I’ve taken two two weeks off writing. It happened, unfortunately, to coincide with United finding their best form of the season, albeit against a struggling Championship side, a Stoke team drifting in mid-table and an away game at Chelsea which ended with a costly last-minute capitulation. The latter result hammered a number of nails into the side’s Champions League coffin. Still, some optimists retained some hope. I mean, with all four of the teams above United playing each other at least two were guaranteed to drop points. Quite how it came to this and quite how LVG had, over the space of two weeks, realigned his team’s objectives from potential title challengers to scraping a top four place and got away with it is hard to fathom. The Dutchman has taken the club to new depths of ordinariness and yet there appears to be no will to make a change at this time. Still, with form improving, perhaps there would be an adequate end to an utterly inadequate tenure at United. All he had to do was beat the second worst team in the country, a shot-shy team who, incidentally, had scored as many goals as their visitors on a fraction of the budget.
The day before the game Mark Ogden of the Independent was handed a one on one interview with LVG, the man who he has fiercely criticised in recent weeks. This was, of course, an utterly transparent piece of propaganda, designed to make sceptical fans rein in their ire by showing them a softer side to the devoted family man. He is, he said, a friend to all at the club. It was a similar trick to that which he had pulled at the tail end of 2015, talking about how the speculation about his job hurt his family and friends. Cynical doesn’t even begin to describe it. But the supporters are tired of his sh*t now. Results would dictate their mood, and he had the chance to at least instil a little hope into their hearts at Sunderland.
Of course, what we got was an under f*****g shambles which poured further shame on his comatose tenure. When the chips have been down this season his side have crumbled, again and again and again. It is leaderless, rudderless and utterly pathetic. Sunderland scored in comical fashion at the start of the game and stole a fully deserved winner close to the end from a corner. For a brief spell after Martial’s sublime equaliser United were on top, but then came halftime, where Van Gaal pulled his usual trick of sucking the life out of a team in need of inspiration. As the second period began the home side won every 50/50 ball, were faster, brighter and surer in the pass. Let’s be honest, De Gea kept this from being a fearsome defeat. Without him United would be lucky to be in the top half of the Premier League this season. 75% of this match was a shambles, a pathetic, disorganised, gutless surrender of the type we’ve become utterly hardened to observing. Not one player in black and garish orange played close to their potential bar, perhaps, the lively and dangerous Juan Mata, but even he succumbed to the sloppiness and lack of fight which engulfed his teammates as the game wore on.
It has been a three week spell which has utterly summed up Van Gaal’s time at United. Brief periods of optimism, provoked by neat football and effective, exciting displays are ended prematurely by a return to the naive, stultifying, pointless ‘football’ that has dominated his time as manager. United have now lost to the team’s in 19th, 18th, 16th and 15th in the Premier League as well as twice drawing with the side in 17th. This is the standard that we’ve come to expect, and of those pathetic performances the Red Devils have not deserved to win a single one. They now have a total of 4 wins all season against sides in the bottom half of the division from 14 attempts. Luck, brief demonstrations of ability and David De Gea are all that stand between this side and a lower mid-table finish.
But the short highs have showed what we all know, that these players are better than this. Sure, it is a flawed squad short of numbers and genuine class in a number of positions, but there is enough talent to be offering more. More than total inadequacy. There are a lack of leaders, of players with gonads when the chips are down, of fight and of verve, but this is a squad of Van Gaal’s creation. The injury crisis which continually envelops the club was predictable from the summer and the lack of numbers and class in attacking areas was equally as glaring. But still, they are better than this.
So what happens now, with a Champions League place laughably out of reach? The answer is no doubt that United will drift, as they do through matches whether they are leading or behind. Ed Woodward, keen to save face and place moral virtue over actual results, will persist with a duck so dead that all that remains are bones, rotting flesh and worms and United will potter along shambolically until the summer when Jose Mourinho will appear out of a giant cake at the annual awards evening and shout ‘surprise!’ What a f*****g hoot that night will be. Of course, this could all have potentially been avoided had the club done the obvious and exiled Van Gaal after the laughable December meltdown. Even if a temporary manager were installed, as Chelsea have done with Hiddink, it would have changed the mood and at least lifted the spirits and confidence of both the players and the fans. Instead Woodward has stuck by his man while the utterly inevitable mid-table finish by an utterly mid-table football team has played out, most likely costing his club £70-80m minimum in lost Champions League revenue,a furthering of its ongoing loss of reputation and prestige and hastening in its descent into Liverpool. For that is what United have become, a great institution defined by a history of winning falling inexorably into mediocrity, living on deeds from the past and a repetitive hope or belief that next year will be different and the team will rise again to where it ‘should’ be.
Except that it is where it ‘should’ be. Owned by profiteers, run by an inexperienced, incompetent businessman, with no strategy or direction, constantly fire-fighting the most recent ‘crisis’, reactive rather than proactive, deluded and misguided, complacent and blind to its own faults. The owners and the executives have what they deserve: a Europa League football team at best and an increasingly disenchanted and disenfranchised fanbase. I’m sure that Adidas and other sponsors, current and future, will be fighting over each other to throw money at an ordinary club. You reap what you sow. Unfortunately the blameless fans have to suffer for their incompetence too. Europa League tickets are proving to be about as popular as the Zika virus, which is still more popular than Van Gaal. The mood could be lifted by his sacking, but that is pie in the sky. We’ve at least three more months of this sh*te.
Post-match Van Gaal was asked if he were under pressure. He replied, “No. I am doing my work and I cannot do more.” The only implication to be taken from that is that none of this is his fault. Why should he be under pressure when he’s done nothing wrong? At this point it’s customary to call the gentlemen in white coats. Ed Woodward will probably give him a bottle of Bollinger instead…