Tuesday 7 May 2024

Groundhog day for Manchester United - again

Two years ago to the very day, Manchester United suffered one of our worst defeats in recent memory as an abject showing at a rampant Brighton put the seal on our worst ever Premier League season. 
Two weeks later, interim boss Ralf Rangnick was gone, replaced by United's number one target - the name at the top of everyone's list - Ajax's visionary, revolutionary manager Erik ten Hag.

Twenty four months and 731 days on, and here we are again. Only the opposition was different this time. United need four points from our last three games just to equal our lowest ever total of 58 from 2021-22. We have lost 13 times already (it was 12 in the Solskjaer/Rangnick season) and currently occupy eighth spot - one place lower than we finished even under David Moyes a decade ago. 

We've conceded 81 goals in all competitions across the season, the most ever in a single campaign since the mid 70s. 55 of those have come in the league, only two fewer than our all-time Premier League worst two seasons ago but still with three games to play. 

With title-chasing Arsenal and revitalised Newcastle still to come to Old Trafford, and a final day trip to bogey side Brighton, I cannot see us getting another point never mind winning another game. That's before we even discuss the FA Cup final. Throw in 62 injuries (perhaps a discussion for another day), a boardroom takeover not completed until December, corrupt refereeing and the form of a few players falling off a cliff, and it has simply been a disaster of a season. It's end cannot come soon enough. 
Even taking into account the mitigating factors, there was simply no excuse for yet another humiliation on the road on Monday night. 

The type of performance ten Hag was supposed to eradicate reared it's ugly head again and, perhaps even more worryingly, he seemed powerless to prevent it.

From the moment a ragtag United conceded the first goal under the slightest of pressure, the game was done. From the moment Michael Olise received a throw in on half way, walked into the acres of space in front of him and kept going to finish well, there was no way back. What a great idea it was to allow one of the best goalscoring wingers in the land to simply cut a swathe through the middle of our non existent midfield without tracking him, closing down or squeezing the central area. Maybe we should have allowed him a few more yards to run, just in case. It was a goal so spectacularly shambolic it was almost impressive. United could do a lot worse than to sign Olise in the summer.  He was the best player on the park by a considerable distance. 

Wherever and whenever Palace fancied attacking, there were allowed to at will by a team lacking fight, skill, energy, attitude and any cohesion whatsoever. Under Oliver Glasner, the hitherto unknown Austrian appointed by the Eagles in February, Palace were dynamic, direct, pacy, penetrative and powerful - everything ten Hag's United were not. This is Glasner's first foray into English football, he has been in charge at Selhurst Park for a little over two months and there's already an identikit, a vision and a plan. A completely new way of playing against whatever this is meant to be from ten Hag's United.

The fact nine of the eleven starters at Palace are ten Hag era players was most damning of all. If the players have downed tools for yet another manager, then what does that say about the recruitment? Ther are his boys, his signings. Only the full-backs Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan - Bissaka pre date ten Hag. Andre Onana, Casemiro, Antony, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund were all acquired for hefty sums of money. Jonny Evans and Christian Eriksen were free signings. Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho are this side's future, the two players we should build the team around. Both have risen to prominence under ten Hag. But without the injured Bruno Fernandes, they looked around for leadership where there was none. This was a day where even two of United's better performers in a desperate season got dragged down to their colleagues levels. 

Whilst we're not in the business of singling out any individual for criticism, we need to talk about Casemiro. None of United's apparent superstars covered themselves in glory, but the Brazilian was perhaps the most abhorrent culprit. The five time Champions League winner was reduced to nothing more than a spectator as Olise and his partner in crime on the opposite winger, Eberechi Eze, with Jean - Phillippe Mateta the kind of powerful, physical presence even a regular centre-half has nightmares over.
Casemiro, signed as the figurehead of United's revival as a totemic and transformative serial winner, instead epitomised our cowardly, spineless and gutless surrender. He dived in needlessly instead of holding his position to allow Olise as much room as he needed for the opener. Then he was meekly barged off the ball on the byline by Daniel Munoz  to cross for Olise to score  his second, and Palace's fourth. In his defence, he is not a centre-half but has looked devoid of energy and industry, sinking under instead of stepping up as United have floundered of late. Casemiro looks leggy, he looks done and is fully checked out as a United player. 

An offer from the mega rich Saudi league or MLS will surely be coming his way in the summer - he is our highest earner and is meant to be one of United's leadership group. After a stunning debut season at Old Trafford, it is alarming to witness how quickly even the basics seem to have deserted him. Is he a victim of United's implosion, or part of the cause? Alongside him, Jonny Evans looked every inch his 36 years as he was caught flat footed by Mateta to saunter through and slam in the second. It is not Evans fault - he was the only centre-back we had available and was thrown in at the eleventh hour despite failing a fitness test. United's thirteenth different centre back pairing of the season was, unsurprisingly, found wanting. 

