Manchester United’s game against Sunderland already creates feelings of the end of season game no one wants to play in.
Sunderland still have the smallest hope of staying up , though they are surely resigned to relegation by now. United, on the other hand, have a much better shot at their main league objective for the final stretch of games, qualifying for the top four. But even that seems to have taken a back seat as United look to complete that task through means beyond the Premier League. And yet, because they have about as much chance of winning the title as Sunderland have of staying up, United don’t seem too fussed about trying too hard in the league.
There seems to be a sense in which football has become solely about winning. It’s always been mostly about that, of course, but perhaps not quite to this extent. When United won a treble in 1999, everyone remembers the treble, but everyone also remembers the iconic moments along the way: Ryan Giggs’ goal in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, the magic from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the final few seconds of the Champions League final.
People don’t just remember the victory, they remember the moments, the history they experienced.
But the way we approach football seems to have changed. United have sat in sixth for the guts of this entire Premier League season – ever since form calmed down and we began to see the true story of the season. And that seems to have coloured the way they approach the rest of the season.
Jose Mourinho isn’t a man who likes to rest players, and he is a coach who believes in momentum, getting his players to play for the cause more and more as the season goes on. It’s that relentless approach that has brought him titles and success everywhere he has gone, and next season, he’ll target the Premier League title, probably after at least a double in his first season and qualification for the Champions League through the Europa League.
And yet, somewhere along the line, football became about what you do rather than how you do it. Talk of trophyless seasons hangs over managers who desperately need the one final piece of silverware that’s up for grabs – Pep Guardiola at Manchester City will face articles about just how bad a trophyless season is for the other half of the city, but the reality is he’s still in the process of building the team.
Over the last decade or more, football has become so black and white and so binary: either you win or you don’t. Nuance has left us, and only the teams with a chance of winning will try. And in the Premier League, with no chance of winning it, United may well buy into that this weekend. With Anderlecht on the horizon, who could blame them?
Because of that, United’s game with Sunderland today could well have the air of an end of season stroll in the sun. United still have nine games left, but with the way football culture works these days, they’d be mad to care too much about fourth place. Victories over Anderlecht and then two teams of the calibre of Schalke – 10th in the Bundesliga – or Lyon – 4th in Ligue 1, and 20 points behind leaders Monaco – mean United will bag a title. In fact, if they can’t win the Europa League this season, beating the sorts of teams who United would regard as a soft draw in the Champions League group stages, what business do they have in the big competition at all?
And so all of that lends itself to a crumbling of the importance of the Premier League this season for United. They’ve been sixth all season, so why not embrace that position and attempt to win three trophies instead – in a purely numerical silverware sense, their best season since 1999.
Modern football has created the situation, but Mourinho is very good at exploiting it. And even if this is the worst game you’ll see all season, still who could blame United for not going all out in the league from here on in?