It has been the line used by fans all season to excuse the laboured, unimaginative, low quality dirge which has characterised Manchester United’s 2014/15 campaign: “We’re a work in progress.”
It’s an interesting excuse for dire, robotic, sterile football, particularly after the club and manager Louis Van Gaal spent £150m in the summer, one of the biggest transfer window outlays of any club in history. The key word in the sentence is ‘progress’. The dictionary definition of this is, ‘development towards an improved or more advanced condition’. Now, I don’t want to come across as a party pooper or anything, but in seven months this team hasn’t improved in the slightest. Not a jot. Occasionally it rises above competent, before settling back down into mediocrity again. It remains what it was in August, a dysfunctional, inhibited rabble, unsure of how to attack and how to defend. Van Gaal still seems not to know his best formation or first choice team and his players seem baffled by exactly what is required of them. There may have been a great deal of ‘work’, but there has been no ‘progress’. None whatsoever, which is bad juju.
The Arsenal FA Cup game felt, beforehand, like a season defining match. United have been stumbling along like a drunk for weeks (a drunk who’s p*ssed his pants but is hoping that no-one will notice, despite it being obvious to all who, appalled at the smell, look up and see his filthy, sodden trousers) clinging on to a top four spot by their fingernails during a run of games against the weaker sides in the Premier League. This was the first test in a run of inordinately hard matches that will define the season and the last chance of silverware. Before any game or series of games there’s always some hope, a dream that maybe an average team will suddenly burst out of its cocoon and develop into a beautiful butterfly. Last night demonstrated that there is no cocoon and there sure as f*ck isn’t a butterfly. United lost to Arsenal, at home, for two reasons, both of which will also be the reasons why a top four place is distinctly unlikely.
Firstly, they lost because, quite frankly, a large proportion of the players who make up the highest paid squad in English football, are very average indeed. This seems remarkable after the enormous summer outlay and the purchase of six shiny new footballers. All that money for a striker who can’t score, a talented young left-back who can’t stay fit, a versatile defender who is full of passion but would be a squad player at any other time, a talented midfielder who the manager doesn’t really seem to want very much, another midfielder who is neat and tidy but who takes too many touches, loses the ball too much and has the pace and turning circle of a mobility scooter and a star attacking midfielder who Van Gaal doesn’t seem to know what to do with. All that money, and the only thing keeping this side in the hunt for anything has been the goalkeeper, a man who looks likely to flee the moment someone accidentally leaves the front door unlocked. Who could blame him? A look at the remainder of the squad exposes alarming mediocrity. United lost to Arsenal because of a mistake by Antonio Valencia, a sh*t winger playing regularly at right back. He’s also a sh*t right back. Who knew? But it could have been any one of a number of players. Sometimes it’s Jonny Evans who is a clumsy starf*cker, sometimes Chris Smalling, sometimes Phil Jones. In fact, the vast majority of United’s defenders are a fifty-car motorway pile-up waiting to happen. When all is said and done in May it will be the failure to intelligently invest more in the defence that will have been the singly most damaging error should top four be missed. Looking elsewhere in the squad and the story is the same. Marouane Fellaini remains an aberration, Robin Van Persie a racehorse on its way to the glue factory. Juan Mata, £37m Juan Mata, a mercurial magician who can dazzle on home turf but once the team coach leaves Manchester can make himself disappear without a trace, is out of favour entirely. As is the one right back at the football club, Rafael. There is still quality in Rooney and promising players for the future in Januzaj, Herrera, Wilson and Shaw, but thereafter the well starts to run dry. The core of a good squad is there, but it is the supporting cast without the leading lights. Some of those mentioned would have an important role to play but are not players on whom United should be relying to win matches every week.
