Dave Sexton. Anyone remember him? Only the clapped out old duffers I’d imagine, one of whom I am fast becoming. Dave was a nice bloke. Dave was David Moyes, but English and his football was even more boring. Dave S got sacked at United after winning his last 8 games in charge. It would bring United an 8th placed finish in League Division One after being runners up to Liverpool the previous year. Results were not great, but for the United of the time, and in the decade which would follow, they were not disastrous. Indeed, Sir Alex would finish 2nd to Liverpool in 1987/88 only to slump to a miserable, painful 11th placed finish the following season. The 13th place the following season was only rescued by beating Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final.
Dave S got to the FA Cup final, losing 3-2 to Arsenal in what become known as the ‘five minute final’. In the context of what had come in the decade proceeding his time at United Sexton had performed, results wise, pretty close to par. He had found the going tough as he tried what his immediate predecessors Frank O’Farrell and Tommy Docherty had failed to do, to regenerate an ageing squad and rebuild the club into the best in England. Docherty was well liked by many of the fans, even though he had led the club to a historic relegation in 1974. He would oversee United’s promotion back to Division One the following season in buccaneering style and would take them to two FA Cup finals, one a defeat to Second Division Southampton and the other a win over Liverpool. Docherty was flamboyant and charismatic and the football his side’s played was largely fun. He loved wingers and endeavour. Unfortunately he also like rumping the club physio’s wife, the dirty dawg, and he was excommunicated when his illicit liaisons was made public.
Dave S was considered a safe pair of hands and an easier, more placid character to work with. And indeed he was. Results were usually competent or better. His greatest problem was that the football that his side played rather matched his character: safe, conservative, controlled, free from risk or adventure. That wouldn’t do for the club and, most importantly, that wouldn’t do for the fans, so out he went. The thing for which he is most often remembered was the signing of Garry Birtles from Nottingham Forest for £1.25m, a vast sum for the time, after a prolific 5 years at Nottingham Forest. Birtles failed to score a single goal in his first season at the club and would go on to net 11 times in his 2 years in Manchester. Dave S came under considerable pressure as a result of his star striker’s inability to score, noting at the time that whilst the goals were not forthcoming he was playing ‘very well’ and contributing significantly to the team.
Can you see where I’m going with all of this?
Fast forward to full time at Selhurst Park last Saturday, United’s third 0-0 draw in succession. This is a sequence which Michael Crick noted has only happened three times in the club’s history, in 1921 and in 2005, and neither of those previous sequences included thirty minutes extra time. Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United, augmented by over £300m worth of talent, has not scored a goal for well over 5 hours. Five. Hours. At Palace United simply did not deserve to score. Two half chances aside it was all Crystal Palace, Alan Pardew setting his side up to play with two pacy, exciting wingers who tore at United’s full-backs. Matteo Darmian, short on confidence not talent, got another fearful skinning. Indeed, had the home side been able to finish the game could have ended 2/3-0 in their favour, a score line which would have been thoroughly deserved. United, for their part, tried to aimlessly pass the ball around in safe areas, but weren’t even much good at that, bar a period during the 1st half. There was no creativity, tempo or excitement. It was bilge. Again.
It left LVG’s team with 1 win, 4 draws and 1 defeat from their last 6, with only 4 goals scored, contributing to a season’s total of only 15 from 11 games. Only one of those performances, at Everton, was above a level of general competence. It is painful to watch. Statistics should always be treated with caution, but some are perhaps telling. United have had less shots on goal this season than all but one Premier League club. Their passes per goal ratio is significantly higher than any other club in the division. They play more backwards and sideways passes than any other club and rank 19th for ‘key’ passes played. For a team considered to play a high-possession ‘philosophy’, according to Squawka, United average 55% possession, 2nd in the Premier League behind Manchester City, who have a lot of possession because they are good, not because they consciously try to dominate the ball. They attack with purpose and danger. United, for a team trying to dominate possession are clearly failing to even achieve that, and when they do the team struggle to convert it into meaningful chances. There is no defending it. It’s dull, pathetic bilge. The game against City was marginally better, but even then, facing a weakened side, the first worthwhile chance created in open play was Lingard’s late effort off the bar. There seems to be a greater desire to avoid losing than there is to win.
Sexton paid for boring performances with his job. Van Gaal is a very different man, oozing charisma and ego. As a personality most United fans love him, but there is a huge discrepancy between the man and the football his team play. Watching his side sucks the life out of our souls. It has been argued that whilst the team isn’t great to watch results have improved. It’s an interesting claim, because the statistics do not necessarily bear it out. United have 21 points this season. Last year, when comparing the games against the same opponents at the same venues, those fixtures produced 25 points and 11 more goals. The club sits in 4th, exactly where it finished last year and is 4 points behind the leaders. Were current results trends to continue the final gap to the leaders would be around 14, compared to 17 last season. Is that progress?
The Carling Cup cannot be won, after that farcical night against Championship side Middlesborough. Nor can the Champions League, in which United have already demonstrated the degree of catch-up they need to play to match the quality of the likes of Barca, Real and Bayern. So that leaves an unlikely Premier League title or the lottery of the FA Cup. It would appear to be an outside bet that the club will finish this season, Van Gaal’s second, with a trophy. That alone may be bearable, but combined with the turgid, painful football we are being forced to endure it would simply be unacceptable. The fans don’t expect the team to win every week, but they want to be excited and entertained. It did not take long at Selhurst Park for the away fans to begin chanting “attack, attack, attack attack attack”, a refrain which is usually prompted when the side is considered to be playing with too much caution and conservatism. That won’t do at United, but that is what we are being ‘treated’ to on a weekly basis.
The best chance at Palace fell to Wayne Rooney. Played through by a delightful pass from Anthony Martial, Rooney lumbered after the ball painfully slowly and was dismayed to see the advancing goalkeeper reach the ball before him and gratefully gather it up. Without a penalty area touch in his last two matches, the club Captain continues to desperately underperform and blunt his side’s attack. His occasional goals mask consistently dreadful performances and yet only Rooney seems exempt from the usual consequences of such poor form. When asked about it, Van Gaal has repeatedly stated that the player is performing “very good” and that he has no concerns about his contribution. It all sounds rather like Dave Sexton’s defence of Birtles, but with the Dutchman’s dubious English grammar replacing the “well” with “good”. Indeed, the whole tedious mess stinks of Dave Sexton’s time at United, albeit that Van Gaal has had, comparatively and taking into account transfer fee inflation, far more money to spend than the affable Londoner. Sexton couldn’t pull the wool over the fans’ eyes and neither can Van Gaal. Much more of this and the Dutchman will be very lucky indeed to see out his three year contract, let alone reconsider retirement and extend it, particularly if he fails to see the error of his ways and continues to wear a millstone around his neck, one with the face of Wayne Mark Rooney carved into it.