I didn’t write this feature last week. I was supposed to contribute to the @RedVoicesMUFC podcast on the Monday night too, but the holiday season intervened. A couple of the other lads were free, but decided not to record that evening without me on account of them both being so angry and disillusioned by United, it’s management and ownership that it felt too raw to talk about. I felt the same. We recorded later in the week, when tensions had eased, but not by much. The events of 28th December were pretty grim. United faced sixteenth-placed ‘crisis’ club Chelsea at home, without a win in eight games. A spirited but ultimately fruitless first half gave way to a tired and soporific second. United might have won, but so might the timid and defensive visitors. No win in nine, no goals, again. Post-match Van Gaal was bullish. From a broken, beaten wreck of a man after the abject Stoke defeat, this was a manager unquestionably secure in his job. Ed had clearly had a word with his ‘genius’ and the inevitable parting of ways which results and performances dictated must come would not. United were in this relegation quest for the long haul. Hoorah.
Worse was to come on social media, as many Reds, gripped by a collective lowering of standards which David Moyes would be proud of, cited another scoreless game as ‘progress’. ‘They tried hard in the first half. That’s an improvement. And they created chances’, opined one. Two shots on target in fact told the same old story at Old Trafford, good box-to-box work being undone by poor quality in the final third. United were, for once, a little unlucky, striking the post twice in that first half, but early dominance was again not converted into goals. It would be the tenth time in fifteen home games that Van Gaal’s side had failed to score and left his team having scored less home goals than EVERY OTHER PREMIER AND FOOTBALL LEAGUE CLUB, with no first half goal in those games IN OVER THREE MONTHS. This was not progress. That anyone thought it to be was merely a demonstration of how truly depressing and desperate the situation had become.
Fast-forward a week and Swansea came to Old Trafford. The Swans have been in desperate form and had won only twice in the fifteen games in all competitions since they beat United at the Liberty Stadium. Fail to win that one and Van Gaal may as well have sent special edition congratulatory Champions League Hublots to City, Arsenal, Spurs and Leicester. And to his team’s credit they did win, just. Although how much of that was down to the Dutchman and how much to his players, who it has been suggested have taken some control of their own destinies, is hard to know. Van Gaal switched to a back three, but as has been the case in almost any formation he has set them up in, the first half was little different to previous attempts. It was dull, uninspiring, sterile garbage. Still no first half goal since September.
But when all is lost United fans can always cling on to the fact that they have Anthony Martial. Hands under ar*es or up coat sleeves have rarely got cold this season, but the Frenchman continues to make sure that they at least feel a little air. Ashley Young, rampaging on the right, crossed to set up a bullet header. United, apparently, would score ever again. For a short spell there was some bright, attacking, enterprising football, until the manager saw the Swans change shape, realised that this was too much like good fun and adapted his team to a supposedly more secure back four. Young, enjoying his day to that point, was not a happy camper. The visitors were well chuffed though and made hay while the sun shone. Ayew headed against the post and then Sigurdsson equalised, marked by Mata when isolated amongst a sea of red. Scheiße. Mid-table obscurity beckoned. Except it didn’t, because for once there was a reaction. Martial, wide on the left, hinted to go right, surged left leaving his marker for dead and crossed for Rooney to volley home with a flick of his heel. It was a thing of beauty, an echo from when United were fun and the scorer was world class. Even as they decline once great players will still have the sharpest of minds and their instincts and it is for that reason that they can still provide glimpses of their genius until retirement. Rooney has always been most effective when playing on instinct and time to think seems to precede a blunder.
Heady days at Old Trafford. Two goals and at least twenty-five minutes of effective, penetrative football. In the final ten minutes United ceded possession and territory and tried to see the game out and De Gea made a splendid save to ensure the victory. Newspapers could once more be bought and Match of the Day watched. Was this a win because of LVG or in spite of him? Post-match he praised the control of the first half and bemoaned the risk-taking of the second. Of course, he was pleased to have scored, but the link between attacking and scoring still does not seem to have been made. And this is why the Dutchman will never be successful at United, because the caution and obsession with possession and control will only ever be cast off at times of absolute desperation. Even at a goal up, at home to a poor side, his primary instinct is to avoid conceding and hope to sneak a goal, or to protect a single-goal lead. United have neither the defenders nor the forwards to make such a system consistently successful and the season will most likely continue with ground-out wins and abject defeats.
Not that Ed Woodward sees things that way, if the Sunday Times’ mouthpiece of managers and owners, Jonathan Northcroft, was correct in asserting yesterday that the plan is still for Van Gaal to see out his contract before passing the baton to the then ready Ryan Giggs. Now, if those words did come from Cuddly Ed they should be treated with extreme caution, for face is way more important than truth to him. In this case the ‘face’ in question may be that he is trying to save when Pep Guardiola rocks up at Manchester City. But he may also be telling the truth, which is far more disturbing on a number of levels. This would fit with the failure to fire the manager and appoint Mourinho and the confidence Van Gaal displayed in the safety of his own position post both the Chelsea and Swansea games. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, this means that the United hierarchy still appear to have confidence in their manager to see out his contract and secondly, that they are willing to take the quite frankly ludicrous risk of appointing a total novice to replace him. The logic for this can only be sentimentality. Advocates of Giggs point to him having studied the game under two legendary managers. However, his time under the latter has seen him observe little but abject mediocrity, whilst under the great Sir Alex he was merely a player, much like Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and others, none of whom have gone on to become top-class managers. The only exception, at any elite club, in the last thirty years is Guardiola, who coached the B team and then inherited a complete squad, one of the greatest in the history of the game, containing perhaps the greatest player of all time. To appoint a novice would be madness. Is it possible that Giggs can be a great manager? Of course, but the chances are greater if he goes away, as Simeone, Ancelotti, Conte and co did, to learn his trade and prove his abilities. If he succeeded the United job would undoubtedly find him.
But perhaps I should end on some positivity. United have won again, at last, and the satisfaction that follows a victory should be enjoyed. Whilst I’m not sure it has much long term significance there were individual performances to enjoy. Martial was sparkling and full of youthful promise and Rooney awoke from his torpor to put in a rare decent performance. Ashley Young excelled, De Gea saved the day once more and Schneiderlin provided authority, physicality and a bit of class in the centre of the pitch. With Schweinsteiger continuing to labour the Frenchman’s return has been invaluable. And most positively of all, I will not mention Phil Jones. You can’t say fairer than that. With Sheffield United next up at Old Trafford there is a chance to build some momentum before going on the road again. If anything is to be salvaged from a crumbling season then the victory against Swansea must be the start of the renaissance. If not then another promising campaign will once again drift into nothingness.