Running to stand still

December 9, 2015 Tags: , Reads 30 comments
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There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat away at Wolfsburg. There was, for instance, the slapdash defending, yet more players succumbing to injury, and some very odd substitutions. Perhaps the most galling of all is the illusion of hope, now shattered. After all, fate was a cruel temptress as she thrice teased United with the prospect of progress to the knock-out phase of the Champions League – only for belief to be dashed.

Anthony Martial’s clinical strike gave United the lead, albeit a brief one. Over in Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow went a goal up at PSV before the Dutch side levelled almost immediately. Finally, there was the farcical own goal by Wolfsburg’s Josuha Guilavogui that brought the match level at 2-2 and gave Louis van Gaal’s team a loose foothold in the knockout stages. Needless to say United slipped up and surrendered the advantage to the home side who deserved to win on the night.

To top things off PSV won 2-1, meaning that even if United had contrived to draw Europa League football was inevitable. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic; Thursday night football is on the cards and, in truth, Van Gaal’s side deserved everything it got.

In the wreckage of Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat it will be hard for Van Gaal’s men to take away any positives, although the result could prove cathartic. Defeat puts to rest the pretence that has overshadowed United’s season, exposing Van Gaal to some very basic analysis. That, in effect, this is a team ticking over, coasting through matches in a fashion that achieves little at an élite level.

Since United’s heavy defeat at The Emirates in October the team has gone on an uninspiring, but unbeaten run, winning just three of eleven games in all competitions before the dispiriting defeat in Germany. It was a run that papered over far too many cracks.

In fact, the reverse at Wolfsburg exposed a team stumbling to find an identity, even with injuries taken into account. Most importantly it is a team incapable of discovering a winning formula. Now 18-months into his tenure at Old Trafford, Van Gaal is yet to demonstrate his grand vision.

Tuesday’s loss, in what Van Gaal admitted was his biggest match at United to date, must serve as a wake-up call. The Dutchman failed the test when evidence that his philosophy has value is in scant supply.

The sequence of events that led to United’s exit from the Champions League, and inspired the fans to jeer after the Reds’ scoreless draw against West Ham United at the weekend, has stemmed from a deeply conservative mindset. It is one that has slowly and inevitably heaped pressure on the team. Indeed, the safety-first approach throughout United’s Champions League campaign paradoxically forced Van Gaal’s side into a change of strategy at Wolfsburg in a winner-takes-all match. The more open approach has become alien and the result, as at the Emirates, was all too predictable.

United’s injury situation is a mitigating factor, of course, but it is unfair for Van Gaal to expect raw youngsters, such as Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard and Nick Powell, to deliver in such a high pressure game. Van Gaal’s lads deserved better and this season’s exit in Europe’s premier club competition could have been avoided.

If United’s 5-3 reverse at Leicester City last season forced Van Gaal to adopt a defensive approach, then defeat against Wolfsburg surely amplifies the need for United adopt a more fluent, pacier, sustained attacking outlook.

After all, the tools are there. An attacking quartet of Lingard, Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay provides a dynamic and fluid front four that, if given time to gel, could provide a genuine attacking threat. United’s opening goal against Wolfsburg offered a small glimpse of what could be achieved with incisive passing, leading to a clinical finish.

However, the Reds’ midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini were found wanting. If Van Gaal is after more enterprise from the middle of the park then Ander Herrera is a a must-pick alongside one of Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin. While Herrera is sidelined with injury, Van Gaal’s relative lack-of-faith in the Spaniard has disturbed many supporters.

Moreover, the club’s hierarchy, together with Van Gaal, now need to map out a coherent strategy on and off the pitch. Whatever the briefing emanating out of Ed Woodward’s office in recent days, a long-term plan to reestablish the club at an élite level, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of success on the pitch, is necessary. United is an institution that can lie ‘in transition’ for only so long.

Yet, plenty has already been invested in Van Gaal’s plan to overhaul United’s squad. More is seemingly promised. No figure will enough, even with all the talk of stellar names joining, unless a post-Ferguson identity is established. The suspicion is that A-list acquisitions will be made with an eye on making United even more marketable, rather than with the balance Van Gaal needs.

The gossip suggests that United is now a club that seeks out established stars in the model of Real Madrid; a break from a time when the club sought the best young talents, fashioning them into superstars. Van Gaal has offered plenty of youngsters a taste of first-team football, but the scattergun approach to the transfer market in the wake of Ferguson’s exit suggests a make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy that offers little in the way of long-term identity.

