You can tell a lot about a football team and its manager by how it responds to adversity. Title-chasing Tottenham Hotspur, under the impressive Mauricio Pochettino have rescued 18 points this season in the Premier League after going behind. There has been a flakiness about most of the English league this season, with only Leicester City consistently showing courage, composure and bravery in spades. Other sides at least have a little fight in them. This weekend three teams faced significant adversity in the form of being reduced to ten men. All trailed with a man less, yet two salvaged points and pride. The third achieved neither.
At White Hart Lane, after the sending off of Francois Coquelin, a recently gutless Arsenal side conceded two quick goals to trail Tottenham. Such a result would have finished their interest in the title race, but on this occasion they discovered their backbone, equalised through Alexis Sanchez and finished the game looking as likely to score as their hosts.
A day later, at Selhurst Park, Liverpool trailed Crystal Palace when their midfielder James Milner was sent off. Rather than allow the game to drift away, manager Jurgen Klopp was brave and proactive, bringing on Christian Benteke and setting his side up to go at their opponents. Eleven man Palace spent much of the rest of the game on the rack and whilst the penalty winner was deeply disputed the game was turned around. No one bar the most partial of observers could argue that they didn’t deserve to pull at least a point from the fire.
So, to the Hawthorns, as a Manchester United that had won only one of their last seven away games in the Premier League faced West Brom. Anthony Martial had an early shot on target for the away side, after which little happened until Juan Mata’s silly 26th minute sending off for two bookable offences. Like Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp before him, that red card could not be blamed on Louis Van Gaal. What would reflect on him is how his team responded from that point. The game drifted until half time with little incident at either end. After the break, with Martial proving to be a dangerous outlet and with United looking a little more progressive in midfield things were perhaps looking up. Van Gaal, however, had seen enough and removed his most creative, energetic midfielder, Ander Herrara, and replaced him with the more defensive Morgan Schneiderlin. The leggy, slow and struggling Michael Carrick stayed on. Within four minutes Rondon had scored for the hosts and the game was over. United had continued to play as they had all match – as if they led 1-0 with ten minutes remaining – and the game drifted away. How often have I written that this season? There was no fight, no imagination, no guts, no basic competence. West Brom played poorly and still won. United were outclassed and outfought by a poor side playing poorly.
In defence, Darmian, who had been recalled for the bright Uruguayan Varela, was abject at every facet of the game, whilst Blind’s defensive weaknesses were once again exposed. What was most frightening was that as the red card was held aloft the team and their manager looked as if they’d been given a ready-made excuse for losing. They are a team without leaders, without character, without guts and without fight. As someone opined on social media, with Rojo, Darmian, Smalling, Carrick and Lingard back, “the closer this gets to Van Gaal’s ideal team the worse it gets”. It was a match which epitomised the Dutchman’s time at the club. The house that Louis built, as passive as joyless as the man supposed to be leading it from the bench. There was no Plan B as Plan A drifted into nothingness. With the exception of Rashford there were no youngsters here to bail him out, on the pitch and under questioning afterwards. He had dropped two of the brightest and hungriest to recall his tired, bored old guard.
After the game it was a familiar routine. Michael Carrick trotted out the same old line about how such performances are ‘unacceptable’ and that the players wanted to put things right for the fans. Vacuous garbage. Van Gaal was full of excuses. Mata, he said, should not have been sent off because of his ‘characteristics’, a completely nonsensical point when laws are supposed to be applied evenly. Then the red card excuse:
“We’ve played 60 mins with 10 men, it’s very difficult to play against 11 players I think that’s why we lost.”
He said, without addressing the fact that his side didn’t have a shot on target after the second minute of the game and that two teams had already saved points with ten men that very weekend.
And so we find ourselves having come full circle in the cycle of Van Gaal once again. It goes something like this:
Dire, dire, dire, dire win, dire win, dire, dire, dire, boo, dire, dire win, dire win, dire, dire, boo, dire, dire, dire, boo, injuries dictating team selection, decent, decent, hope, hope, dire, dire, boo, excuses, Mourinho, speculation about sacking, crocodile tears, sympathy, backing from above, job safe, cocky, dire, dire, dire win, dire, dire, dire, dire, …….
I’m often accused of hyperbole, and often my accusers are probably right, so I’ll turn to author, columnist and long time United watcher and fan Wayne Barton, the most measured of men, who on social media stated:
“Once again the most worrying thing is that United are losing to a mid-table side who have not had to be anywhere near their best. In a season where we’ve become accustomed to new lows on almost a weekly basis, we’ve been treated to a new level of dreadfulness here. Shambolic in defence, awful in possession and absolutely no response whatsoever to going a goal down. The worst United team in memory”
What else can be said? The predictability of it all simply adds to the pain. With top four in sight, with rivals having dropped points, a win at the Hawthorns was as vital as it had been at Sunderland. The result was the same. A total bottle-job. An unnecessary goal conceded by the ‘defence’ that Louis built, a lack of creativity from the ‘midfield’ that Louis built and a struggling front four (later three) that Louis built, with lots of money. Indeed, only goalkeeper De Gea is not of his design, the goalkeeper who has probably kept United in the top half of the table this season. Without him it’s not inconceivable that this side could have been fighting relegation. This is Van Gaal’s side, assembled at great cost. Before the match the Dutchman stated that this team is better than last year’s version. If we ignore the fact that it has less points, is two places lower and plays worse football then he may have a point. He also bemoaned the football played in the win over Arsenal the week before as being too open and risky. Whatever, a great test of a team is how it responds to adversity. In this case his team reverted to type. This season United have been behind in 10 Premier League matches. The outcomes of those games? W1 D1 L8. 4 points rescued from losing positions. It’s no wonder that one team is in a title race, the other drifting towards mid-table oblivion, one manager heading for great things, the other for the scrap heap. United are as old, tired and out of ideas as their leader.
In season 13/14 all hopes of a revival fell on the young shoulders of Adnan Januzaj. It was an appalling situation for the young Belgian to develop in. Youth needs breathing space to learn, free from the pressure to immediately perform and win games. Januzaj’s career has since stalled alarmingly. Van Gaal, by virtue of his small, utterly inadequate squad has engineered the very same scenario. Suddenly the weight of the world is on Marcus Rashford’s shoulders, as it has been on Anthony Martial’s all season. It is a toxic situation for young players to develop in. And where are their supposed experienced role models? Capitulating gutlessly at West Brom, as usual. Getting their excuses in early and fading away in the face of adversity.