If I were a Bornean hermit who lived in a cave deep in the jungle, living a simple hunter-gatherer existence, who trekked into the nearest town with Internet access once a week to check the English football scores (because the EPL is the toughest and best league in the world – is that ok Rupert?) I might be tempted to think that Manchester United had had an exemplary week. Two wins out of two, progress from a perilous FA Cup replay at West Ham and three more points in the race for a top four place (oh how Arsenal we have become). Of course, what with me not being a Bornean cave-dwelling hermit and, in reality, being surrounded by so many electrical devices that I must be slow-cooking what is left of my brain, I know full well that unqualified joy is most definitely not warranted here. Indeed, if ever a week reinforced the viewpoint that Louis Van Gaal should be fired from a cannon into the Atlantic Ocean at the first possible opportunity it was this one.
United were excellent at West Ham, a poor first fifteen and ropey last ten minutes aside, which is no mean feat against a vibrant, confident side who hadn’t lost at home since Noah finished his ark. In addition this was the last ever cup-tie at the Boleyn Ground, on a week night in an arena which always seems to be rocking when United come to town. With the FA Cup being the only competition that his club could still win this season Van Gaal did what he always seems to do – pull something out of his a*se when the game is nearly up. If Fergie taught us anything it’s that fortune favours the brave. It also appears to favour the brave when cowardice has left said brave person at death’s door. The Dutchman chose to select Marouane Fellaini in a more advanced midfield role, rather than the travesty in central midfield we are so often made to endure, and the Belgian had a fine game, fully deserving his goal.
By that point Marcus Rashford had already put a vibrant United one up with a stupendous goal featuring a run, a few step overs and an absurd, inch-perfect curling finish. Oof. What is most orgasmotron about the 18 year old is that he’s showed us that he’s far more than the six-yard box poacher his early goals suggested him to be. Here is a kid who can win a game out of nothing and if there’s one thing United have lacked in the last two years more than anything else it’s the sort of player who can do just that. Anthony Martial has it in him, but the majority of his teammates are predictable and relatively easy to defend against. Go Marcus, go Marcus.
At 2-0 United did what United so often do, retreat on a lead, West Ham replied from a poorly defended corner and it was a cardiac arrest inducing last ten minutes. Thank the Lord for David De Gea. Again. So splendid were his saves that I felt compelled to admit at full time that I think he may be at least as good as Peter Schmeichel was in his heyday. Oof. United won and move on to the travesty that is an FA Cup semi-final played at Wembley rather than a provincial ground, as it was in the good old days of yore. I boo you FA. Everton are our opponents, which should be a bad thing if you compare the relative talent of the teams remaining in the competition. But Everton are not, thankfully, the sum of their parts thanks to the increasingly unpopular and naive Roberto Martinez and the club’s fans currently want to sever his head from his shoulders. Who knows which version of the Toffeemen will turn up. Whatever, if United are on their game they should win. United are rarely on their game, so probably won’t, which would be extremely annoying given that this is the weakest semi-final lineup in years.
Fast forward to Saturday and a home game against the most pathetically cowardly Premier League team I can remember, Aston Villa. Villa had lost their last eight games, a run which included 4-0 and 6-0 defeats at home to Chelsea and Liverpool respectively and a 4-0 loss at City. Most recently the Villains had lost 2-1 at home to Bournemouth. Perfect cannon-fodder for a brave offensive unit. Except that United are rarely that and reverted to type. It was an absolutely appalling game of football, a tepid, conservative, pathetic effort from United. Rashford scored from close range, United created 2/3 other good chances but otherwise spent the 90 minutes passing five yards sideways. Van Gaal’s team are incapable of breaking down defensive teams, even when said defensive team is incompetent and filled with players who genuinely couldn’t give a toss what the score was. Post-match the manager described the visitors as an ‘organised defensive team’. An ‘organised, defensive team with a goal-difference of -42. With United 1-0 up and reprising their oft-repeated trick of sitting back on a narrow lead Villa had three terrific chances to equalise. If they had done it would have been hard to feel robbed. United would have deserved it. But they held on and won what seemed like three valuable points, whilst also hammering another rusty nail into Van Gaal’s coffin. In 8/10 games United are almost unwatchable. The club is about nurturing youth, but it is also about entertaining and winning games and trophies and the Dutchman has betrayed both of those principles.
Karma, or Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, made sure that United’s conservatism was punished as they dismantled Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That surely must be that for a place in the top four unless Arsenal collapse. The Gunners’ fixtures are soft, but their blood is yellow, so who knows what feats of mental collapse they are capable of.
The Sunday papers brought some good news for the majority of United fans who recognise that Mourinho is the devil the club needs right now. Universally they reported that Fergie and his acolytes had accepted that the Portuguese would get the job in the summer and that the man himself has been telling the world and his wife that the job is his. Mourinho is an unpleasant human being, but Fergie is no saint. Indeed he was a vindictive, selfish, cantankerous old b*stard towards the end of his time at the club, but he was a winner and so is his likely replacement. One suspects that such is Mourinho’s desire to get the job that he will make a commitment to blood youth as a condition of his employment. United have worked themselves into a corner by not sacking Van Gaal in December and now only have one viable option to lead a club that can no longer afford a long, patient rebuilding process.
It’s Palace on Wednesday, another home game which will likely try our patience and test our devotion. Any other season I’d be looking forward to it, but right now being a Bornean cave-dwelling hermit doesn’t sound so bad…..