With each week and every disappointing result there’s a growing feeling that a difficult situation is likely to come to an ugly head at Old Trafford. United’s result at Wolfsburg may not be a watershed, but it might not be far off. In the aftermath of Wolfsburg Van Gaal’s immediate goal is to chalk up victories in the Premier League, preferably convincing ones, to stem the growing tide of negativity.

Then, the club as a whole must figure out how it is going to achieve its larger objectives. Supporters will be patient as long as progress is visible, with a trajectory of development heading in the right direction. For that, however, there also needs to be a modicum of hope. Supporters cannot repeatedly witness it snatched away in, frankly, tragi-comic circumstances.

Tuesday’s result will prompt a significant amount of soul-searching, but if United’s manager reaches the conclusion that a change in tack is required, and a more incisive approach taken, then maybe some good can come from the club’s Champions League exit.

For Van Gaal’s sake the narrative must change; he has to prove all over again that his philosophy can take United forward. Right now his team looks like it is running to stand still.


Steve Brown - December 9, 2015 Reply


Denton Davey - December 9, 2015 Reply

“the tools are there. An attacking quartet of Lingard, Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay provides a dynamic and fluid front four that, if given time to gel, could provide a genuine attacking threat.”

Lingard just isn’t good enough; so far he’s flattered-to-deceive. The other three need someone fast and direct – Leroy Sane/Mane/Aubemyang are three names that spring to mind.

I’d also like to see a bit more adventure in the midfield with Herrera/Schneiderlin given the chance to form a partnership. I guess that Pogba could name his price, eh ?

With regard to the back four, it’s a cluster-fuck at the moment – only Daley Blind is able to play and, really, he’s more of a jack-of-all-trades rather than a master. Jones seems to be a permanent sick-note, is this the second time that Rojo has had shoulder problems ? Of the other defenders, only BigManSmalling gives me any sense of confidence although the loss of Luke Shaw has been huge.

If you want a glass half-full response to yesterday’s embarrassment then perhaps the Europa League offers the opportunity to “blood” guys like Sean Goss and Varela and Borthwick-Jackson and so on without jeopardizing the faint hope of EPL victory (against all hope/odds).

Subterranean Steve - December 10, 2015 Reply

Now that the Europa ‘League’ has reached the knockout stage there might be only be two matches to
blood any kids. It’s problematic as to whether the established players have any real stomach for this particular tournament after the Champions League debacle.

Still, a tie against the Scousers could prove quite interesting.

NazManUnited - December 9, 2015 Reply

Need Machines to fit LVG’S style of play. Mata, Herrera don’t fit his mechanical philosophy

Brendan McCartan - December 10, 2015 Reply

This article is an excellent assessment in regards to the team’s current situation. Time will tell however if LVG is prepared to take that risk.

Pete Naphasorn Webb - December 10, 2015 Reply

250 mill and yet 5 players that fergy signed still in the team,wtf did the money go.

Jack Moore - December 10, 2015 Reply

He was the wrong choice simple as that. Any glory he achieved is a distant memory. Even if he is mildly successful (believe me it won`t get any better than that) the style of in which it is achieved will make it worthless. LVG MUST GO. He should never have been employed mr Ferguson!!!

David Prescott - December 10, 2015 Reply

This United is a Europa League team. We are the Premier League’s Sevilla this year. I would like to see a good run in the Europa League, it’s perfect experience for the youngsters referred to in the article, if they go out, no big deal but valuable European experience for next year’s UEFA Champions League. Rooney can just chill at home with Colleen and Kai, I’m ok with this turn of events. It took a few days to accept it though.

bobbynoble - December 10, 2015 Reply

Is it time for a plane to fly over O.T. with a banner calling for the overthrow of King Louis?

Personally I reckon it would be best for all concerned if he just abdicated.

Yorkie - December 10, 2015 Reply

You really are deluded if you think Lingard and Mata are the future. Martial certainly but I also have my doubts about Depay. I do agree about the transfer strategy however, I suspect we’ll spend the summer chasing superstars rather than building a team. Commercial income is far more important than on the filed success to these owners.

Bernie Phillips - December 10, 2015 Reply

David blind = Nemanja Vidic not

John Moore - December 10, 2015 Reply

I read in the Guardian that United’s ceo Mr Woodward says he has not received as many emails and letters of complaint about LVG as he did about David Moyes. He cited this as proof that all was well at OT. How much is this person being paid. To think they give these money men medals at cup finals..

Tefera Negash - December 10, 2015 Reply

I thought you advocate if Rooney is out things will be rosy. Do U still blame Rooney, though U didn’t say anything on this rant.

