“I thought football was supposed to be entertainment?” questioned Jake Humphrey on BT Sport’s coverage.
“It’s supposed to be, and it used to be at this place. I don’t think anyone’s surprised at what we’ve seen in the first half. The players are bored, the fans are bored; everyone’s bored. You look at the manager and he looks bored as well” Scholes ranted in reply.
Unfortunately, he’s right. Saturday’s 1-0 win over Sheffield United was yet another chapter in the drab novel of the 2015/16 season for Manchester United. Fans were restless, the players looked restless, Giggs looked restless. Once again we struggled to perform, struggled to excite, and struggled to score. It’s a story we’ve watched and read about over and over again this season, so why is there still no change? This is nothing new, after all.
Sheffield United are, for a League One side, a very decent cup team, reaching the Capital One League Cup semi finals last season, and the 5th round of the FA Cup a year previous to that. However, they are still a League One side, and when you field a strong team featuring the likes of Rooney, Herrera, Mata, Schweinsteiger, Martial and so on, a plethora of chances and opportunities should be being created. Yet, it took until just before the 70th minute for a shot on target (which even then was a scuffed toe-poke from Darmian), and took the introduction of a currently inconsistent Memphis Depay after 60 minutes to spark the tiniest ray of light into the game with two off-target shots. Most telling about the game was that these shots were ironically applauded as if they were actually goals scored, simply because he had a go.
So why are we so blunt in the final third? I am no football coach and I don’t claim to be. But it isn’t a case of footballing knowledge or coaching ability in my opinion, it’s simple common sense.
On deadline day we brought in a 19 year old striker from AS Monaco called Martial. Nobody expected much from him, but since his thunderous introduction at home against Liverpool, he has become our most direct, potent attacker at the club. Yet where is the prolific finisher played? Left wing. In the early part of the summer transfer window in 2014 we bought a dynamic, exciting, creative attacking midfielder from Athletic Bilbao called Ander Herrera. What happens at half time? He is pulled back to defensive midfield and Fellaini is moved forward. Mata – a number 10 at right wing. Rooney – (while more debateable) a number 10 at number 9. Pereira – a number 10/winger at defensive midfield. Fellaini – umm…
You get the point.
All these attacking players, goal-scorers and creators alike, are all played in unfamiliar positions, and we wonder why things don’t naturally click in the final third? Rather than instinct, these players are second guessing what they need to be doing at any given time, and are reverting to the safe option of a sideways or backwards pass each time. Mata is a passer, not a dribbler or a runner, so rather than instinctively doing what a winger should do – get to the by-line and whip in a cross, he has to think, cut back inside, and pass across. Martial through the centre offers the midfielders a forward pass in behind the defence, but instead the midfielders must pass sideways toward the wing in order to get him on the ball. This is why we get an over-thought, over-worked, drab way of playing football with so very little penetration that quite frankly would work well as a good way of sending a crying newborn to sleep.
That said, Sheffield had 10 men behind the ball at all opportunities, and naturally this would be hard for most teams to break down. However it still doesn’t forgive the lack of both intent and risk shown by seasoned international stars at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Play the players in their natural positions with the freedom to go and create in a fluid formation, and those two things will return naturally.
Negativity aside however, this is the football we signed up for as Manchester United when signing Van Gaal, in return for the building process that comes with him. At Bayern he frustrated fans with the very same style of football, but he was key in the laying of the groundwork for them to go onto great things in years to come, and it was the same with Barcelona before that.
Look forwards for a moment at our team in 5 years – a developed Martial up top; behind him a selection from a (hopefully) more consistent and developed Memphis, Pereira, Lingard, Herrera, Januzaj; fed by Schneiderlin in his prime; in front of a back line containing Shaw, McNair, Smalling in his prime, and Varela/Darmian; and potentially if we can keep hold of him, De Gea. This is why, even though we all likely dislike the football played under Lucky Louis, we must back him while the board do, as disgruntled as it obviously makes us.
Here’s to hoping for a potential improvement at Newcastle on Tuesday.