Which brings me on to the second contributory factor to this thunderc*nt of a season. That’s right pop-pickers, it’s Louis Van Gaal, the man for whom seven months of experimentation has resulted in his Plan B, wellying the ball to Marouane Fellaini, become his Plan A. All that time and money, and the best he has come up with is punt it to the lanky f*cker with the world-class chest control. Nevertheless, against Arsenal, the team were making a decent fist of the cards they had been dealt. The first half saw a tempo which stood out because, well, we’ve not seen it all season. It was fun, although somewhat hairy at times. Louis clearly couldn’t cope with all of the excitement though, so made two changes at half-time, taking off the wrong midfielder and replacing him with Michael Carrick to create the slowest, most laborious midfield partnership in all of human f*cking history, and subbing the struggling Luke Shaw for the perpetually calamitous Phil Jones. This meant moving his best centre-back to left-back. It made no sense. Much of what Van Gaal does makes no sense. The result was an inevitable loss of tempo and drive and Arsenal taking control and slowly tightening the noose. The winning goal looked increasingly inevitable, although you’d have hoped that the visitors would actually have had to work for it. Danny Welbeck scored it, another inevitability, prompting lots of very angry United fans to say very nasty things about him on social media. Classic projection of frustration about one thing into anger about another.
When it became clear that actual football was beyond them, United’s players then took to diving, another activity at which they are f*cking terrible. Januzaj followed Di Maria in spectacularly throwing himself to the ground. It was all rather embarrassing. The latter is getting a reputation for theatrics, so it is understandable that referees are becoming increasingly wary of giving him free-kicks when contact is not clear. He possibly deserved a free-kick just prior to his sending-off, but you can understand why the opposite decision was given. To then give the referee a shove was full on spaceman, so off he went and any hope of resurrecting the game went with him.
The loss leaves us drifting in the middle of the Pacific without a motor. This team doesn’t look good enough to take enough points from Spurs, Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League. Without David De Gea it would be floating somewhere in upper mid-table. If you want to convince yourself that this is all a work in progress, a natural transition, then be my guest, but your definition of progress is different to that which is in the dictionary. And ‘transition’ is nothing but a phrase to excuse under-performance. It’s a way of persuading yourself that everything will be ok in the end, that this is all part of a process. But what is the process? Van Gaal signed six vastly expensive players and in seven months hasn’t got consistently high-class performances out of any of them, although in the case of Herrera that is largely due to an absence of opportunity. They are his players. All appear to have been signed without an idea of how they would be played and in what system. Were it Arsenal, Chelsea or City desperately trying to cling on to a Champions League place whilst playing dire, tedious football after a similar outlay the mocking and criticism from United fans would be utterly remorseless. Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have taken much jip this season for those very failings. Yet when it is United some fans are falling over each other to make excuses or delude themselves into believing that this is all the club can possibly achieve this year. How standards have fallen.
So what is the answer? Beats me. Sacking another manager would be costly and destabilising again. Van Gaal has the experience and personality to get more from the squad, but his ‘philosophy’ at United is not the same as those which he employed at former clubs. The aesthete has evolved into an arch-pragmatist and pragmatism is not what is needed here. If results do deteriorate further the key question is whether the club will trust the manager with another large budget if targets are not met, having seen him fail to get a tune out of those acquired already. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if, in those circumstances, there were a parting of ways in the summer. The financial and practical consequences of missing Champions League football again would be grave. The available talent pool will shrink, as will the budget available to acquire them. Failure becomes self-perpetuating. Van Gaal can go on, but not like this. He has to change, but the signs are neither that he can see the need to do so or has the ideas to make it work. Still, sacking him is not particularly desirable. It should be stressed that we are still some way from the depths of the Moyes regime, a man who was drowning before a ball had been kicked. But were the likes of Simeone, Guardiola or Ancelotti to become available in the summer and Champions League football has been missed it’s hard to see the club not sounding them out. I may be wrong, but I do wonder if Van Gaal has about as long as Falcao to prove his worth. Describing Antonio Valencia as United’s man-of-the-match last night will have had Ed Woodward on the phone to the club psychiatrist. Eight more weeks of this and it may be the club executioner on speed-dial.