Friday, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman/lightning rod/chief figure of fun (delete as appropriate) was ‘grilled’ by investors when he reported on the club’s financial results for the third quarter. Much like the ‘grilling’ in the second quarter there was little surprise that investor questions focus little on Manchester United’s on the pitch challenges.
It’s been a lean year in Manchester. Whether Red or Sky Blue, struggles abound in England’s North-West. Rivals for more than a century, the Premier League’s two most financially powerful clubs share the common trait of suffering through on-the-field issues that are not easily fixed. For all the money on show neither side seems capable of buying its way up the table, nor capturing fourth place and with it the Champions League.
Just when Louis van Gaal’s side has seemingly reached its nadir along comes a fresh blow. The FA Cup semi-final victory over Everton was a high, only partially puncture by a limp home draw against Champions Leicester. In fact, Manchester City’s home draw with Arsenal gave United real hope of making the Champions League and redeeming a season. Then came two dreadful performances on the road: in victory over Norwich City and defeat to West Ham United.
In a season of unpredictability, perhaps this could have been foreseen, however unlikely. Unbelievably, Manchester United now has Champions League qualification firmly in control, despite the team’s best efforts for much of the season to the contrary. Louis van Gaal’s side, so often criticised for stagnant football and poor performances, is just two wins away from a seat at Europe’s top table after Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last Sunday. Pep Guardiola may arrive at City without Champions League football, and United may allow manager Van Gaal to lead the side for one more year.
Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. It was a performance to reflect a season. In keeping with too many of his colleagues, Memphis Depay was dreadful in Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over doomed Norwich City on Saturday. It was a fresh nadir in a hugely disappointing campaign; one that threatens to conclude the Dutchman’s United career after just one year in England. It shouldn’t. Memphis has not earned another chance at United, but neither was he always the master of his fate. With talent and time on his side, the club should accede him a second chance.
It couldn’t happen, could it? Since Manchester United’s dismal December the foremost assumption has been that the Reds’ fate lies outside the top four, and with it a second year in three away from the Champions League. Yet, with just three Premier League games remaining, Louis van Gaal’s side is hot on the coat-tails of Manchester City, with an FA Cup final to come. Salvation for Van Gaal, perhaps, and possible redemption for a group of players that has largely underwhelmed.
You know the meme about Christian Grey’s unconventional tastes? It could well be due an update following Louis van Gaal’s revealing interview in the aftermath of Manchester United’s draw with Leicester City at the weekend. Pulling hair, says the Dutchman, is allowed in “sex masochism” but not on the pitch – this despite Robert Huth’s best efforts to put Marouane Fellaini off his A-game. Fellaini hit the Leicester defender where it hurts, though nobody was sure whether Huth actually likes that sort of thing. Either way, it was hardly a lover’s touch.
In a disappointing campaign, there are few shining lights. Should United win the FA Cup it will bring joy to a club in dire need of a celebration three years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Yet, there have been too few players who emerge from the season with credit and reputation intact. It left Manchester United’s goalkeeper, David de Gea, as the club’s Player of the Season for the third campaign running. But was De Gea really the most worthy winner?
Did you hear the one about Louis van Gaal’s sex life? It was a lot more entertaining than his football team. Once again this week Van Gaal proved better value for money off the pitch than on it as United laboured to a score draw against Leicester City at Old Trafford. The Dutchman called it United’s “best performance of the season” – although he has a very small pool of decent performances to pick from.
Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.