If something ceases to function, can it be said to exist at all? Christian Eriksen is another - like Casemiro - who was signed to herald in a new era but he was upstaged by his less heralded, but supremely more mobile and progressive counterpart Adam Wharton. 

All eyes have been on United's talented youngster Mainoo, and rightfully so, but even he was overshadowed by the performance of his young compatriot. The Englishman seemed drawn to the ball like a magnet, always in the right place at exactly the right moment for Palace. He was excellent positionally and caught the eye with his combative energy and slick, between the lines passing. The obligatory gap in United's midfield became a gaping chasm as Wharton seized control of everything around him, the standout player in a midfield consisting of Mainoo and Mount. In stark contrast, none of those in Red ever seemed to be where they've needed, with time and space granted to each and every opponents in midfield, on the wings and in behind. 

Up front, Hojlund toiled admirably but again got no service and was hooked after 80 minutes of nothing. This current mess is not his fault and he should be absolved of blame. 

So where does this leave us? Are we going to sack ten Hag and simply restart the same rinse and repeat cycle? Or do we put this down as a freakishly bad one off and build again with the Dutchman next season? A new manager doesn't make these players any better. A new manager doesn't de-age Casemiro or make Eriksen mark properly. If we do decide to part ways, most of the squad need to go with him. I would only definitely keep Garnacho, Hojlund, Mainoo and - dependent on fitness - Martinez. The rest I would not be against moving on. When are we going to stop pinning all the blame on our manager and look for the players to take responsibility. There is no doubt ten Hag is a good manager. He overachieved in his first season at United and has not suddenly lost his mojo overnight. He is just at a club where no manager can succeed. 
It is a mystery how you can go from that brilliant, exciting young Ajax side which took Europe by storm, to this. A side which is everything and nothing. If he does indeed go to recently deposed German champions Bayern Munich, I've no doubt he will do well there. 
Each time United have opted for a change in the Old Trafford hotseat, there has been a clear front runner to be the successor. This time, Thomas Tuchel is probably the best of a bad bunch but there's no one as a very obvious upgrade on ten Hag. 

As INEOS approach their first summer in control of all football operations, the job facing them - and United - is one akin to climbing Everest in slippers. For the first time in almost 20 years, I have confidence the men in the corridors of power at Old Trafford will get this right. 
Two years on from United's battering at Brighton, nothing, on the pitch at least, has changed. 

Tuesday 19 March 2024

It's honour and glory the great man, he said...

The FA Cup quarter-final is precariously balanced on the precipice. A stonking, superbly see-sawing contest has swung one way and then the other as English football's two most successful and famous clubs have served up an all time classic. 

It is a tie befitting not only of Manchester United against Liverpool, but also of the world's oldest domestic competition. For all those naysayers who no longer value the FA Cup, this has been the epitome of everything it has to offer.

Perched up in the stand bearing the name of our now sadly departed knight of the realm Sir Bobby Charlton, I watch on with one thought uppermost in my mind: here we go again. I was preparing for the mental trauma of that footballing nuance we all love to hate or, maybe, hate to love: the penalty shootout. 

For a man still suffering from Villarreal-induced PTSD, it is all too much to bear. I begin to go through United's five penalty takers in my mind: Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, maybe substitute Christian Eriksen. Perhaps the excellent Diogo Dalot? Scott McTominay? Who will be the hero? Will lady luck smile on us this time? Please, someone somewhere, help us through this. I can barely watch, yet at the same time I'm held completely in thrall.  

Only Manchester United can put you through the wringer the way they did on Sunday. From the ecstasy of McTominay's early opener to agony as Liverpool hit the front and took control of a cup tie that suddenly looked out of our reach.  I experienced the entire gamut of emotions, twice over and back again. It felt like being on a 120-minute rollercoaster: a twisting, turning white knuckle ride with just about everything chucked at you en route. This club, man...

Delight as Antony - a much maligned figure written off as the main example of United's poor recruitment policy - scores with his right peg to drag United, kicking and screaming, into extra time with four minutes left. Despair as Marcus Rashford pulls wide with the goal, and the semi final, at his mercy, and Harvey Elliott put them ahead once more (with the aid of a deflection, just to really rub it in).

I thought that was it. We were done. There seemed no way back. We'd already got out of jail once: twice was too much to ask, surely? Even for a club as renowned for its last gasp acts of derring do as ours. Especially against this Liverpool side. With this manager. A manager who will be leaving in a few short months and his players finding an extra 5% within themselves as a result.