David - December 10, 2015 Reply

There is no problem for the Glazers, all they are interested in is a top 4 finish with the promise of the riches from the Champions League and even with this ‘average’ squad that will be attained next season. Make no mistake this club is paying for the massive under investment under the Glazers which started as soon as they took over and has only improved as David Moyed showed them the error of their ways. Pain for the United faithfull, I would love it if the fans boycotted the Shitty Europa league big time.

Denton Davey - December 10, 2015 Reply

“all they are interested in is a top 4 finish with the promise of the riches from the Champions League and even with this ‘average’ squad that will be attained next season.”

The “riches” from the Champions League are over-stated – apparently MUFC is losing about five million quid for not making the next round. Of course, were TheLads to win the CL then the “loss” would be huge but that’s not likely to happen.

More to your point, from an economic stand-point it makes perfect sense for the owners of MUFC to be be quite satisfied with ‘a top 4 finish” – Old Trafford continues to be filled and the suggestion of a championship-challenge isn’t quite preposterous. Most “fans” would be reasonably happy with that – die-hards, excepted. This is the ownership-logic that has prevailed with Toronto’s hockey team, the Maple Leafs, for decades; keep hope alive and the turnstiles tick over. There are some who believe that if the Leafs were to win the Stanley Cup (which seems very, very, very unlikely) that many of the band-waggoners would simply abandon fan-dumb and find another band-waggon to ride.

So, for ownership, the optimum solution is actually a better strategy than aiming for the maximum solution which would be very expensive in terms of paying salaries for top-notch players who are now at their peak and will continue to draw huge salaries for years afterwards (i.e., TheWayneBoy).

With regard to Glazernomics, the key issue is – and always has been – the optimization of their investment; a WarrenBuffetStrategy of buy-and-hold. SAF was a god-send for them – he was able to keep expenses (i.e., “net spend”) relatively low from 2006-2013 while delivering five EPL titles and three CL finals (one winner).

When Fergy left, the lack of investment came home to roost and while the Glazers haven’t been exactly parsimonious in the last 18 months, their burned fingers from the MoyesInter-Regnum made it imperative to give LvG money to get back to optimizing/stabilizing their investment. Assuming that LvG can keep the club in the “top 4” with a complete over-haul of the playing squad, he will have done the job; winning anything would be a huge bonus.

Opti - December 11, 2015 Reply

Too much conspiracy theory for my liking. I think it’s far more simple without the sky falling.

Glazers and fans have their interest well-aligned at the moment. This is not a new concept but a well-established paradigm. This is because Top 3 is the only guarantee of Champions League football in the long-term and champions league success success is necessary to compete for commercial partners.

As infamous AndersRed puts it:
“[There is] pressure on the club’s cash flow, making it even more imperative to get back into the Champions League and even more problematic if we don’t. Future transfers won’t be affected if selling clubs continue to accept stage payments on this scale, but that can never be guaranteed.”

Denton Davey - December 11, 2015 Reply

“Too much conspiracy theory”

What ? I was merely offering an “insight” (or an “opinion) regarding the management strategy (i.e., their plan of action). Winning is much more expensive – and risky – than just “competing”, which is what an optimization-strategy is all about.

Your point about “top 3” is important since the success of English clubs has been so poor that the “coefficient” seems to be lagging. Furthermore – and contradictorily – all the money sloshing around means that an also-ran like Everton can keep hold of key players like Stones. Barkley, and Lukaku which would not be the case before this massive, new TV deal came into being. (Same goes for Mane at Southampton or Kane at Spurs). The also-rans can hold out for maximum profits on key-player transactions although everything has its price and English talent (e.g., Kane or Stones or Barkley) command a premium.

“pressure on the club’s cash flow”

Really, I understood – wrongly ? – that the commercial-revenue deals were long-term; the money from TV is going up and up – and can only go a bit higher if the team begin to win the EPL consistently; and, match-day revenues seem solid – maybe OT won’t be full for Europa League matches but it’s always full for EPL game-days.

Opti - December 11, 2015 Reply

Ha! I think I misread your statement. Agree with this:
“also-ran like Everton can keep hold of key players like Stones. Barkley, and Lukaku which would not be the case before this massive, new TV deal came into being”

Which is why the league is becoming tougher… so that Fergie-style results are much much more unlikely, even if they are desired. New world order 🙂

Denton Davey - December 11, 2015

“the league is becoming tougher”

This has been in process for a number of years. I attribute the closing of the gap between top and bottom to better coaching, especially evident when a 35-50 point club face one of the “top 6”. They park-the-bus, stay compact, and maintain-their-shape which makes it difficult for a top-6 team to score by cutting through a back-four; quality differences only become evident when the top-6 team scores early and forces their opponents to come out of their shell.

