Tuesday was a day which summed up what Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal and Ed Woodward have now become and it’s far from pretty. Both on and off the pitch the club are adrift, reputation being dragged through the mud, paralysed by indecision, politics and short-term financial thinking. With a manager who thinks that expectations are too high at one of the three truly gigantic clubs in the world and a key decision maker who is more obsessed with spreadsheets and appearances than actual football results is it any wonder that United have now become a laughing stock?
The fans should perhaps have known that it wasn’t going to be a good day when, in the morning, Bayern Munich announced the signing of teenage Portuguese midfielder Renato Sanches. Sanches had long been reported as a United target by journalists in a number of countries and some had suggested that a deal was close. Not close enough apparently, as the Germans did what they do best and wrap up a transfer early, quickly, quietly and with the minimum of fuss. In isolation it was not that United had missed out on a target that was the biggest issue. Most clubs will find themselves beaten to the punch every so often, although most don’t claim to be able to ‘do things in the market that others can’t’. It was that this is becoming a recurring theme.
What came next was painfully predictable. Four hours later it was apparent that Ed Woodward had made use of his ‘group email’ function again and fired off a ‘didn’t want him anyway’ email to the local press pack. It was beyond parody. Whenever United miss out on a transfer target in a manner which makes them look bad out goes the email. This time it suggested that United had targeted Sanches until February, but had withdrawn after manager Louis Van Gaal decided the deal was too expensive. Strange then that club scouts continued to watch him thereafter. James Ducker, in The Telegraph, also provided an alternative perspective from Sanches’ camp, his source bemoaning United’s intransigence and dithering, whilst Bayern got the deal done in two days. Whatever the truth, the painful PR from United was as predictable as it was transparent. Most likely the player simply chose Bayern over United, which you would if you had a modicum of sense. It raised the more important issue, that a club can’t compete for the best players, even with buckets of money, if it is run into the ground off and on the pitch, an institution where prospective players can neither see themselves winning titles nor achieving their full potential. Few footballers, with serious options, would choose to join a laughing stock with no Champions League football.
On to the evening’s must win game at West Ham. Preparations were disrupted by the team coach getting stuck in congestion around Upton Park and then the players found themselves and their vehicle the target of Hammers yobs throwing beer bottles. A video shot by Jesse Lingard later appeared online showing the player and some of his teammates screaming, pulling faces and generally behaving like teenage boys on a geography school trip. It furthered a perception that Lingard is a bit of a fool having had ‘Dabberman’ added to his boots by the manufacturer. It was an unedifying spectacle and gave the impression that some of the players are more interested in messing around than concentrating on their game and the biggest match of their season. It was hardly a surprise given that United have often looked like boys against men this year.
At Upton Park that’s exactly what they appeared to be. West Ham flew out of the traps, United flapped and floundered and it was 1-0 in no time at all. By half time Van Gaal’s team were lucky not to be three or four down, the defence unable to adequately mark at set pieces, hold their line and win tackles, the midfield incapable of passing to a teammate under pressure and a forward line feeding on scraps. After the break United improved marginally and got an equaliser they didn’t deserve from Martial. Then came the luckiest of lucky breaks, if having one absolutely sensational footballer is lucky. A wonderful solo goal by the Frenchman gave United a lead with less than twenty minutes to go and Champions League football was firmly back on the agenda. All that was required was to see out the night.
Of course, that was way beyond their capabilities, for when the chips are really down for this side they crumble. United have become Arsenal. The players will have known that Dimitri Payet and West Ham’s physically imposing forwards could punish them at set pieces and yet all night they gave away free kick after free kick in dangerous positions. A lead suddenly became a 3-2 deficit as a raggedy back line failed to adequately mark their men and the hope they had been given by Martial was gone. Total collapse, not for the first time this season. Van Gaal’s side have won only twice in two years in the Premier League having gone behind. Martial’s reaction to the equalising goal said it all, a look of total disgust that his wonderful contribution had been thrown away by his gutless, disorganised teammates. United remain a rabble propped up by a world class goalkeeper and a 20 year old boy. It is an absolutely staggering position for a club of such resources to find themselves in. There are no leaders, no spine, a team without character and competence.
Post-match Van Gaal stated that his side had been unlucky, as unlucky as a team who only had three shots on goal to their opponent’s twenty can be. He also bemoaned the fact that his side contained so many ‘small’ players. It was typical Van Gaal, talking about his side’s inadequacies as if he had played no part in their creation. Who else should be blamed for the need to use Daley Blind as a CB, or the continued trust in Rojo, the lack of an adequate midfield, a pacey right winger or a goalscorer? Before the match Timothy Fosu-Mensah tweeted a picture of his TV as he settled down to watch the match. Why was he not involved, one of the most physically imposing footballers at the club? Why did Borthwick-Jackson not start? Where is the trust in youth now? Where are the returns on £250m? How can it be that despite that outlay his squad has only one top class outfield player and is a sea of averageness? How can it be on course to score less than fifty goals in a season for only the fifth time since World War 2?
The result, the manager’s comments, the childish behaviour on the bus and the painful PR summed Manchester United up as a club, coached by a delusional, buck-passing dinosaur and run by a man obsessed by appearances but unable to identify that his actions continue to taint his and this great institution’s reputation. Uncertainty, inadequacy, incompetence and a total lack of self awareness have infested Manchester United, leaving the club an international laughing stock and further hampering attempts to recruit the world’s best talents. Why would they want to go to United, also-rans run by incompetents? Most United fans would now drive David De Gea to Madrid. He and Anthony Martial don’t deserve this any more than we do. Van Gaal, Woodward and the Glazer’s most definitely do. The club is drifting into the abyss.