Every cloud has a silver lining. United’s abject collapse at Spurs was a grim watch (when is it not?), but it will have served an important purpose, to remind anyone still fence-sitting (hi Ed) over the future of Louis Van Gaal what an utter fraud the man has been as manager of the club. As James Ducker of the Telegraph observed on Twitter as United fell apart:
“Spurs now exposing United for what they are – a dull, meek, one dimensional side who have totally lost their way.”
Sunday’s performance was peak LVG. He picked a lineup which once again featured the truly appalling Marcos Rojo at left-back, the not-a-centre-back Daley Blind at centre-back, two holding midfielders with little mobility in Carrick and Schneiderlin, a snail-paced number ten on the right-wing and an above-average wide player in Jesse Lingard at number ten. To his credit (and it’s the only credit he’ll be getting from me today) Van Gaal started Timothy Fosu-Mensah at right back, from where the young Dutchman was the outstanding player in red. Unfortunately, he would get injured 3/4 of the way through the game, at which point United fell apart, held together by a teenager with five appearances to his name.
The first half was dull as ditchwater, which it always is. Spurs had the best chance of the half, but other than that one chance little happened. United did not have a shot on target. LVG would describe this period of the game as his team playing ‘good’. Indeed, this was his appraisal of everything which took place before the first Spurs goal, by which time his team had mustered one shot on target.
At half time, Van Gaal, master of nurturing youth, decided to substitute his eighteen year old striker Marcus Rashford, for whose development he laps up the credit, and replaced him with Ashley Young. Rashford had been quiet and it wasn’t a ludicrous idea to push Martial up front and play Young in his natural wide position. Except, of course, LVG didn’t do that. Instead he simply put Young up front, as a lone striker. No one can recall him ever playing there before, except for the under-21 game in midweek which was his return from a long-term injury. So Rashford had the ignominy of being hooked at half-time and replaced by a half-fit winger, which will no doubt have done his confidence a world of good. The manager argued post-match that he wanted to keep Martial wide for his ability to run at players and that he preferred a forward who could ‘make runs in behind’. If only he’d bought one in the summer, rather than having to pick someone else to play there because they can run quite fast. Young, he argued, had played well there for the under-21s, at a level so poor that the structure of age-group football for over-18s is regularly slated.
United started the second half as they had ended the first. Pointlessly. Nothing continued to happen until Martial tried to take matters into his own hands, only a poor finish denying him after a wonderful run. It was a lone chance which highlighted what United have become, a turgid, clueless rabble hoping that their twenty-year old prodigy can do something special to win a game that more senior players are powerless to affect.
Then, with the game in its final quarter, Fosu-Mensah got injured. Van Gaal, no doubt salivating over the fact that he had a chance to swap a full-back for a full-back, brought on Matteo Darmian (the Dutchman having gone all Augusto Pinochet on Guilermo Varela and ‘disappeared’ his ass after a poor half against Liverpool – he’s great for young players….). After nearly a season of watching the Italian full-back, about whom so many avid Serie A watchers shamelessly dribbled with excitement last summer, it is now ok to admit that he’s a bit sh*t. A full-back who can neither attack nor defend is not much use to anyone. United were playing two of that ilk, two who were shamed by an 18 year old.
United promptly capitulated. It doesn’t take much. Alli scored, profiting from some comical defending, and that was game over for the away side. It has been virtually all season, for a team without a goal threat cannot recover from a losing position. United are made of particularly weak stuff and promptly conceded twice more. Sadly it was probably a good thing. Post-match the manager would have argued that it was a close game and he would, strictly speaking have been right. He still argued that, but with a 3-0 scoreline looked even more of a t*t than he already did playing inadequate players out of position, filling in for mistakes he has made in the transfer market over the last two summers. In the final minutes of the game Van Gaal brought on Memphis Depay. It was an apt way to end proceedings. With the game already lost the manager finally made an attacking substitution, bringing on a player who last summer was considered to be the best young player in Europe. So abject has be been under Van Gaal that his manager appears to have long since given up on him.
Indeed, LVG appears to have given up on many of his own signings. They haven’t been good enough. He has built a squad low on quality, pace and leadership. He misjudged the abilities and qualities of the players he already had and of those he signed and has been unable to elicit performances from them (barring DDG, Martial and Blind) that match even their limited capabilities. Some will leave and go on to play far better elsewhere, no doubt.
That the question of whether Van Gaal stays or goes this summer is still up for debate is evidence of the ludicrous failings of the club to act decisively and based on the evidence the whole world can see. The manager could go on to scrape fourth place and even win the FA Cup, but he has still abjectly failed Manchester United and its supporters. There are no coherent arguments for his retention. Even the suggestion that he has developed youth is built on sand. Aside from Rashford and Fosu-Mensah where are these young prodigies? Where has Varela gone? What of Januzaj and Pereira? Van Gaal remains adamant that Wayne Rooney starts regardless when fit, so that will surely be curtains for Rashford, if he isn’t ‘disappeared’ for his quiet half on Sunday.
United have now backed themselves into a corner. By not making the tough decisions in December, or any point since then, they’ve almost certainly cost themselves a place in the Champions League and lost the tens of millions of pounds in revenues that brings, millions more than they will save under the terms of Van Gaal’s contract should he miss top four. In terms of a replacement they have let things get so bad that Jose Mourinho is the only option, as unpalatable as that may be. Sunday’s hatched job on Van Gaal by Duncan Castles, Jose Mourinho’s go-to hack, interviewing Nani in the Sunday Times, is evidence enough that the deal for the Portuguese is not yet done. United appear to be stringing him along just in case Woodward can’t find an excuse to keep a manager whose fortunes reflect upon him. As for the fanbase, they have become increasingly disengaged from the club and its fortunes to a degree where, for many, defeat no longer hurts. Watching United has long since stopped a pleasurable experience, even when they win. United have had 46 shots in target in their last 17 games league games, the fifth lowest total in and only 10 more than Aston Villa, probably the worst team in Premier League history. As a neutral friend commented to me yesterday, ‘I can’t remember the last time I watched an entertaining United game’. Neither can I, mate.