I went to University a long time ago, in a Galaxy far far away. Some people call it Birmingham. It was so long ago that United had only just started winning Premier League titles and Liverpool had only just started not winning them. In the third year I lived in a house with three Pool fans, which was quite funny as Fergie’s boys kept beating them, as they did throughout what I like to call my ‘three year bar-crawl’. I went through a period that year when I couldn’t sleep. I’ve no idea why and it’s never been a problem since. One of my friends, Iain, suggested that when I went to bed I did what he did and think about football. He would drift away contemplating how Liverpool could get back to being the best (as he was sure they would), who they could sign and how good Michael Owen could be. It makes me chuckle, because I bet he still does the same, when his children let him sleep (barring the Owen part). As amusing as it is to look back on, he struck on why football is such an addictive, hypnotic game. It doesn’t matter how bad your side is, how mind-numbingly boring or ineffective, there’s always the potential for a better future or a better performance next week. Those who completely lose hope tend to drift away, having reached a tipping point which Louis Van Gaal’s stupefying team have pushed so many so close to this season.
En route to the Europa League game on Wednesday I did some brief prep for an interview I’m carrying out for the Red Voices Podcast this afternoon. I ended up with a good structure for questioning our guest interviewee. 90% of the questions related to Louis Van Gaal’s mistakes, the state of the squad and how long we’d have to wait for him to be banished to another dimension. So, to Old Trafford, and United went a goal down to FC Midtjylland, whose name I can now spell perfectly without Google. The crowd groaned and held their head in hands. So much for that. Did that mean he’d finally be gone now? And then something odd happened. United didn’t fold or let the game drift away, as they so often have. Memphis Depay was ON IT and soon we were level, only for Mata to miss a penalty to level the score on aggregate. More groans. But the second half was a revelation, both for Depay and the impressive Marcus Rashford, who replaced Anthony Martial, injured in the warm-up (more groans) and struck home two impressive finishes. With Joe Riley doing very well at left back it was quite a day for the now vastly neglected academy. Herrera added a fourth from the penalty spot and Memphis, putting in the single finest individual United performance I’ve seen in the flesh since Ronaldo left, drilled in a fifth. Well that was a pleasant surprise.
Post-match, as we waited in the car for endless streams of young children in high-vis jackets to be led across John Gilbert Way, on Talksport Jason Cundy exclaimed very loudly, over and over, that Rashford and United had only done ‘it’ against a second rate European side and the fans should neither get excited nor optimistic for the weekend game against Arsenal. He was wrong on the former. Watching a Mancunian academy graduate score twice in his debut when nothing was expected of him is hard to beat. I felt a level of pride similar to that experienced when Danny Welbeck thunder-bastarded his first league goal in a 5-0 win over Stoke, or when he scored the winner at the Emirates in Fergie’s penultimate season. Oof. As for optimism, there was little danger of any of that if my head and my Twitter feed were anything to go by on Sunday morning.
So, Arsenal. No Smalling or Martial to add to an already silly injury list. More Rashford, plus Carrick at centre back and another 90 minutes of the increasingly assured Varela at right back. Another 90 minutes of Memphis. So there we were, feeling mostly pessimism, with a tiny bit of hope hiding deep in the recesses of our minds. And what happened? United were ace, Arsenal were not, United won, Arsenal did not, Rashford, scored twice again, Varela and Memphis (amongst others) shone again, Timothy Fosu-Mensah made his debut and Arsene Wenger slumped off moaning about all the money United had spent, ignoring the fact that he has lots of money but chooses not to spend it. It was heart-in-mouth stuff, but for the second game in a row, when they might have previously crumbled, the boys in red responded and stood firm. Fairytale events. We were even treated to Van Gaal actually moving his body and face during a match to protest to the fourth official, before throwing himself to the ground to mimic a challenge he felt was a dive. Surreal stuff.
So what does it all mean? We’re wise enough now to be cautious with our optimism. Every time it seems like it’s the end for Van Gaal he pulls just enough out of the fire to keep himself in a job. This week may have given him until the summer. Plenty have praised him for giving youth a chance, although the waters are a little murky. Would Rashford, Varela, Riley, Fosu-Mensah and others have got a look in without injuries? Wilson and Januzaj got little time to stake their claims, whilst Andreas Pereira still waits for a proper opportunity. In his defence, Van Gaal threw Cameron Borthwick-Jackson on for the first time in the home game against Chelsea when he didn’t have to and the youngster never looked back. There are shades of grey at play here. However, if he leaves little else, the Dutchman will have bequeathed a clutch of young players with Premier League experience and plenty of confidence to the next man, whoever that may be.
He will also leave the genius of Martial and the now ignited Memphis Depay. Some of the criticism the latter has received in recent weeks has been absolutely ludicrous. You could see he was a player devoid of confidence, like so many of his teammates, and a flair player with no confidence is worth little to their team. Anyone who had watched Memphis for PSV last season knew the talent he has and thank the baby Jesus that he’s showed his true self before the end of the season and a possible exit. Right now there are few players United and Van Gaal need more, particularly with a filthy European tie against Liverpool to come.
Whilst little changes for United medium term, in my opinion, with Van Gaal still heading for a summer exit, we suddenly have a little more hope, to keep our interest and send us to sleep. With Liverpool losing the evil-off with City at Wembley immediately after United’s game it might have been Iain who struggled to slumber on Sunday night.