When the game opens up, the bettter-quality players in a top-6 team then have space/time in which to operate. When the opponents’ bus is parked and their defence is compact while maintaining its shape, it requires a very special player to create space/time for himself. A few years ago, RvP could do this; when healthy, Sergio can do this, in his prime (and when he could be bothered) Carlitos was exceptionally hard-to-handle, Luis Suarez was a genius, and, of course, Lionel Messi is the best-of-the-best in this regard but there are few players with this level of skill and calmness-on-the-ball.

Anthony Martial’s first goal was a great example of this ability; having seen that, the opposition coaches instructed their players to clutch-and-grab and he’s had trouble coping with SkrtelDefending. If I am right in this assessment then it’s pretty clear why LvG wants Thomas Muller – he’s a genius at finding time/space inside the box and scores a lot of goals out-of-nothing; his team-mate, Robert Lewandowski, is even better because he’s so much bigger and stronger. But I’d be astonished if either of these players was for sale – at any price short of mad, mad money.

John Moore - December 18, 2015 Reply

Ferguson was the man who quelled the protests. The investment had stopped long before he hung up his managerial boots. He done a deal behind the protesting fans backs with the hated Glazers and then was an almost lone voice in telling the United faithful that they, the Glazers, were good for the club. In return he got his thirty pieces of silver or 3ml a year. No person is bigger than the club
he sold us out.

Opti - December 11, 2015 Reply

I agree with your conclusion: LvG has to rebound from this. We just disagree on timeline. I give him 18-ish more month to prove that United is back.

“a long-term plan to reestablish the club at an élite level, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of success on the pitch, is necessary”
— Do you REALLY believe United (a billion dollar company) has no long-term plan to do just that????? Sounds like petty pandering…

“The gossip suggests that United is now a club that seeks out established stars in the model of Real Madrid; a break from a time when the club sought the best young talents, fashioning them into superstars.”
— Right. Gossip vs. actual United youth playing on the field. Which signifies our identity?? You can say a lot about LVG’s conservative/boring playing style and his careless spending/selling of expensive players, but I do not understand the fear that he is making us Madrid. That has NEVER been his ethos nor has he evidenced that at United in his 18 months.

Finally, I am sick of hearing about United/LvG spending $300 million on players and delivering slob. Maybe I can agree on the slob, but United finances are booming and he did not NET-spend that much on players.
In summer 2014: £122m
In summer 2015: £40m
Net-spend van Gaal: £162m over two year.
Then you have to consider the salary savings from releasing all the “dead wood” that were on big salaries: RvP and Nani mainly. I think I saw somewhere that we’ve reduced wage bill by £500,000/week… or £25m/year.

There is fair criticism of van Gaal: namely the slob delivered mostly on weekly basis. He did spend a good amount of money one players that are not really world class, besides Martial, Memphis, Schweini, and De Gea 😉
And we’re no longer in the CL.

But the expectation that we should be serving up champagne football 18 month since the Moyes era ended and United were purged of underachievers and has-beens… well, Rooney is still here…

In 18 months, we can judge LvG’s rebuilding job — the reason he was hired!

A tree does not give fruit in the first year, but you should still water it.

Denton Davey - December 11, 2015 Reply

I completely agree with this – two points stand out for me: first, the “relatively inexpensive” nature of almost all the signings (Di Maria, excepted) and the willingness to spend on youthful promise (like Shaw, Memphis and/or Martial; and, second, the slow turnaround and consequently the pretty dire nature of the team’s play. They are a tough watch nowadays. And the tsunami of injuries doesn’t make matters easier.

Opti - December 11, 2015 Reply

PS: I love this site. Intelligent people having polite discussions. PodCasts are the best thing since sliced bread!!!

Redzebs - December 11, 2015 Reply

Join the forum then

Opti - December 11, 2015 Reply

Didn’t know about the forum. Nice!

Redzebs - December 12, 2015 Reply


Luke McCord - December 11, 2015 Reply

Good read. Thanks.

bobbynoble - December 11, 2015 Reply

Didn’t realise this was a dating site.

Paudie O'Neill - December 11, 2015 Reply

great summation of our current plight lads 👍🏻, & agreed totally on our approach to the Europa wrt youngsters & opportunity!!!

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