Here’s the thing. The FA Cup is medium fabulous but what happens/happened tonight may be irrelevant. United are so-o twitchy and unsmooth, so wearing (or at least wearing the pressures of being United so poorly) that half the team or more are playing for their futures.
Superficially that sounds daft. Clearly at a club of this magnitude every player is playing for his place every week. There’s competition; there’s exposure; there’s that heady expectation – more here than almost anywhere in world football. So why bang on about ‘futures’ when this is the natural way of it at a monster club?
Firstly because this is the essence, the unruly gloop at the core of the van Gaal problem. It’s the dark treacle the players are wading through.
Secondly because we’re all of us trying to make sense of or identify the gaffer’s de-glooping plan. And this is troubling. It feels, for all van Gaal’s bluster and physical presence, like there is still no direction; or at least that progress has not been convincingly targeted. That – and the fact that this mirrors the Moyes era – is extraordinary, so deep into the natural transition period. The arrival of a bona fide top top manager should surely have extinguished any possibility for slippage aeons ago? Not so.
Falcao may be the obvious example of a player unable to shake the molasses from his boots but go through the list – mine or yours. Valencia/Rafael – both have threatened to burst clear and then either been too one-paced, shorn of confidence or too impetuous to gather form. Smalling/Jones have gallumped around unconvincingly; the latter even surreally masquerading as a dead-ball expert to escape from his prevailing plainness. McNair has simply been thrown in there too soon, following the calamitous failure to get stoppers of quality into the club; he’s therefore relatively blameless – if that can be said of a player who’s been groomed for this test for years. McNair could be a United defender in two or three years, perhaps; he ain’t one now.
Rojo and Shaw may be easing themselves through but in midfield the rotations – enforced and otherwise – have been as cloyingly obstructive as the individual performances. Di Maria is hardly beyond criticism but does narrowly exempt himself from that central question of his fitness for duty by being intermittently brilliant. He needs to do more than twinkle, mind, to justify the early clamour. Mata is a player alright but needs to be accommodated; his brilliant butterfly-in-search-of-nectar thing only works in a particular context. Likewise Januzaj, only more so. The young winger is far too fitful still and remains in danger of playing his way out of the club – sadly.
Blind and Herrera are closer to safety, despite the latter’s apparent low ranking with van Gaal. Most reds seem to be baffled the Spaniard hasn’t had more of a run in the side, rating his positivity, athleticism and goal-threat. Again the sense is that policy has wobbled as team form has failed to turn; the blend hasn’t either established itself or been driven hard or consistently enough by the coaching staff. We all know things get compromised but arguably playing philosophy can and should transcend fickleness/luck/injury. Van Gaal, despite the imperial pomp, has not dictated; players do not seem to be sufficiently steeped in belief or method.
We can scoot past the problems Fellaini has faced on the grounds that he’s patently in the unproven camp. Despite his presence (in every sense) as the Andy Carroll in Long Ball United’s Plan B, the gangly Belgian remains profoundly sellable.
The richest difficulties appear to concern Rooney and RVP. Wazza is probably United’s most complete striker but I am with van Gaal in thinking he should be playing deeper; he’s just ripe and ready for the Paul Scholes role, for me.
Rooney can pass, can read the play, can dominate possession; he thrives on involvement. There are times when his touch deserts him but it strikes me that this happens mostly when he’s drifting in and out of the game (i.e. when isolated, up front). In central midfield he might boss more games than almost any other player in the Premiership. True, he would get 20 plus goals no danger up top but somebody else can do that in a fluently-attacking side. He may really be uniquely kitted out for the schemer/gatherer/prober/piercer role that only the truly finest players can occupy. Given that my hunch is Scholesies are rarer even than top-notch strikers and given Rooney’s mature stage as a player, I reckon the skipper should drop into that pivotal position and stay there.
I say this fully aware of significant evidence to the contrary. I’ve noted (well, bawled, actually) about Rooney’s utter failure at that highest level of international tournament play. Those repeated but still weirdly inexplicable crashes during the majors. How then can we view him as godlike midfield strutter of uberstuff? Instinct. It might take a few months but I simply think Rooney could make that role his own.
Central midfield is the perfect place from which to command the side. He’s the right age. He can be everything from quarterback to edge-of-the-box executioner. Though there are whispers that United may buy big again to fill this void, I’m thinking it may be easier and better to buy another striker and get Rooney in there.
Van Persie is wrapped up in this. Clearly a magnificent footballer when fit, he’s too easy to mark and too sedentary when shy of that lean, reactive peak. Is it a heresy to say that this season should be his last at the club? Go buy Ings or somebody? Somebody who can race and head and finish… then release Rooney into midfield.
These are big calls but the situation is crying out for dynamic change – for a change of era. What’s fascinating is that you would imagine that van Gaal is beautifully equipped to bundle dismissively through ‘difficulties’ of this order, proclaim the new gospel, brook no challenge. That we haven’t seen. I can’t see that as anything other than a disappointment.
So the FA Cup is a wonderful distraction. If it serves to energise the side then great. If Preston are thumped or bypassed or whatever and in a month or two Wemberley calls… magic. A proper day out and a proper trophy would help any group gather. But that single (hypothetical) triumph may not be enough to mop up the treacle.
De Gea – untroubled really. But should have stopped that goal. 6.
Valencia – poor. Slow. Casual. 4.
Rojo – like his toughness, may yet come through well. 6.
Smalling – okay and no more. 6.
Shaw – like his willingness to advance. Will soon be worthy of the shirt. 6.
Di Maria – fabulous drive but woefully unproductive way too often. 5.
Blind – looks a footballer. Looks like he can consistently do what footballers do. 7.
Herrera – consistently ordinary – extraordinary given the imperative to make a statement. 5.
Rooney – strangely disengaged. 5.
Fellaini – ditto Herrera only worse, arguably because he didn’t even physically or aerially dominate. 5.
Falcao – in a poor team he was strikingly anonymous. May be the end – would have no complaints. 4.
The Gaffer – needs to read my blog and probably employ me pronto. 3.
Young – came on and made a difference. 7.