Uncertainty reigns as 2016 approaches

December 19, 2015 Tags: , , , , , Opinion 22 comments
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December football is a highlight of the British football calendar, with a seemingly infinite stream of games on which to feast over the festive period. In addition to being an excuse to binge on the beautiful game, and copious amounts of food and drink, it is often a pivotal juncture in Manchester United’s season.

Sir Alex Ferguson often reiterated the need to capture form during the final month of the year. Those were simpler times, and the cloud of uncertainty that looms heavy over Old Trafford ensures that much of the excitement present in previous years is decidedly absent.

There is little to stir any festive optimism in a side whose insipid displays continue – an early Champions League exit in Wolfsburg, followed by an embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth, and then at home to Norwich City, are unwelcome variations on the mundane goalless draws that have become the norm.

There is a growing anxiety among United’s support, especially with little certainty about the future. The evidence suggests there is justification in supporters’ fears.

“Boring, boring United”

At the top of fans’ Christmas list of woes is the dismal nature of football on display from Louis Van Gaal’s side. The pragmatic Dutchman has been cast as Scrooge in recent weeks, and his overtly regimented approach to the game has almost completely nullified the entertainment traditionally associated with United.

One of the most concerning factors is that despite weeks of criticism Van Gaal appears completely unshaken in his belief in the “philosophy” – a concept that seems to have less meaning with every passing week. His ethos is centred on defensive solidity and ball retention, but the important passages detailing the action in the final has been torn from Van Gaal’s coaching manual.

In addition to a indistinguishable team identity, Van Gaal’s choice of formation and substitutions have also raised eyebrows. United’s travelling support was horrified when injury to Ander Herrera at Watford prompted Van Gaal to revert to the much maligned 3-5-2 system. It removed much of United’s attacking impetus in the process.

Even with a wealth of options at his disposal the Dutch manager’s selections have continued to provoke ire. Deploying two holding midfielders against less decorated opposition, who rarely bring much ambition at Old Trafford, is simultaneously mystifying and typical of Van Gaal’s tenure.

Not only does the tactic often result in the aforementioned Herrera being left out, but it is an exasperatingly cautious approach. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick are excellent footballers, but there is no need for two-thirds of this trio to start in home games against lesser sides.

Almost as frustrating as Plan A is Van Gaal’s persistence in using the lumbering Marouane Fellaini as a route one alternative. Despite his apparent “genius” there is little ingenuity in a contingency plan that involves diagonal balls launched in the Belgian’s general direction – incredulous, even, that an expensively assembled squad should resort to low percentage tactics.


Regardless of the squad’s many deficiencies Van Gaal has once again suffered for a side decimated by injury. Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break in Eindhoven is still fresh in the memory. While the left-back should make a full recovery Shaw’s injury has set the tone for another season of ill luck. Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera and the indispensable Chris Smalling have all been ruled out in recent weeks, along with the perpetually afflicted Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.

Once again some question Van Gaal’s rigorous training regimen and its propensity to increase United’s injury list. Pending a thorough scientific analysis the truth will remain unclear, but the skeleton squad that took to the field at Wolfsburg and Bournemouth raises questions about how wisely United invested last summer.

The doomed pursuit of Sergio Ramos was exciting, but amid the frenzy there remained a sense of deja-vu about the episode. Ed Woodward has spent the past two summers flaunting the club’s wealth in a manner akin to Floyd Mayweather – the result is a rash of big name players using United as leverage in contract discussions.

And it is this blind pursuit of marquee names that has left United threadbare in defence, forcing Van Gaal to use his most inexperienced players in significant games. United’s sense of faith in youth is positive, but a monumentally important Champions League tie against a top German outfit is not the optimal time to break in new blood.

In this the board and Van Gaal share blame for the squad’s shortages – and for failing to learn from the painful lessons of last season.

January shopping

United’s recent spate of injuries, coupled with the impending January window, has raised speculation that the club may once again delve into the market. Acquiring top talent is no easy task, as is often made clear by managers nationwide – and Van Gaal has already moved to temper expectations.

“Goals are the most important thing, we have to always look for solutions to make goals”, the manager opined. “We have to look for the solutions in our selection, that’s important. Maybe we have solutions elsewhere but that’s more difficult, because in January clubs shall not let go of players who score”.

Hardly encouraging words for supporters who long for an extra striker to ease United’s goal famine. Indeed, the squad would benefit from at least two additions, in attack and defence. Yet, the chances of luring élite talent to M16 in January are small.

In truth an internal solution will have to be found – and United must also factor in a rest for Anthony Martial, who cannot be relied upon for an entire season. The challenge becomes greater still if Rooney returns from an injury lay-off the same player who has defiled pitches up and down the country this season.

Commendably, Van Gaal has largely arrested his side’s defensive troubles this season, albeit a record that came to a halt against Bournemouth and Norwich with injuries taking hold. Defensive solidity is dependent on retaining key personnel such as Chris Smalling. The Londoner has developed wonderfully in the past year, but his record suggests doubts about his ability to stay fit for extended periods.

