They keep coming. Covered in logos and all decked out in red and black, the children of the south still fill the Manchester-bound trains on a match day. They arrive with eyes full of hope, they leave with carrier bags full of merchandise. United’s extraordinary, Ferguson-fueled run of success may have come to an end, but this club can still lure kids and their deep-pocketed parents up the country every other weekend. Will the lustre last much longer? Who knows. Right now, it’s difficult to predict any more than a few days in advance at Old Trafford.
Manchester United are weird. There’s no other word for it. They don’t fit any kind of template, they don’t do what you expect them to do. They have all the gear, we have no idea. And Saturday’s game against Leicester was a case in point.
They won, which is very much the object of the exercise of course, but not with any style. Not with the kind of bundle-through-the-front-door-set-fire-to-your-curtains-raid-your-drinks-cabinet-and-escape-through-your-back-window kind of gusto to which we’ve become accustomed in recent decades.
And this is hardly unusual. While United’s 12 league wins this season have kept them within ten points of the leaders, there have been few occasions when they’ve looked worthy of keeping that company. They get bogged down in the final third, there’s rarely a presence in the middle (hardly a new problem) and they wobble at set-pieces. More often than not, there’s enough individual ability at hand to save the day, but that’s not really the point. This is Manchester United. They shouldn’t need their day to be saved.
We know now that David Moyes, with the best will in the world, was not the man for this job. It was too big for him. Louis van Gaal, on the other hand, is possessed with an ego so powerful that he may secretly consider this job too small for his talents. We don’t need to recount his CV here, it’s enough to remind ourselves that he has won the title with every club he has ever managed. If you don’t think that he’s good enough for this, then there can’t be many you think are good enough.
Six months is too short a time to judge a manager, but it should be long enough to gauge direction. So far, we’ve seen back threes and back fours. We’ve seen slow build-up and quick breaks. We’ve seen stodgy midfields and midfields made of smoke and glitter. Van Gaal’s initial assertion that it would take three months of disappointment before the players understood their roles has proved too optimistic. Granted, results improved markedly after the narrow defeat at the Etihad in November, but performances rarely matched them.
There are positives, of course. Since shipping five to Leicester in September, United have only conceded more than one goal on a single occasion and have kept four clean sheets in their last seven games. But Saturday’s win over Leicester was the first game of 2015 in which they’ve looked anything close to comfortable.
It doesn’t help that so many players are shunted around like props. We’ve seen midfielders in defence, strikers in midfield, midfielders up front, wingers at full back.
It’s only natural for a new manager to test out different shapes and combinations, but it’s getting to the point where someone is going to have to ask Van Gaal: Do you actually know your best eleven?
As long as United stay near the top, those kids from the south will keep on travelling up. After 25 years without a title, Liverpool still attract considerable support around the country. Like Anfield, Old Trafford holds a glamour that will continue to seduce new supporters and a history that is the envy of most clubs in Europe. As for the future, that’s rather more uncertain. At some point, it would be nice to get an indication what exactly Van Gaal is trying to do up there.