The first in (hopefully) a regular series of match reactions from Manchester United games. We take a look at the five most noteworthy things to take from United’s game at Sunderland.
1 – Getting board
A point made on almost every RetroUnited.com podcast since Christmas. Yes, it’s been universally accepted that United will not progress under Louis van Gaal. The best they can hope for is Champions League football this season, and that seems further away than at any other point. Having established Champions League football last season, United should have spent heavily and challenged. They did one of the two, but sadly, the closest they’ve got to a serious title challenge was in Van Gaal’s post-season drunken celebrations in 2015.
While the merits of the manager staying in his role were still being debated, a number of games followed which made such discussions redundant. Amid frenzied speculation that was started with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea dismissal, the players effectively downed tools and allowed Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke to walk over them. There have been poor performances since but the last seventy minutes of the Norwich game may well have seen the worst Manchester United performance in the last fifty years. Something happened between the Stoke and Chelsea game which saw the players’ effort levels apparently dramatically increase. Unfortunately they learned you can’t just flick a switch and recover your form; and further, they had encouraged teams to come and have a go at Old Trafford.
The saving grace has usually been United’s away form but Saturday’s capitulation was another nail in a coffin that was slammed shut and secured six weeks ago. The manager is culpable, the players are culpable, but most of the blame for any failure this season must be attributed to the board. The players need a replacement, they want it to be Mourinho, Mourinho wants the job and the only thing that makes this slightly more palatable than City’s situation is that there is at least still the pretence that the honourable thing is being done.
Feed us a lie if you must, United, but with every passing result, we have seen a weak and winnable league pass us by, and Champions League football now becoming increasingly unlikely. It is unforgivable that the board have everything in place for the next chapter in Manchester United’s history but they are refusing to make the move until this season is written off – and, in doing so, they are also writing off next season’s Champions League.
Okay, the board may have proved United can still financially cope with a year out, but it shows a disturbing lack of football knowledge that they don’t appreciate the requirement of competing in the moment. They may try to portray the air of long-term planning but that is so naive in the modern game that it demonstrates a staggering incapability to understand what it is to manage a football club.
2. If, nowadays, Van Gaal resembles little more than a caretaker, he is still officially the manager and with the above caveats that this has been a mess where everyone is culpable, it’s at least worth pointing out that the manager has been at fault. This website has cut the manager some slack with the overhaul and transition but almost two years in to a job, he should have a better handle on the combinations in his team that work and don’t. The manager is right, Mata’s previous form in the number 10 role justified why he wasn’t played there more often, and his current ‘okay’ form currently justifies why he is.
It may be fair to sometimes put this down to injuries, but this can’t always be the answer. So many changes are unnecessary and counter productive to consistency. If one was to argue for the case of keeping Van Gaal for a third year, then one must consider the logical circumstances and whether another summer of investment will result in a settled side for next year. Or, another year of transition.
3. The team selections are confusing, but so are the substitutions. Changes appear to be made solely on the player’s capability to carry out a game plan effectively or when one appears to be in the ‘red zone’. The changes are not, generally, pro-active and reactive to the circumstances in a game, and more often than not, they don’t change the game. When Sam Allardyce has outwitted you tactically – with comfort – it is probably a good sign that the players and management are not compatible.
4. ‘How many players would get in to such and such team’, well, Manchester United can only really claim to have two star players who would improve other teams. David De Gea and Anthony Martial continued to underline their respective importance.
There is potential in others, but like De Gea himself said on social media, we need to see more doing and less talking.
5. Too many players aren’t good enough. Case in point the above example of Juan Mata. Mata is in what we can currently describe as the Ashley Young phase, a player playing quite well considering the circumstances, and this is confused with such form or such a player potentially being capable of representing the future. But, as we saw against Chelsea, it’s just not good enough to get the edge to achieve victory, and it wasn’t good enough to get anything from Sunderland.
It obviously isn’t usually the direct fault of the forward players that United concede; but this brings us on to Chris Smalling, a player who arguably fits in the same category. He’s played well, but as United try and play with more adventure, it actually is starting to feel like his form was partly down to the protection he had. Exposed on a regular basis, is he the leader Manchester United hope to build a title winning defence around? Or is he going to need a stronger player alongside him? Is Daley Blind good enough in that role? Marcos Rojo? These are likable players but in order to win titles sometimes you have to be nasty.