Sunday 13 February 2022

Deja vu on Groundhog Day for Manchester United

In North America on February 2 each year, the groundhog emerges from its yearly hibernation and if the creature can see its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter weather. 
In short, its a synonym for the same tedious, predictable and unwelcome events occurring again and again. 

You see where this going, right? And so that brings us neatly to the modern day Manchester United - a strange beast with the same habits, the same behaviour and an uncanny ability to lie dormant for long periods of time. Just like that repetitive old groundhog. Football is supposed to be fun and unpredictable, but right now it is both telling and damning at present you don't need to watch Manchester United to know exactly what's going down - 30 minutes of high pressing intensity before we fall to pieces with fear at the slightest probing. The inevitable opposition goal follows and then it's game over - United simply lose their way, their heads and almost the match. 

This team are incredibly frail and melt away like an ice cream in the Caribbean at even the merest hint of adversity - once again on Saturday our shape and confidence disappeared when Che Adams swept in off a post. United became edgy, nervy and a chronic case of the "jitters" spread like wildfire throughout the team. This is a team with arguably the world's greatest ever player up top, a World Cup and Champions League winner at the back and one of the finest young wingers on the planet in it. 

At present, the latter two are carrying us but Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't scored for six games, his longest barren run since 2009. He may have scored important goals for us, but CR7 is a huge problem right now. He looks frustrated and a man at odds with himself, his movement is poor and he's missing too many sitters. Unfortunately, our options up top are thin with Mason Greenwood unavailable and Edinson Cavani plagued by injury. Ronaldo is by no means the only guilty party but he is certainly a big part of the problem. 

The 73,000 people inside Old Trafford expected the net to bulge when Ronaldo rounded Fraser Forster and flicked on goal but his effort was tame and easily cleared. 
It's been the same against Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and at Burnley, and again versus Southampton. Repeat ad nauseam. The last two weeks have been the same football match on a time loop. United are incapable of sensing blood and putting opponents to the sword - but their opponents are preying on every misstep, every slowing, every chance missed. 

We are vulnerable and lack confidence and you can bet those two elements form the basis of most managers pre-match team talk in the away dressing room at Old Trafford. Profligacy leaves little margin for error at the other end of the pitch and it seems like United are getting punished for every wrong turn at present. 

In the Premier League's first ever match between two managers called Ralf, Rangnick's Reds started strongly but then lapsed into a familiar pattern as Hassenhuttl's Saints caught the eye with their energy, their movement and their work rate. To Rangnick's credit, he has tried to implement a similar raison d'etre but the players are letting him down. The interim manager spoke of how United failed to execute his plan after scoring the first, and then lost their shape in the second half. 

If anything summed up just how bad we are at present it was the pathetic attempt to beat Southampton's offside trap when seven players pushed up beyond the Saints line in the second half. If I hadn't watched the game and seen only the still image in isolation, I'd be thinking it's a good defensive line - the problem being, United were ATTACKING at the time. This team has no mentality and the footballing IQ of a five year old child. As the old saying goes - hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard. 

This was United's third consecutive 1-1 draw with each of those almost an exact carbon copy the same in terms of its pattern - so much so, Saints leveller three minutes into the second half came with exactly the same time on the match clock as Jay Rodriguez's own equaliser on Tuesday. United have been ahead in each of the three but have somehow conspired to throw the game away. I was going to say shooting ourselves in the foot, but knowing this lot we'd probably miss. Four games, 82 shots, four goals, one win - and even that was in the last minute. You have to look at the misfiring players rather than any tactical shortcomings on Rangnick's part. Southampton knew United's weaknesses, sensed their vulnerability and took full advantage. 

Earlier in the season, United were pegged back to 1-1 right after half-time by Leeds, then Newcastle. On both occasions the team motored on and pulled clear to win 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. Right now, this team look shell shocked after history repeats, going into its shell rather than rousing themselves to go and get a second. 
By the time the game reached 70 minutes, it seemed quite obvious United had hit a brick wall - the players were tense, their body language was poor, and  clear cut chances were at a premium. 
This is a problem which has only exacerbated as the season has gone on, and it is a worrying trajectory with ties against Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool next month.  

It is almost as if the football Gods are doing everything they can to mock Manchester United's misfortune - to make us suffer as much in adulthood as we triumphed in childhood. 

The 2021-22 season promised so much with our stellar cast of summer signings as a campaign in which he had high hopes of a first title push for a decade. But it has turned into nothingness, an exhausting plod week in week out with no end in sight. The top four is looking less and less likely and many of us want the season to be over already.

If only we could rewind time - it would give us a prime Ronaldo, instead of a 37 year old, who, after years of defying Father Time, is now beginning to look his age. 

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