As far as club fixtures go there are only a handful in world football that lie firmly in the ‘unmissable’ category. El Clasico certainly, which resembles a soap opera given the drama of the players involved. The Auld Firm produces pure hatred between the two Glasgow sides, as does the Derby Della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. The Manchester derby is fast becoming the Hollywood blockbuster fixture of which Sky Sports and Twitter’s football hipsters dream. Yet, Liverpool against Manchester United has something just a little different.
The headlines, save for Sam Allardyce’s indiscretions, have been about Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney for a week or more. It probably couldn’t be any other way. Yet, lost amid José Mourinho’s decision to ditch a player who once enjoyed the “special privileges” at Old Trafford, has been United’s return to form, of sorts. Three defeats in succession derailed what early season momentum Mourinho’s side had built up. Victories over Leicester City and Zorya Luhansk in the past week have restored a more natural order to proceedings. Both without Rooney.
Could it be the day that José Mourinho finally makes the big selection decision on everybody’s mind? The one involving captain Wayne Rooney and the bench. After all, Rooney’s performances this season, for the last three, have suggested a once great player on the wane. That burst of speed, surety of touch, and goalscoring prowess: all gone. His value to the team: vastly diminished.
Derby week is done, with round one taken by United’s noisy neighbours as the world’s gaze focused on Manchester for the season’s most anticipated match. Manchester City won a tough battle 2-1, with an electric opening period enough to secure Pep Guardiola victory at Old Trafford.
The season may only be three weeks old, but it is fair to say that the feel good factor is starting to settle in again at Old Trafford. Last Friday, Manchester United welcomed Southampton in the first competitive home game of José Mourinho’s reign as the Reds’ manager. The following 90 minutes brought some of the best football witnessed at Old Trafford in the last three years. The hope is that the good times continue on Saturday as Mourinho prepares to take his side to face one of Ferguson’s greatest allies, Mike Phelan.
What a difference a summer makes. Two games into José Mourinho’s tenure as Manchester United manager and the narrative surrounding England’s most successful club has significantly changed. Victories over Leicester City and Bournemouth, allied to the new manager and fresh faces in the dressing room, have brought confidence coursing back. The sentiment on the terraces has done a 180 – far from the despondency of the last few years, fans now believe that United is not only back, but bound for success. Friday night under Old Trafford’s lights is just one more step towards the inevitable.
“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”
Rant doesn’t often get biblical, but in a summer of tough decisions for Manchester United, it is true that success sometimes necessitates sacrifice. Trimming the fat can be the price of moving forward, making tough calls for the betterment and progression of a club. United might need to address the elephant in the room – Wayne Rooney is the hand that might need to be severed for the body to survive.
If any set of fixtures describes the farce at Manchester United over the last three years then the Reds’ games against Bournemouth last season could sum it up. United arrived on the South Coast last December needing three points to top the Premier League. Instead, Louis van Gaal’s side was undone by a series of comical errors, resulting in a 2-1 defeat and with it slipped down to fifth place. United never recovered. New manager José Mourinho cannot contemplate a repeat as the Reds visit Bournemouth of the opening day of the new campaign.
It is often beneficial to look at the Premier League as a whole to see where Manchester United stands and to identify any general trends. Last season was an unmitigated disaster, even with the FA Cup victory, and lessons should be learned to avoid the further ‘Liverpoolization’ of the club. In earlier Data Rant columns, statistical theory was not strictly observed – emphasizing intuition and broad trends above technicalities. However, with more advanced techniques we can get a more precise picture.
As the old saying goes, it’s not despair, but the hope that kills you. On Tuesday night, Manchester United travelled to East London to face West Ham United with Champions League qualification on the line. The Reds needed a win to leap-frog Manchester City into fourth place with one game remaining after the Blues had come unstuck at home to Arsenal. Yet, as has so often been the case during Louis Van Gaal’s disastrous reign as United manager, his team fell apart on the big occasion. On an emotional night in East London the Hammers out-played and out-fought United in every department. It was West Ham’s last appearance at the Boleyn Ground, but in truth the home side did little more than expose United for the poorly managed, disorganised mess that the side now is.