Manchester United’s inability to score, create and to entertain has become legendary. The team that once did all of that without even seeming to break sweat in many games has now been turned on its head. United are simply terrible to watch.
It’s something that seems to hurt United’s fans and ex-players alike. Every week we see the fans vent their disapproval, though they aren’t in all-out revolt. They dutifully support their team, though you get the feeling they’d rather be 16th and entertaining than fifth and dull.
But that’s where they are, fifth place, only three points behind fourth. They are hardly where they wanted to be at this stage of the season, but they’re still in touch with Spurs at least. And if Spurs are in a title-race then surely United are too, even if that’s only by virtue of their points tally and league position rather than any likelihood of them actually being able to pick up the points needed to win the title.
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Yet Manchester United fans may have to accept the reality of where their club is just at the moment. They are in a league that is becoming tighter thanks to the money gap closing slightly. Only slightly, but enough to allow teams like West Ham and Crystal Palace to sign genuine talent, the kinds of players who could grace a top European side without too much trouble – Dimitri Payet, Yohan Cabaye, etc.
Football is about winning trophies for most fans, for United fans it’s surely about that, too. It’s just that years of being spoilt with an all-you-can-eat glut of silverware have made them less hungry for silverware than most clubs. The club can go without for a few seasons without suffering hunger, but it’s the absence of entertainment they can’t do without.
So for most clubs, the situation in which United find themselves would surely be enviable, at least a bit. Of course, no one envies the boring football, but the riches of the club, combined with their fan base is enviable. So too is the fact that the team can still find themselves in with a shot of a few trophies this season and Champions League football next season. The team tasked with getting them there is very young and presumably on the up.
Even if the football isn’t nice, it’s still getting them into a position where silverware is still possible, and the squad will surely be stronger next season. With a bench including the likes of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Jesse Lingard, United are managing to stay in fifth place with a squad of youngsters who may well be fine players in a few seasons’ time.
In many ways that should be a good thing. Although the style of play is stodgy, United are managing to stay up the league with a lot of young players and a squad that will be competitive for years to come – though only if those youngsters do actually turn out to be top Premier League players.
The problem is the here and now. United fans are used to a certain standard. They’re used to Sir Alex Ferguson who built at least three world class sides at United that allowed him to win over half of the Premier League titles that have been played so far. You can’t argue that Arsenal aren’t one of the greatest Premier League clubs in terms of success, but when Ferguson won his first title, United still had fewer titles than Arsenal. Today they have seven more, which says it all.
Yet Ferguson wouldn’t have the squad that Van Gaal has today. Those young players who are continually getting game time would be getting game time under Ferguson, too. But they wouldn’t have the responsibility that they have under LvG. Ferguson knew that young players must earn responsibility, and will only get it when they prove themselves.
Van Gaal seems to be using them week in week out because he has no other options – and after an entire year and a half in charge, he has no one but himself to blame. Ferguson, on the other hand, would be using those players sporadically, perhaps only once a month, and not because he had to.
But under circumstances like that, United are doing very well indeed. Surely staying in touch with the top teams with a side like theirs, even in a fragmented season where teams are all inconsistent or unpredictable, is a good feat, one which would keep most sets of fans happy.
United fans aren’t like most fans, though. They demand something else. Not shallow enough to be placated by the fact that trophies are still a possibility, they’d rather play well and lose than scrappily nick a win. Even if sides of the past could play badly and win, they only did it occasionally. You could never fault Ferguson’s willingness to gamble in order to win, but that’s exactly why the fans and press alike are faulting Van Gaal.
Entertainment is key, but clearly winning is secondary, at least for a while. United are in a position that any other club would see as at least palatable. For the moment, United isn’t any other club, but the trophy starvation diet might turn them into one.