There was a point in the first half of Sunday’s FA Cup tie with West Ham United when, having recovered the ball from the away side, Ander Herrera drove towards their penalty area. Always positive on the ball, the Spaniard approached the right hand corner of the area and looked up to survey his options. The visitors had partially recovered their positioning and there were seven men between the ball and goal. Amongst the sea of pale blue shirts stood Marcus Rashford, alone, whilst five yards to the right of the ball carrier loitered Jesse Lingard, stationary, on his heels. The seconds ticked on as Herrera and the watching fans waited for reinforcements to surge into the final third. Except they didn’t. No one committed forward, took a chance. Eventually Herrera checked and passed backwards into midfield and momentum was lost.
It was a passage of play which epitomised Van Gaal’s United, cautious and devoid of confidence, waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. First halves are a particular chore, as his team pass sideways across the pitch and back, waiting on the off-chance that the entire opposition team run into each other, fall unconscious and the ball can be rolled into the empty net. It took 57 minutes for United to register a shot on target and by full time they had mustered only two. That was one more than they’d managed in the absolutely abject surrender at Anfield three days earlier and took the total from over three hours of football against West Ham at Old Trafford this season to three. It defies belief.
After West Ham took the lead through a quite sublime Payet free kick, United suddenly found some urgency. Reactive, not proactive. Attack when the damage is done. Bastian Schweinsteiger came on and added some much needed drive to proceedings and finally Herrera crossed for Martial to poke home at the far post. A deserved reward for the assist provider and the goalscorer. The game then drifted away, although West Ham looked the stronger in the final minutes. A 1-1 draw and a replay at Upton Park. Given that United have now lost more away games than any season since 1989/90 and have won only one of their last nine on the road, there will be little confidence of a positive outcome.
Particularly if Thursday is a pointer. United’s surrender at Anfield was as predictable as it was shocking. One team was hungry and vibrant, the other cowed and introverted. One was confident on the ball and in the tackle, the other meek and frail. As Michael Carrick’s miss-pass fell to a red shirt in the penalty area and the ball was rolled to Firmino for the simplest of finishes, it rather summed this team up: scared on the ball, scared off the ball, unable to retain the ball under pressure and afraid to be positive with it even if it can. The only reason the scoreline was not more emphatic was David De Gea. It is terrifying to imagine where United would be without him this season and where they might be without him next season if he gets his move back to Spain. There will be little of the animosity towards him this summer that fans felt about his impending departure last year. He is a world class goalkeeper who has kept his team’s head above water for three years. He deserves better, to play at a club who have aspirations to anything but making money, who have the desire and competence to win trophies and compete in the Champions League. He is now wasting his days at Old Trafford.
After the West Ham game Louis Van Gaal praised his team’s performance and declared that it was a ‘good result’ after a ‘nasty week’. If ever there was a sentence which showed what his United have become it is that. An FA Cup quarter final draw at home in a season in which the competition is now wide open is a ‘good result’. Fergie looks more disgusted with every match he watches and must have shaken his head at that comment. Van Gaal is now in full on Moyes mode, talking as if he is manager of Sunderland, not Manchester United. The Dutchman also declared that he was disappointed in United fans cheering his substitution of Marouane Fellaini, who was abject once again. Not half as disappointed as the fans are in him for continually picking the immobile, inelegant, poorly coordinated, lumbering oaf in midfield. At Anfield he declared him United’s best player. We can only laugh now because the alternative is to sit in a corner sobbing.
United now have a fearsome few weeks and it is hard to forecast anything but desperate, prolonged pain. The FA Cup draw allows Van Gaal to continue to claim that he is competing in three competitions whilst dashing the hopes of those who would desperately love to see this wretched tenure end. The manager appears to have reacted to his own failings by retreating into a neverworld, currently inhabited by Comical Ali, where there is most definitely ‘nothing to see here’. In his pre-match press conference on Friday he declared that his plan is most definitely working:
“I think it’s working because you have to see how it works, with circumstances it has to work, When you don’t have many players [because of injuries] and have to play in three competitions, it’s difficult to play. But you (the press) are now very negative. So you think that when you see [the Liverpool game] that we have played like that for all of the season? It’s not giving the best results, but I think it’s working – yes. I don’t want to hide behind the injuries but we are still in three competitions, we can fight for a lot. We still have the chance to win something. You have to believe in that – a lot of [other managers] are not in three competitions anymore.”
That’s right, his plan is working, even though results and performances are terrible and have declined from last season. He doesn’t want to blame injuries but blames injuries, despite choosing to have a small squad, and then falls back on the ‘three competitions’ line. Fortunately the latter may soon be over. United now have City, West Ham and Spurs away from home and Liverpool and Everton at home in their next five. It could all get very, very messy indeed.
If there are any positives to be taken from this whole cluster-f**k then they must surely revolve around the wonderful talent of Anthony Martial, a star in the making. However, his talent continues to emphasise the lack of quality in the rest of the squad. At 20 he is his team’s best outfield player by a country mile. The rest are largely a sea of averageness, a testament to a club with no vision or strategy in the transfer market. They are better than we are seeing, but the squad is still woefully short. Guillermo Varela has proven to be a useful find (offensively at least) at right back and was perhaps man of the match on Sunday, but there are few other positive stories. The argument that Van Gaal had at least improved the defence has now been cruelly exposed as Blind and Smalling continue to struggle. Reports of the latter’s rise to greatness were premature, whilst the former just simply does not have the attributes to excel at centre back. The midfield is laboured and poor on the ball whilst there is little cutting edge or deadly finishing further forward. The road back from here is a very long and painful one, although Mourinho could paper over the cracks whilst the foundations are being rebuilt (if there is the nous or willingness to rebuild them).
With no positive legacy to pass to the next man, Van Gaal continued what now looks to be a cynical policy of promoting youth. RoShaun Williams made the matchday squad on Sunday, the latest in a conveyor belt of academy players featuring in and around the first team. It is as if all that the manager has left to keep the fans onside is to include young players, and should they develop into vital first teamers in future the Dutchman can claim the credit for giving them a chance. The reality is, however, that they rarely get on the pitch unless their inclusion is a necessity. On Sunday, with Juan Mata suspended, the opportunity was there to play Adnan Januzaj or Andreas Pereira at number ten. Instead Van Gaal shifted Herrera forward and included Fellaini once again. What must they think, seeing the hopeless oaf blundering around at the expense of their own careers? Probably the same as us.
Two months to go.