This has been an absolutely bizarre season and I hereby give up on trying to predict where Louis Van Gaal’s United side is going. I have no idea. Months of slow, painful, ineffective possession football passed with a top four place still within our grasp. We told ourselves that this was all part of the ‘process’ of Van Gaalification. He knows what he’s doing and would get it right in the end, despite some odd tactics, formations and substitutions. These were all necessary steps on the road to total football, innit? And then s*** clicked and for a few glorious games we had our team back, a graceful, poetic, joyous, world class ensemble, tactically and technically slaying our biggest rivals. We purred as the hunt for fourth place became a fight for second. Liverpool were shot, as was my own load.
And then we played Chelsea and lost. It was a little harsh, but that sneaky mofo Mourinho nailed his team’s tactics, defended compactly, nullified the threats of Fellaini and Mata and exposed United on the counter. Pragmatism trumped philosophy. With Carrick injured and Rooney back in midfield the magic was gone and the brilliance of Eden Hazard won the day. But it was ok. We gave a good account of ourselves and won the passing. There was nothing to panic about. The balletic football would return at Goodison.
Of course, it didn’t, but Roberto Martinez, the self-satisfied t***, had been watching the game at Stamford Bridge and taken note of the evil ways of the mofo. He threw his Everton team out with a near identical plan and United were utterly destroyed on the counter-attack. That was worrying. Van Gaal seemingly had no response. But even this wasn’t the end of the world. The inevitable three points against West Brom would set us back on track.
And then THAT happened. From playing the best, most incisive football in the division United have regressed to a predictable mess, devoid of purpose or belief. The paucity of quality in the final third in the defeat to The Baggies was a little disturbing. Tony Pulis copied Mourinho and Martinez and again pragmatism won the day. The nature of the defeat was almost Moyesesque. This was Van Gaal’s ‘Fulham’. United had 81% possession. 81%! They passed and passed and passed and crossed and scrambled and toiled and missed and sunk deeper and deeper into a pit of despair. The conviction which characterised that month long utopia has gone. Half chances came and went, a couple of glaring misses and a saved penalty, but the almost total ownership of the ball was of little use when forward progress was so slow, allowing a cautious and resolute West Brom to defend their penalty area from p*** poor crosses and over-intricate approach play. The sucker punch was delivered via a deflection following the giving away of a silly free-kick on the edge of the area, but whilst openings were spurned the response was too little too late. United were ponderous, with little tempo or sense of urgency in their play.
A side that has now gone nearly five hours without a goal looks to have had the stuffing utterly ripped out of it. Five hours is a f****** long time. Confidence is on the floor and Van Gaal has failed to find an answer to sides who have exposed his team’s weaknesses. The “Rooney in midfield” experiment has long since been exposed as epic tw*ttery and yet here we were, the same shortcomings that we knew would result staring us in the face once again. In desperation, as the match drew to a painful close, Fellaini was thrown up front and Van Persie found himself in midfield with United’s only other competent striker. Of the 11 who finished the game 6 could be said to be playing out of position. Van Gaal gave the impression that, not for the first time this season, he was trying to be a smart ar*e. Nobody likes a smart a***. It was bizarre. On Twitter @beardedgenius humorously summed up the mood regarding the manager:
“Van Gaal seems intent on making fools out of everyone. He proves everyone wrong. Then proves everyone right after they’ve apologised.”
One or two games can be coincidental, but three consecutive defeats for the first time in eons against sides all playing in exactly the same way is a significant trend. Currently Van Gaal doesn’t seem to have a f****** clue what to do. Unquestionably he is working with a squad with massive flaws, exposed by only two or three injuries to important players. But whose fault is that after £150m was spent in the summer? The loss of Carrick has robbed this team of class, direction and positive intent and there is no-one at the club who is capable of even competently deputising. Going forward there is a lack of pace and power and the inadequate defence has been exposed due to the loss of senior players of only modest talent. West Brom offered little going forward, but a naive challenge by Paddy McNair on the edge of the box proved decisive.
Those who have played, from front to back, have been desperately poor in the last two games. Regardless of systems and flaws there was more than enough talent in that starting eleven to beat a side who lost 4-1 at home to QPR. At least against Everton and Chelsea one could say that United were defeated by some class. There was nothing remarkable about this West Brom side, no great talents or weapons with which to inflict serious damage. They were patsies on the road to inevitable Champions League qualification. And yet United contrived to lose, and for all of the possession, territorial dominance and reasonable chances three points always seemed to be just out of reach. The deflection for the goal was cruel, but this was not ‘just one of those days’. This was something about which ŵe should be genuinely concerned. There was a lack of creativity and guile with which to break down a massed defence and an alarming profligacy when chances finally presented themselves. Had the first goal fallen to the home side then it is easy to imagine that an avalanche may have ensued, but United were flat before the winning strike and responded only with a late, desperate flurry of pressure. The bubble had clearly burst and confidence visibly drained from the players.
This is a team in the s***, one which made great strides towards reaching the lofty standards of old but which is now collapsing in the face of adversity. The question now is whether Van Gaal and his players can dig themselves out of the sizeable hole into which they have fallen. All of the good work of recent weeks is being slowly undone. Liverpool remain four points behind and face a tough trip to Chelsea. The Premier League trophy is already at Stamford Bridge and it is impossible to know how the home team will respond to the pressure being off. There is no love lost between Mourinho and Liverpool and he will doubtless pick a side to win. Regardless, United can all but finish the job by winning at Crystal Palace. The snag is that Palace will play in exactly the same way that Chelsea, Everton and West Brom have done, and in Bolasie and Zaha they have the players who can cause havoc on the counter-attack. Van Gaal and his side remain in credit after their short but scintillating run, but they cannot afford any more slip ups. The Dutchman needs to find an answer before next weekend. Sending players out in their natural positions would be a start, and perhaps there needs to be an acceptance that with this squad and with these injuries United may temporarily need to be more pragmatic.
Three weeks ago I wrote about how United were developing into a team which could challenge for second this season and the title next year. How wrong was I? They’ve made me look a right d***, which, in fairness, I am. But still. The collapse from that point has been astounding. Absolutely remarkable. Suddenly the final three games of the season fill us with dread. This United, playing as it is, could get violated next weekend, and by Arsenal the following week. Absolutely flayed. But it is not impossible that the magic may return as swiftly as it departed, enveloping us out of nowhere as it did once before. It needs to, because losing a Champions League spot from a position in which they had an 8 point cushion with 5 games remaining would be an unprecedented cluster-f*ck. It would suck the life out of the team and the club, make player recruitment harder and raise serious questions about Van Gaal’s competence. Regardless, he will get another season to work with a squad of his construction, but this is a pivotal few weeks for the club which could shape the summer’s recruitment and the team’s title chances next year. Old Trafford will be a grim place if United f*** it up from here.
One piece of potentially positive news came with reports that David De Gea is set to sign a new two year contract, clearly with the intention of staying one more year. Given that he could have left for free next summer we should be grateful that he has shown some class and guaranteed United a decent fee when he finally returns to Spain. He is the one player currently at the club who could be described as the best in the world in his position and Champions League football would not have been a likely achievement this season without him. If reports are correct, for one more year, Dave saves. Thank you Dave, for saving so much. I love you. Please don’t leave me, ever.