Many people think that I like to moan. They’re right. Not wanting to disappoint, I shall moan for the second, third and fourth paragraphs of this week’s The Week at United but, in the spirit of all things bright and beautiful I shall then devote the remaining words to things of loveliness. Fair? I think so, so I shall begin…
Since last you read my tedious prose United have won two very important games indeed. Yay. Bizarrely, given the paucity of anything remotely resembling devastating attacking football, we now find ourselves in pole position to qualify from the Champions League group stages and are a mere two points off the top of the Premier League. Such is the strangeness of this season’s division that Leicester City are above us and Jamie Vardy, that toady little weasel who dived for a penalty against United last year which turned the match, finds himself one game away from breaking Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record for scoring in ten consecutive fixtures. If ever a stat demonstrated the lack of quality in this year’s league it is that. Should he net next week he will have the chance to move clear of the Dutchman against United at whatever the hell Leicester’s ground is called this year. Arf. Anyway, the downside of LVG’s side is that, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is deathly boring. Scoring has become an epic trial, usually in the second half if a goal comes at all, and watching the team sloooowwwllllyyy build whilst the opposition funnel back to create a perfect ten-man wall is getting beyond annoying. It is an exercise in repeatedly banging one’s head up against a brick wall, by choice. Rooney’s header against CSKA ended a period of six and a half hours without a goal. The game, which produced a better performance than the four which preceded it, was an exercise in textbook box-to-box possession with virtually no quality, creativity or decisive finishing in the final third. With the exception of the goal, a thing of beauty. The match featured a significant amount of booing at LVG for his conservative tactics (two holding midfielders really isn’t necessary against an average team who came looking for a point) and renditions of, “We’re Man Utd, we want to attack.” And who can blame those who pay considerable amounts of money every week to watch something which, quite frankly, is becoming a bit of a trial. That’s me understating matters. LVG thought the boos were for the players and asked that they be directed at him instead. They were Louis, they were.
Fast forward to Saturday and another resilient, defensive visitor with little ambition to score or win the game. Again, two deep lying, slow midfielders, again lots of huff and puff and few chances, Mata’s early curler around the post excepted. At the break the Old Trafford faithful had witnessed their fifth half-time 0-0 of the season, in November. Onto the second half when, thankfully, United made the breakthrough (more on which to follow) and, with a tip o’ the hat to Saido Berahino’s fifty pence heed, went on to win 2-0. Mata’s penalty late on, after Martial had been set free by Herrera’s exquisite through ball, was very much deserved. That is substitute Ander Herrera, who again seems to be paying the price for missing one chance at Crystal Palace. If ever two games were made for his craft, creativity and goal threat from midfield it was these, but different rules apply to the Basque, particularly when compared to one of his attacking rivals. The three shots on target (including the penalty) achieved against West Brom now take United to a grand total of five in three league games. Samba football it ain’t.
So job done, to LVG’s credit, but the natives are still restless, entirely due to the nature of the football and paucity of excitement. Defenders of the Dutchman’s ‘philosophy’ claim that we forget how average some of the football was in Fergie’s final seasons, as the quality of the players at his disposal dropped with the Glazer debt biting hard. And they are right, or so it seemed at the time. A little bit of research suggests that all things are relative and usually compared to what came before. United currently have 17 league goals from 12 games. Should scoring continue at this rate they will finish the season with 53/54. Last year, also an exercise in creative boredom, the final total was 62. In that truly horrific year under the other Scot whose name I have vowed never to write in this blog ever again, United finished the season with 64. Back to Fergie and those poor quality final seasons. 2012/13 – 86, 2011/12 – 89, 2010/11 – 78. I think you get my point. The last time United scored less than 53 goals was in season 1989/90, when they finished 13th. So, this campaign to date we have witnessed the least potent United side in 26 years. The standard of Fergie’s later teams had dropped, but even with less quality the Scot’s offensive mindset and desire to always try to win remained strong. There is no question that Van Gaal would like his team to be more efficient in attack, but it just isn’t happening and one wonders how long his ‘process’ will take. Regardless, if he pulls off an unexpected title win this season’s lethargy will be lost on the history books, even if it isn’t in the minds of the fans.
