 international) and midfielders Andreas Perreira and Jesse Lingard, the eleven was composed of first team was composed of first team players. The side even omitted Wayne Rooney, whose performances this season have been primarily dreadful.
Yet it was clear from about a quarter hour in that United, as so often lately, had no idea of how to score. From about fifteen minutes in, United looked like a team that would need the penalty shoot-out just to stand a chance of scoring at all.
Objectively, it was an improvement on my previous expression in disgust: several players, Carrick in particular, were actually threading forward passes, and between opponents less than ten yards apart. But, this distinction aside, it was the same slow, measured approach, enabling Middlesbrough to organise an already well drilled defence, and the instinct in any situation was to play the ball back, far more often than trying to make progress.
James Wilson cut a lonely figure up front. In all the games I’ve seen him, he’s a striker who needs service and he was getting nothing. Andreas Perreira, plying on the left, was neat and clever throughout, constantly feeding balls into the box, every single one of which were either catching practice for the ‘Boro keeper, or were heading easily clear by the defence.
When Wilson came off at half-time, this was apparently due to injury but at the time it looked like a tactical change, to bring on someone with the ability to create something for himself.
On the bench, United had a strong, in-form centre forward who could do that. Instead, van Gaal sent on Wayne Rooney. When he did send Anthony Martial on, there were twenty minutes left and Martial was sent out to the left wing, with United making most of their plays down the right flank.
I’ve been concerned about Rooney’s form for several seasons by now, but this year it has become critical. The amount of passes made under no pressure that go to opponents. His immobility. His inability to take a ball past another player. These are matters of major concern, and to be frank I’m not concerned about why any more. Putting it plainly, Rooney is fucked and he isn’t going to come back from this.
By about fifteen minutes from the end, I was loudly wishing for a goal, scorer immaterial, to avoid having to endure another thirty of this: I was denied. By the end of extra-time, I was past the point of any interest in United having been denied a late penalty for handball, and utterly drained of the even minimal interest that ought automatically to be associated with a penalty shoot-out. Defeat came as neither a surprise nor a pang. Middlesbrough weren’t really dangerous, but we looked incapable of scoring ever again.
It was noticeable that of United’s four kick-takers, the three established veterans all blew it and the only one to put even a penalty away on the night was the youngster Perreira.
United have put in some decent performances so far this season, but there is still very little to suggest that the long term success enjoyed under Alex Ferguson is anywhere in sight. To put it bluntly, even when we play well, we play like shit, draining the heart and spirit of the supporters. If money, principles and the Glazers were suddenly no consideration, I would still not go back to Old Trafford: pay to watch that? Kindly perform an act of travelling fornication.
So count me back in the anti-Van Gaal camp. There’s a long way to go and under him we’re traveling in a different direction, towards a destination that will include neither trophies nor glory. The season can be written off now: the League, the Cup, the Champions League, all of these are meaningless. Other fans taunts, bitter and jealous in the face of our two decades of glory, contain more than a morsel of truth.
We have players who can make Old Trafford into a joyful, excited,exciting place to be again, who can win, and win in style. But we have a manager who can only dampen and mis-direct them into a cul-de-sac of drabness. And we desperately need to sell Rooney now, whilst there are still people stupid enough to buy him.
What’s the Dutch for ‘Bugger off, van Gaal’? Sodemieter uit, Louis.