Managerial merry-go-round

Then there is the question of United’s manager who has indisputably suffered a bad month. The Reds’ mundane football is grudgingly tolerated while results remain acceptable. Ignominious exit from the Champions League, coupled with humiliation against Bournemouth and Norwich, has turned opinion against the Dutchman.

Indeed, United’s slump in form could not have come at a worse time for Van Gaal, with a plethora of world-class coaches suddenly in the shop window. United’s board has lavished praise on the manager, but with José Mourinho out of a job and Pep Guardiola planning a change of scenery, Old Trafford’s suits will surely have noticed a persistent itch in their collective trigger finger.

Should Guardiola decant from Bavaria the clamour for his services will be at its most fervent in Manchester’s blue half. Yet, when Guardiola officially announces his future, United’s board will be left in a precarious situation. Aside from the increasingly unlikely chances of capturing a trophy this season, there is little Van Gaal can do to dissuade fans that the club should ditch him for the enigmatic Spaniard should the opportunity arise.

It is, of course, conjecture at the moment, but losing Guardiola to City would be a watershed moment in Manchester football history, remembered fondly only by those of a blue persuasion. In fact, there is growing consensus that United must mount a pursuit of the former Barcelona boss, lest the club miss out on yet another an élite manager since Ferguson’s retirement.

In that there is recognition the club is in a period of worrying uncertainty – one with an end that may shape the club for the foreseeable future. For the moment Van Gaal is under considerable scrutiny. The only thing the Dutchman can do is to start winning matches.


Subterranean Steve - December 20, 2015 Reply

Remember when Steve McLaren was standing on the touchline in the pouring rain watching England getting knocked out of the Euro qualifiers in 2007? He was lampooned by the media and referred to as ‘the wally with the brolly’.

Well at least Mclaren was out there on the touchline in the rain. Yesterday, in a similarly dispiriting wet afternoon in Manchester, as United slid towards another defeat, it was assistant Ryan Giggs who was standing in the rain on the touchline geeing up the troops. Where was the boss, where was King Louis? He was sitting in the dry, scribbling away on his notepad, no doubt jotting down items for his power-point presentation at Monday morning’s training session.

Having a tracksuited assistant directing play on the touchline is not an uncommon sight in football. Sometimes though, leadership is about publicly sharing the tough moments with those you lead. To be seen taking responsibility in real time and acting accordingly. Mike Phelan had a tracksuited assistant’s role but Ferguson always stood on the touchline at important times in a match, influencing the situation wherever he could, even when his team had strong leaders on the pitch.

Van Gaal’s team does not have strong leaders on the pitch, except for Schweinsteiger. All the more reason for the manager to take a more ‘hands on’ touchline role especially in times of adversity. Troop morale is low and the manager could do with being much more visible during the game.

Ryan - December 20, 2015 Reply

Where is the evidence that a manager yelling on a touchline inspires results?

In your life, when has screaming instructions at someone actually produced positive change?

Subterranean Steve - December 20, 2015 Reply

If you have issues in your life, United Rant has its own resident psychotherapist.

David - December 20, 2015 Reply

There is a bitter irony to your comments about Mr Giggs. Aside from the match against Norwich I have never seen Giggs leave his seat or remonstrate at any other match this season. Indeed as an assistant manager his contribution to a game has been at best zilch. Perhaps he is realising that should his boss get the chop he will be on his way out as well. Too little too late !

pelican tangerine - December 20, 2015 Reply

Agreed. In fact, if anything it appeared a little bit Machiavellian, and we all know Giggs and his underhanded ways. It seemed as if he knows the shit’s about to hit the fan for LvG so he’s started becoming all passion and shouting when, as you said, what has he done in the last 18 months? Nothing.

I’d sooner Olé. At least he has more experience.

Subterranean Steve - December 21, 2015 Reply

I agree with you. My comments were not meant to be any endorsement of Giggs. I was merely having a pop at LVG.

Giggs has had plenty of workplace observation but that doesn’t make him permanent manager material. In his brief tenure post-Moyes he gave Tony Valencia a new contract after he had had a shit season.

And as for his loyalty………..definitely questionable.

Mark Dickens - December 20, 2015 Reply

I don’t see any uncertainty – we are certainly crap & boring, we certainly need LVG sacked, or we certainly won’t finish top 4!

Srikanth nimma - December 20, 2015 Reply

If we don’t go for Pep we are idiots. Its as simple as that.

DayusDred. - December 20, 2015 Reply

Early in the season when United was conceeding less goals because of our defense solidity due to the protection offered by two holding midfielders, Lvg was accused of being too defensive against the “lesser clubs”. Now with only one DMF, we have lost two matches conceeding four goals. Many including our own former players failed to see why Lvg was doing that was because have inexperience defenders. Players like Mata, Depay, Martial, even Felliani contribute less defensively to the team thereby making the team vunerabe to couter attacks as we witness yesterday. Rooney and Depay loss the ball in the opposition half and we were all over the place trying to recover the ball. For the last two matches, our midfield pare of Carrick and Felliani has been dominated by these so called lesser teams because they lack speed to recover and were not helped by Depay, Mata and Martial who failed in their responsibilies to track back.

