Sunday 31 December 2017

A blip... or something more serious at play?

Every team goes through a blip at some stage of the season, especially at this time of year when the games are coming thick and fast and injuries mount up. The 0-0 Old Trafford draw with the Saints was our third in our row, we slipped a place in the league and we've collected only 12 points from a possible 21 during December - traditionally a month when United are in red-hot form. The draws against Leicester, Burnley and Saints extended our winless run to a third game to make it a paltry nine points out of a possible 18, even though the derby defeat to City was our only loss. Even the three wins we've had in December were far from convincing, as we needed a goalkeeping clinic from David de Gea to beat Arsenal before narrow and nervy wins over struggling duo AFC Bournemouth and West Brom.

This feels like more than a blip now, and all the progress we've made is in danger of being undone if it continues. There's something more serious at play. Since Manchester City came to Old Trafford on 10 December and won with ease, United have lost the spring in our step and the swagger with which we were despatching opponents earlier in the season has been conspicuous by its absence. It's almost as if that derby defeat sapped all the team's energy, belief and spirit and, since then, we haven't recovered or been anywhere near the team we were in the opening months of the season. That may have been the day our title hopes were realistically - if not mathematically - ended, but that's no reason to stop playing and giving everything for the shirt. At present, some players just aren't doing that.

 Injuries certainly aren't helping either. Romelu Lukaku became the latest on the treatment table when was taken off on a stretcher against Southampton - to join Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the sidelines.

As the team have lurched from one disappointment to another, so the boss has become increasingly irritable, negative and prickly. Frustrated from the failure of being able to compete with City, no one has been spared. From criticising the players at Leicester, when he called them "childish", he blasted the club's board for not giving him enough cash to spend after the stalemate at Burnley. This time against Southampton, referee Craig Pawson bore the brunt of Jose's wrath after his failure to award the Reds a first-half spot-kick. Jose is no stranger to such meltdowns of course, but such outbursts usually arrive after he's won the league title - this time it seems, things have reached a boiling point a season earlier than usual.

You can't help but feel that the manager's negativity has filtered through to the players who don't look on the same wavelengths. It's a worrying trend. Jose was brought in to be the man to return the title to Old Trafford but - despite notable improvements and last season's double cup win - the prospects of him doing so look further away than ever now.

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