Friday, 11 December 2015

UNITED UNDER THE MICROSCOPE


It's been a miserable week at Old Trafford. The club have followed up a disappointing result at home against West Ham with a defeat in the Champions League at VfL Wolfsburg that saw them relegated to the second tier of European football.

Individually, most of the players have suffered personal nightmares. The injury list saw Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling have their names added to it and in some ways, Bastian Schweinsteiger's personal plight has encapsulated the club's.

The German captain came under fire from his manager for a below-par display on Tuesday and has since been charged and banned by the Football Association for an apparent elbow dished out to defender Winston Reid in the weekend clash with West Ham.


If the players have had it tough, then the manager has had it rough. Louis van Gaal came under such criticism in the wake of United's elimination from the elite competition that he declared he was unable to defend himself. The Dutchman has had his methods questioned right from the transfer policy that has seen him spend a quarter of a billion (the cost of a small country) and yet appear to be leading a side that is short of an identity, ideas and ideology.

The narrative proceeding from the Board's backing of van Gaal has seemingly led to a disconnect between most fans and the leadership of the club. With top tier managerial quality available in the close season, there is concern as to why the club is not just looking to allow van Gaal to see out his contract in 2017 but also looking to extend that deal beyond 2017. Indeed, it is increasingly looking like it will be incredible negligence for the club to pass up the chance of elite managerial quality whilst the opportunity lasts.

It was always going to get messy at the first hint of a lack of progress under Louis van Gaal. Certainly, the Dutchman has not helped himself by failing to navigate a very winnable Champions League group. The club's league position suggests that if van Gaal had succeeded in the minimum requirement of a last 16 appearance, the club's season would, on the whole, still stand at reasonable success so far.


As it stands, the club have put a spin on events. The suggestion from the Board is that they viewed the target for this season as 80% domestic success and 20% Champions League success. It's easy to see why the Board are therefore relaxed about the manager's position.

Think about it: We know that the Glazer family have only really been it at Manchester United for the money. Next season's new TV deal with the premier league offers such staggering sums that a league game next season will be more valuable than a Champions League fixture. Indeed, from 2016, there will be no more economics about qualifying for the Champions League for English clubs.


In England, the Champions League will soon be about the prestige and less about the money. For a businessman therefore, the Champions League takes on the status of a necessary distraction. Winning the premier league is already far more lucrative than winning the Champions League.

Astonishing when you think about it, but therein lies a truth about the alleged 'spin' the Manchester United PR sent out on Monday this week. It was a well reasoned argument from a business point of view, not quite from a fan's perspective for whom success on the pitch not the balance sheet is a target.



So where does all this leave Manchester United and Louis van Gaal: For starters, the card played by the Board suggests that the league form is going to be the yardstick upon which the Dutch coach is evaluated from hereon.

What a relief for the manager then that this season of all seasons is so competitive at the top that despite the club's struggles, they are very much involved in a title race. If Louis van Gaal wins the premier league this season, and that is far from unthinkable this season, he gets to have the last laugh and restores his power to leave the club on his own terms. A close second finish would also be good enough given the projection at the start of the season. However, it's hard to imagine that the boss will be in a job if United altogether drop away from the summit of the league and struggle to make the Champions League places.

The first opportunity at redemption heralds from apart of the country that many away fans have probably never visited. AFC Bournemouth will be glad that like last week at Chelsea, they are up against a giant seemingly out of sorts.

Eddie Howe has got his side well drilled in his methods, ready to give it a go no matter the opposition. It's a philosophy that has won them many admirers and indeed points despite losing four key first team players to injury.

It means United cannot afford to use injuries an excuse on Saturday evening. van Gaal could be without up to 10 players tomorrow, but the need to post a result of some response to events this week means that the pressure to win will be as immense as if we were travelling at full strength.


Certainly, the next six points are a must win. In a fortnight when our title rivals come up against each other, it is imperative to take advantage of a double header against two promoted teams. The adage remains true that there's no easy games in this league, but if the new boys prove to be a tough nut to crack, then the question has to be where then shall United get the points to stake a title claim in the new year, for the fixtures do get reasonably tougher into the new year.


The manager will hope to have Ander Herrera and or Morgan Schneiderlin available to ease the midfield gap left by Bastian. It will be interesting to see whether he keeps Varela and Borthwick-Jackson as his full-backs as that is where the club have been hit most by injuries.

Regardless of the personnel, United are in desperate need of a response. They've got to find a way to win games again.  

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