Now, as promised, I shall turn to more pleasant matters. Firstly, to Jesse Lingard, whose surprise breakthrough has delighted us all. Those who watch the age-group United teams have long known that he was talented, but in his early twenties and with no promotion to the first team in sight it looked more likely that the Warrington lad would eventually leave, probably to a Championship club where he had had success on loan. His first start, against Swansea on the opening game of last season, saw him suffer a serious injury early in the game and that appeared to be his chance gone. However, Van Gaal kept him around and, with Memphis Depay struggling, he threw Lingard in to sink or swim. And swim he has, adding a directness to United’s attack at a time when it had virtually none. What has been impressive is his temperament. The first half of the CSKA game was not his best and nothing he tried seemed to come off. A half-time hooking would not have been unfair. But in the second half he never hid or stopped trying to be positive and to beat his man. In that game he would get his reward, caressing a beautiful volleyed cross to Rooney to head home. Then, on Saturday, as his team toiled, it looked like United would need something special to get the breakthrough. Step forward Lingard, controlling Chris Brunt’s poor clearing header and curling home from the edge of the area. A beautiful first senior goal and well deserved. Whether he can maintain his form and continue to play in such a direct style is not known. Van Gaal has a habit of grinding the joy out of his forward players. But Lingard has earned a starting spot, to the delight of United fans who love nothing more than to see one of our own proving to be a match-winner. He’s benefitted from circumstance, but has taken his chance. Well done Jesse!
Just as the inclusion of Lingard should buy LVG some credit, so too should his decision to bring on Cameron Borthwick-Jackson for Marcos Rojo in the closing stages on Saturday. The manager would later admit that he had only seen the 18 year old play ‘once or twice’ and had put his trust in Warren Joyce’s judgement. The youngster proved solid and calm. Much like Paddy McNair, Borthwick-Jackson’s promotion was something of a surprise, even taking into account his ability to cover at left back. Regardless, whilst there is much to be critical about under Van Gaal, his trust in youth is admirable and very much in keeping with the club’s traditions. Indeed, it is unlikely that you would have seen Sir Alex bringing him on in similar circumstances. This is the LVG paradox: conservative and cautious tactically, yet willing to risk a positive position by trying out an untested eighteen year old he’s hardly seen. Louis, you hurt my bonce.
Having moaned about United’s creativity and goal tally it is only fair that I praise his side’s defensive solidity. It has been quite some time since they conceded a goal, in Moscow against CSKA. I’m not sure how long ago that is, over 7 hours of football at least, but given the paucity of excitement in the subsequent games I can confirm that it certainly feels like a very long time ago indeed. With only 8 goals conceded, a predicted total of 25/26 would be fewest conceded since 2008/9. Whilst this is a product of conservatism and one benefit of the inclusion of two deep lying midfielders in almost every game, credit should also go to those performing outstandingly at the back. Most deserving of praise is Michael Smalling. Never have I seen a United centre back who I was less convinced would go on to become the leader of the back-line. He’s proven me spectacularly wrong and has been arguably the finest defender in the Premier League this season. I know it’s a ropey league for centre-backs like, but still. Added to the fact that one of the most unfortunate looking teens I have ever laid eyes on has gone on to biff a rather stunning looking glamour model, I think it’s safe to say that the boy done good. Mike, I salute you. Praise should also be handed out to Marcos Rojo, another who for some time failed to convince. Whilst I’m still not totally sold on him as a centre or left back his recent form in the latter position has been largely very good. Given that Louis recently wanted him banished from his sphere of existence that’s decent going.
And that’s that for another fortnight, until half of the squad come back from international duty with cruciate ligament injuries. Not Memphis Depay though, the Peruvian flautist who has been dropped from Danny Blind’s Holland squad for being rubbish. Which is fair. He’s got an awful lot of work to do to regain his place in both his international and club team. His cameo against CSKA was again an exercise in frustration. Never has a player with such physical and technical attributes had so little clue how to use them. It will come. I hope.