A ‘routine victory’. That’s a phrase which used to be very familiar to United fans. Cannon-fodder would trot out at Old Trafford, subconsciously accepting defeat before a ball had even been kicked and rolled over to have their tummy tickled. This rarely happens anymore, partly due to the circumstances which led to a drop in standards at United as the Glazer ownership finally took its toll on recruitment post-2009, but mainly due to epic thunder-disaster that was David Moyes. The Scot took a title winning squad and turned them into big fat losers. Occasionally he’d oversee a routine victory, but largely because his title-winning players hadn’t totally forgotten what it took to win those titles, glimpses of the past forcing their way into their consciousness through the sea of boredom and capitulation, on board the HMS Surrender, of which Moyes was Captain. “Yessir, Captain Moyes. We’ll play for a draw at home to Newcastle.” He couldn’t even manage that, the useless t*at.
So in came Captain Aloysuis Paulus Maria van Gaal, a mighty oak to Moyes tomato plant. And things improved, a place in the Champions League regained, but, alas, the routine victory did not become more commonplace. Indeed, throughout the Dutchman’s first season at the helm there were only four victories by three goals or more, and one of those was against League Two Cambridge United. There were few dominant romps, bar the victories over QPR, Hull and Spurs. Now don’t get me wrong, those games were funtime to watch, and in a season of stress and massacred fingernails they were welcome, but four really isn’t enough for Manchester United. I’m 39, was spoilt as a kid by my parents and have been spoilt since 1990 by my football team, so I throw my toys out quite easily. But no-one thought four was enough. Closely fought wins are great after the event, but f*ck me they’re tough to watch. Victories over the best are an epic buzz, unlike anything else we experience as members of our screwed up human race, but there’s also definitely a place for the canter, a comfortable victory where feet can be put up, a beer can be slowly supped and appreciated and the constituent parts of the team can be savoured. The regularity of these stress free occasions has been unacceptable.
Which brings me on to this week. Prior to the League Cup game United’s season was a heart-attack in waiting. 1-0, 1-0, 0-0, 1-2, 3-1, 3-1, 1-2, 3-2. Both of the 3-1 victories were not sealed until the final minutes of the matches. It’s been f*cking hard work. But there had been a standout result, the first routine victory of the season, 4-0 in Belgium against Club Brugge. It whetted the appetite, an oasis of calm amidst a sea of cardiac failure. But then came Ipswich and the strange, walking Yorkshire stereotype that is Mick McCarthy, pronounced in my head like I’ve spent most of my life down a coal mine near Barnsley. I can never work out if he’s a good manager or not. In some places, like Ireland, he’s been great, in others total tosh. I struggle to believe that anyone who talks like that can be a capable football manager.
Anyway, I digress. McCarthy made the odd decision to field his stiffs at Old Trafford, which was extremely charitable of him. Van Gaal, wary of the abject humiliation that was last season’s 4-0 defeat at MK Dons, fielded a strong team. He had to really because he’s sold everyone else. The only gripe was the continuing exclusion of James Wilson, who the manager recently persuaded to sign a new contract. If Louis won’t play him at home against Ipswich in an irrelevant cup competition then when will he? He wasn’t even on the bench. There was, however, a first start for Andreas Pereira, who did his future prospects no harm at all by putting in a fine performance, capped by a terrific goal from a free kick. Just as importantly, two other people scored too, the hapless and desperately in need of confidence Wayne Rooney and the totally unflappable and quite brilliant Anthony Martial. 3-0. ROUTINE VICTORY.
Then, on Saturday, came Sunderland, one partner in a two-team racket intent on doubling suicide rates in the North East. They came, they saw, they were sh*te, they went home. United, edging back towards regaining what pundits often call their ‘aura’, didn’t really have to try very hard. After 48 minutes of kicking at the doors of the parked bus, just as it looked like we might all be a bit peeved at half time by the lack of creative quality, Blind played a delicious diagonal pass over the top of the Sunderland defence and Mata and Depay did the rest. And the resistance was over. Rooney got a second after half time, having played quite abysmally for the first forty-five minutes. The goal seemed to reboot his software and his second half performance was much improved. So, at 2-0 it was time to drag out the pouffe, savour our can of Special Brew rather than compulsively glugging it and appreciate the football. Late in the game, knowing that not scoring again would enrage me, Juan Mata struck, making it yet another ROUTINE VICTORY. Praise be to God. Two in a week and three by the end of September! Party in my pants. To top it all off United suddenly found themselves first in the Premier League, after City’s loltastic defeat at Spurs. Heady days indeed.
Of course, this probably won’t last as United enter a run of fixtures that would have Moyes calling the FA and Premier League in tears, p*ssed off his head and babbling about some sort of bizarre computer-tampering conspiracy. Quite frankly, a single routine victory over Everton, Arsenal, City, Palace or CSKA Moscow would be rather terrific. Most likely, they’re all going to be ar*e-twitchers. Wolfsburg at home seems as good a chance as any, particularly after their 5-1 scalping by Robert Lewandowski FC and a subsequent home 1-1 draw with Hannover. United are better than Hannover. But yes, I appreciate that United are not as good as Robert Lewandowski. On his own. Still, definitely winnable by a reasonable margin. Imagine completing a hattrick of ROUTINE WINS. I think I’d come over all faint and have a ‘moment’.
Regardless, routine wins seem to be back in fashion for United, and I take that as a good sign. Playing stodgily and still winning by three goals is a real positive, regardless of the opposition. Makes you wonder how good United would be if they actually ‘clicked’. A few more walk-overs coupled with decent results against the Premier League’s better sides and it would start feeling all ‘Fergie’. My suspicion is that Van Gaal’s team isn’t ready for that, but the routine wins are a step in the right direction. The same holes in the squad remain and United look at least two players away from being a balanced, top-class side, aesthetically and in terms of results. Regardless, Old Trafford needs to become a fortress again, and I need to stop using terrible football cliches. One out of two won’t be bad.