NazManUnited - December 20, 2015 Reply

MUFC need to get on the merry go round before it’s too late: Anchelotti to Bayern it’s official. Pep or Mourinho sign the deal

Denton Davey - December 20, 2015 Reply

It’s not clear that UTD is the #1 choice for Pep – and, besides, there’s still half of this season to play.

DayusDred. - December 20, 2015 Reply

If Morinho failed @ chelsea, what is the guaranty he will suceed @ United. If we sign Pep, what happens to Giggs?. You sign Pep now, three yrs down the road he is on his way again. Be careful what u wish for. Changing a manager doesn’t translate to sucess.

Ali - December 20, 2015 Reply


Mourinho failed at Chelsea, but he won the Premiership last year. He may not be all he claims to be, but his trophy cabinet is serious.

As for signing Pep and him leaving in three years, is it really such a problem? Three years of trophies are better than three years of (relative) failure.

I just feel that, at this moment in time, United cannot afford to be complacent and thinking about the long term. They have to think short term and stop the decline. Look at Liverpool. I bet they never thought that their loss of form was any more than temporary and the “normal” order of things would resume shortly enough. A quarter of a century later, they still haven’t turned things around.

Denton Davey - December 20, 2015 Reply

” If we sign Pep, what happens to Giggs?”

On the one hand, a manager who has won the CL twice; on the other hand, a former player whose job-description seems to be a nod to TheUnitedWay/Class of 92. Really, in this scheme-of-things, who cares what happens to Ryan Giggs ?

Denton Davey - December 20, 2015 Reply

“this blind pursuit of marquee names”

This is, I think, a big problem. Sure, it would be nice to have flashed-the-ca$h and added Cesc, Thiago, CR7, Bale, Sergio Ramos, Mats Hummels (?), and Thomas Muller, but in most instances this was a complete waste of time. These guys all used UTD for leverage – most got new and better contracts.

More sensible recruitment would focus on the Schneiderlins and Herreras – a cut below top-notch but solid contributors who are both inexplicably marginalized by this manager. Blind, Darmian, and Rojo were stop-gaps. So was Schweini. On the other hand, the money spent on Shaw, Martial, and Memphis (?) was reasonable in that these guys have huge up-sides even if they have had problems (of one sort or another). Indeed, I’d expect much more from Memphis if he wasn’t constrained by LvG’s rigid approach to selection which won’t even give Anthony Martial a proper run @ #9. And, what more is to be said about the dismissal of Chicharito whose main “fault” seems to be his ability to score goals ?

While there are still real problems in defence – a merry-go-round back four which changes from match to match – the talent is there to put a much more threatening team with Schneiderlin/Herrera in midfield and Memphis/Mata/Rooney (!) behind Anthony Martial, even though playing TheWayneBoy is an admission of desperation and Juan Mata looks a shadow of his former self.

bobbynoble - December 20, 2015 Reply

‘The only thing the Dutchman can do is to start winning matches.’ – That’s it in a nutshell, but it’s hard to see it happening.

All this shoehorning square pegs into round holes and straitjacketing the life out of individuals has left United in a fucking mess.

Subterranean Steve - December 20, 2015 Reply

From yesterday’s ‘genius’ to today’s ‘walking dead’.

Somewhat ironic outcome for Dr. Frankenstein.

Zak - December 21, 2015 Reply

Not a Manchester United fan, but like this website for its intelligent analysis of the beautiful game. I am astonished how Van Gaal has lost his way. He, like all of these other “marquee” names, is a big manager with a big record of success at multiple clubs. But his autocratic tendencies, allied to a ridiculous conservatism, are smashing the confidence of his players. He is like Mourinho in this regard – his ego is strangling any sense of joy the players need on the pitch. In the modern game, man management skills and nursing the fragile egos of the players is a requisite and LVG just doesn’t get that. His way, his ‘philosophy’.

Fergie was a master of being the autocrat and the pastor. That is why he was so good.

Denton Davey - December 21, 2015 Reply

“his autocratic tendencies, allied to a ridiculous conservatism, are smashing the confidence of his players. He is like Mourinho in this regard – his ego is strangling any sense of joy the players need on the pitch.”


Both start from a defensive base but, otherwise, LvG is not all that similar to Jo$e in that Mourinho is pragmatic and places winning above all else – especially the fragile egos of his pampered players.

Zak - December 21, 2015 Reply

And also, you have to say, what on earth is he writing down every game in that notebook of his? Surely he can see what is happening on the pitch and record it to memory.

By his comments in his press conference, I think he already has one foot out the door

Even before taking the role, he almost intimated that he was doing United a favour by taking on the job and keeping him from his retirement

Andy - December 21, 2015 Reply

Does anyone who read this site remember the last time we had a great manager retired and how long United then spent in the wilderness?

The way things are looking right now we could be looking at the same situation again, it has happened to Liverpool and as we are seeing just throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to work, where is our strategy to recruitment? How will the players benefit the team? Yes there are a few world class stars out there who will improve any team but they are very rare and even harder to get hold of so why waste our time? We need a competitive squad not the best 11 individuals on the plane.

We need to start looking above the manager for answers to these questions and unfortunately above the manager we have a bunch of money making football idiots.

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