The FA Cup and a season that had promised so much but delivered so little was slipping away. To make matters worse, it seemed as if United would be merely a footnote on Liverpool's road to relentless, quadruple chasing history. 
Yet United dug in and found hallmarks once commonplace but sorely conspicuous in absentia over these last eight months. Fight. Courage. Character. Guts. Resolve. Back we come again as, in the blink of an eye, Rashford makes it 3-3 and this madcap game is thrown wide open once more. Now what? How often do you see one goal in extra-time, never mind two. I barely have time to think as my rapidly diminishing voicebox does it's best to rouse the players for one final big effort. 

Of all the live games I've been to, this is already the most memorable by far. I think of the journey this magnificent club, this huge part of my life for nearly 30 years has taken me on. The good times, and the bad, the rough and the smooth. The memories, the heartbreak, the friends I have made. But on this day I've seen nothing yet. 

And so to the denouement: 3-3, in the final minute of a sensational cup tie up there with the finest Old Trafford has ever seen. Whatever happens, United deserve credit. Written off by all and sundry, we have never given in, defended well when we had to and taken our chances when they've come. Liverpool may be ahead in terms of quality but the Reds have more than played their part in keeping them at bay. We almost won it, we could have lost it: either of those things could still happen. 

It's a strange feeling I can't explain, but football fans get an inkling, a sixth sense almost, that something is about to happen. As the Liverpool corner is swung in, Elliott sticks out an outstretched leg but the ball breaks loose. I get that feeling, somewhere deep inside. What happens next will live with me forever. Amad Diallo, the forgotten man thrown on perhaps more in hope than expectation, gets a foot to the ball. Alejandro Garnacho, United's jet-heeled teenage tyro two years Amad's junior, bursts clear and leads the charge towards Liverpool's penalty area. Old Trafford holds it collective breath as Conor Bradley - inexplicably the only man left covering - backpedals furiously as Garnacho runs. And runs. And runs.

Amad has kept up with his team mate in support and acts as a decoy as Garnacho shepherds the ball into his path. Amad changes his body shape side on to the ball and rolls it across goal beyond the diving Caoimhin Kelleher. For what feels like an eternity, the ball trickles across the famous, iconic turf before kissing the post and rolling in. On ITV, Sam Matterface manages to convey the moment brilliantly: "Amad for the semi final" he purrs succinctly but superbly - five small words that said everything. 

Cue some of the greatest scenes Old Trafford has ever witnessed. Cue sheer, utter and unadulterated joy. Bedlam. Hysteria. Scenes of wild jubilation not seen on this scale for many a year. The substitutes and coaching staff race from the bench to join the heaving throng of players and supporters alike. On the touchline, Erik ten Hag cavorts with delight. Inject that sound, the sound of our great theatre in full voice, erupting to it's collective core and roaring to the heavens.  Never have I hugged so many random strangers. The lad behind me has tears in his young eyes. I was not far off. His father throws his arms around me in celebration.  I hug anyone in sight, bellowing to the sky as all those pent up emotions come pouring out. Worry, nerves, excitement, hope, fear, joy, pride, happiness, you name it. It's all there. It's all in that roar into the Old Trafford rafters. This may 'only' have been a quarter final, but it feels like so much more. Winning this game in this manner means so much. Especially given the season we have had. I fall to my knees, like the dejected Liverpool players sprawled on the turf in front of me. I am spent. This is why Sir Bobby Charlton called it the Theatre of Dreams.

For everything I've seen, everything my beloved team has won, this is up there as one of my greatest days supporting this club. That's saying something considering the 20 league titles, the Treble, the 2008 Champions League and all that has come before or since. This club is gonna be the death of me one of these days but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Who writes these scripts? A peripheral figure starved of game time, sent on to rescue a game slipping from our grasp, becomes an instant hero. A 21-year-old forced to the fringes by his manager writes himself into Manchester United folklore forever. The calmest man in the ground scores with almost the last kick to finally settle a totemic, titanic tussle and send United to Wembley. A player with only 13 United appearances to his name with the biggest goal of his career.  

A name to talk about for the rest of time. A young Ivorian to go down in the annals as a man who won his side arguably the greatest FA Cup tie we have ever seen. Against his side's biggest rivals in the final seconds. A lad who sent 400 million across the globe into delirium. As the man who sits high up in the posh seats in the stand that bears his mighty name once said: Football, bloody hell. 

In the chaos, I do not even not notice the red card brandished to the goalscorer. My scarf goes flying. My voice and any semblance of dignity or normality has gone with it. I am lost in a world of tumult, a world where nothing else matters, a world that I feel on top of. I am emotionally exhausted, mentally wrecked. I cannot think straight. Only football, or perhaps, indeed, only Manchester United, can do this to a man. I will never forget this day. Being there in the flesh making memories to cherish and to last a lifetime. Whenever the United vs Liverpool game of 17 March 2024 is mentioned in future, I will be able to say 'I was there'. 

As the Stretford End banner in tribute to United's first Great Scot Sir Matt Busby proudly proclaims: "It's honour and glory, the great man he said, there's nothing on earth like being a Red."