Finally it’s over. Tuesday night’s game against Bournemouth brought to an end a truly wretched Premier League campaign for Manchester United and its fans. The bizarre events which unfolded last Sunday merely prolonged the agony for an ailing beast that needed to be put out of its misery, You will struggle to find a Red now who does not hope that Louis Van Gaal never sets foot on the touchline at the Theatre of Dreams ever again. The only dreams experienced from the Old Trafford stands this season have resulted from those who have paid to watch falling into a deep slumber.
The whole evening was a terrible demonstration of how far United have fallen. In his pre-match interview Louis Van Gaal suggested that he had picked a full strength side because, “it’s the best solution as we also have to entertain our fans”. Cue those watching on TV who were still eating their dinner involuntarily coughing it up the wall. Old Trafford has seen less entertainment or goals than any ground in the professional English football structure and United have scored less home goals than relegated York City. Indeed, the best entertainment witnessed here all season has come when some of the younger players have been fielded, most notably in the thrilling 3-2 win over Arsenal. Martial and Rashford have provided some spark, but there was little that has excited us in the more experienced line up fielded last night.
Van Gaal’s interview also revealed just how far standards have fallen. The best he could muster to make the night interesting was that United could still finish the campaign with the best defensive record and that his goalkeeper could win the Golden Gloves. Can you imagine Fergie saying that? The first most of us heard of the Golden Gloves was a few years ago when Liverpool fans, starved of actual trophies, made a big deal of Pepe Reina taking the ‘accolade’. United’s transition into Liverpool continues apace. It was perhaps fitting that this team should even fall short in that regard and in suitably comical circumstances. With a clean sheet intact and the Golden Gloves seemingly in the bag, Chris Smalling scored an own goal with almost the last kick of the game to deny his keeper, the outstanding player at the club, that last small crumb of comfort. You didn’t have to be a body language expert to see that De Gea was seething for all of the twenty or so minutes before he finally left the pitch after the lap of ‘honour’.
The match itself, played in front of a sparse crowd which, despite the unusual circumstances, could become the norm if Van Gaal is at the club much longer, began in a familiar course. The first half was truly appalling, an indictment of why the Dutchman must be dispatched into the sea forthwith. It was, unusually, punctuated by a goal of some beauty, orchestrated by Martial and Rashford and finished with ease by Wayne Rooney. Meanwhile, in the stands those trying to display dissenting messages about the manager were forcibly ejected by stewards. After the break, with a half-interested Bournemouth opening up a little in pursuit of the equaliser, there was more space for United to exploit. Marcus Rashford finished wonderfully for the second before Rooney played in Ashley Young for three. Van Gaal’s team thus drew level on league goals with Sunderland. Woo. Then came Smalling’s untimely intervention at the other end.
At full time an awkward lap of ‘honour’ was undertaken in front of a 2/3 empty Old Trafford. It would be a sad way to leave for Michael Carrick if his contract is not renewed. Likewise David De Gea, who could be forgiven for wanting out of this cauldron of mediocrity. Finally Van Gaal took the microphone to a cacophony of boos. He proceeded, with no hint of irony, to thank the United fans for their ‘unconditional’ support and looked ahead to the FA Cup final. It was a short address that received polite applause at its end.
If Van Gaal wondered why he had initially been booed then he need do little more than listen to his own post match press conference, in which he said:
“The expectation is very high and the fans are expecting a lot but I think the expectations are much too high. We are a team in transition and I said that when I started but maybe I have to bring the message over much clearer.”
This came soon after he himself admitted that his team had regressed this year, a year which he began by stating that his team must challenge for the title and look to win the Champions League by 2017. It is this rewriting of history, the appalling football and references to unreasonable expectations which have finally turned even his most staunch defenders. In a season when Leicester City won the league and with Van Gaal managing a squad for which he had bought twelve players at a cost of over £250m the suggestion that the club could not possibly be competitive at the top end of the Premier League is, quite frankly, staggering. The fans have been incredibly patient in the face of appalling football and little entertainment. To then be told that they expect too much is an insult to their intelligence. Of all the mistakes he has made that will surely be the one that gets him fired, for the club will not appreciate being ordered not to expect more for their significant investment any more than the fans do. No one likes being taken for fools, even fools.
Van Gaal also once again blamed injuries, which might fly if he hadn’t consciously chosen to carry a small, injury prone squad and if it hadn’t happened two years in a row, and when asked if he would be at the club next season answered “yes”. His short, awkward post-match speech suggested otherwise. In two years he has ripped the soul out of the football club he was supposed to revive and his defence that he needs ‘quick, creative players’, which he once again used last night, would only ring true if he hadn’t bought at least three attackers of that exact type, failing to best utilise the talents of Angel Di Maria or Memphis Depay, despite knowing the latter’s game intimately.
If Van Gaal leaves he will bequeath a club in as much of a mess as the one he inherited from David Moyes. It is telling that given a straight choice between the two many United fans would opt for Moyes. His team have finished their Premier League season on 49 goals, their lowest total since 1989/90 and only the fourth time since World War Two that they have scored less than 50. But now it is over, save for an FA Cup final which, if all goes to form, should allow Van Gaal to leave with his head held high, even if he doesn’t deserve to. He will tell himself that he has done a great job and retire to Portugal a happy man, leaving behind a fanbase thankful only for the fact that his tortuous reign will finally be over.