Shed and watershed.

From bowlingatvincent.com, April 2015. So a taster. But a relevant one, yes?

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Shed and watershed.

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Playing Coach.

Man how we love to play coach. Pick the team, bawl at the profligacy of the centre-forward or the wastefulness of the ‘base of the diamond’. We love all that. We love being the bloke in charge – particularly when the bloke in charge ain’t making it happen.

It’s maybe an unattractive impulse. Expressing our pret-ty hypothetical superiority over the guy getting paid an enormous wedge to take all that pressure and guide all those juvenile show-pony people. Being brash and noisy about stuff we feel we know intimately but actually aren’t within a light year of; being The Boss at a mega-club.

Currently Manchester United FC (have you noticed?) are in what feels like a mess. Most extraordinarily, the manager – despite being an undoubtedly powerful personality and a legitimately major league coach – seems to have no control. Seems to have…

But hang on now. If you pause, take a deep breath and then consider the amount of media coverage and bar or living room banter about MU – say, last night and today – then maybe you/we might stifle our furies. Maybe we’ll reflect more maturely on a ‘hugely complicated situation’, with ‘untold numbers of mitigating factors conspiring against progress’. For four seconds. Then we’ll get frothing again and the ‘I CAN’T BE-LIEVE’S’ and the ‘IT’S JUST COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLES’ will start flooding violently out. Because that’s just what us fans do.

And that’s great. It’s (weirdly, perhaps?) one of the essential joys of the game. This idea that WE GET IT and sometimes those mega-folk, those plastic icons don’t. We know better than them and we could do better than them because we know what player X can do because it’s OBVIOUS, right? Obviously Jones shouldn’t be taking corners; obviously we should have bought more central defenders; obviously (now) Ferguson himself was worth 20 points a season – himself! All that stuff is the beery lifeblood of the game.

But back to now. MU are in the Top Four but seem unlikely to remain there, given that they are currently, in the round, pound-for-pound, behind Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton in terms of that phenomenon we might just call ‘playing standards.’

Swansea fans might reasonably argue that they have played more joined up footie than United this season but Stoke – nah – can’t. So maybe we could put United 7th in the table of righteousness. If we did isolate the defensive unit – why not? Everybody else has! – then we might concur with Stan Collymore that MUFC have about the 8th or 9th best defence in the league, even when at full strength. In short van Gaal has work to do.

Van Gaal does have work to do but what kind of work? Is it tinkering or is it still tectonic bloody shifting? Is this lumpen, faintly amateurish fug actually a way towards something? Is the mist gonna clear and HOW SOON? Will the advent of yet more players deliver us something kosher – something fabulous?

All these questions seem valid simply because the shapelessness of the present does imply lack of belief… generally.

Hard to intuit anything else but a fear that whatever van Gaal is selling to his players too many of them are either too poor, too dumb or too over-awed by the responsibilities of the shirt to buy in. Either that or the manager himself lacks the personal skills or the authority to shape the project. It’s both fascinating and deeply concerning for the fans.

Can van Gaal – a serial winner and seemingly impervious to chronic pressure – be falling short in terms of bundling or bullying or cuddling or managing his players towards a clear objective? (And by that I mean playing elite-level football, not the specific target of Champions League. A composed, confident and consistent side would walk into that category.) Whatever ‘state’ the club was in when he took over – and let’s face it there were problems but it was hardly Coventry City – shouldn’t things be better than this by now?

Of course they should. The manager like almost every player has underachieved. He’s put himself in a position where fans/pundits/commentators are entitled to ask whether he’s up to it. Is he up to transforming or re-energising individuals and/or galvanising the side – the team? It seems absurd that we should be asking such a question of such a gargantuan figure in the game.

But hey currently most would argue that there is little in the way of team shape – or more accurately that the side only plays sporadically in unconvincing flashes or spurts – that things don’t link. This may be combination of lack of understanding of roles – so tactical – but also a clear lack of belief. (Bringing us back to the gaffer, right?)

Belief may not be the same thing as confidence so let’s clarify; belief here might refer to comfort within the system, meaning understanding and ease with your role in the side. This surely then is both supportive of the whole – the team shape – and liberating for the individual. Players who believe can simply play; they’ll play without fear and with that wonderful instinct; they’ll express themselves confidently.

So how many Manchester United players currently are playing with this belief… and is this a reflection of failures in management as well as inadequacies in the player? ‘Course it is.

Good managers and coaches at every level set the tone; they make it oppressive or not, fun or not. I’ve said this many times but it is the role of the coach to facilitate the expression of talent. Not to say too much and complicate things; not to overload players with either information or pressure. To facilitate the expression of talent by knowing the individuals and therefore knowing what needs to be said… and how… to the individual… to the team.

Van Gaal may yet come through. It feels unlikely however that Smalling and Jones and Evans and Valencia and Fellaini… and maybe Falcao and Januzaj and Mata (even) will blossom under him. Because either they seem bereft of belief (and therefore error-prone, or debillitatingly short of composure) or they are out of favour. This is erm… half the team.

I repeat my previous claims that the sense that half the team seems to be wilting under the pressure of playing for their contract suggests chronic, what tend to be known these days as ‘systemic’ issues which do come back to the coach.

Specifically, what is his manner with individual players? Do they respect him? Is he a good bloke to be around and to have ‘on your side’? Or has he cut some of the players adrift – or is he in danger of doing so – or do some of them fear that? Does Mata, who has surely proved himself to be a genuinely top level player, wander on the fringes having become disillusioned? Does van Persie know he too must get fit and get mobile to earn a place? Is Rooney thinking ‘Jee-sus I need to get out of here? (Again.)

If it sounds that I’ve dropped into that negative spiral again I apologise. This is not what I want. I want beautiful, imaginative attacking football; I want Old Trafford to be a place for theatre and for the legitimate despatch of sporting opposition. I want Manchester United please.

Last night a good Arsenal side barely had to play to beat United at Old Trafford. There was little in the way of coherent football from van Gaal’s side again and they threw in errors left right and centre. Plus they brought an unacceptable level of shame on the club. There was a wanton-ness, a poor and cynical side to their play that spoke loudly of desperation and of lack of control. Van Gaal, as custodian of the club, needs to address that pret-ty sharply too.

More pressing than Preston.

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.

Player ratings;

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.

One v One?

So this one is peculiar. In that, well, can anyone of us remember a time when teams quite like this – i.e. so-o close to being unworthy of the brand – competed for the Unofficial Championship of the Wooorrrrr-leda? Well – Lankishire. And okay I know prob’ly four-elevenths of Utd is nearly brilliant (guess which bits?) but such is the ragged nature of a) their defence and b) Liverpool that that provocative farker of an opening question stands. United are nearly shocking but third… and Liverpool are almost completely shocking and nowhere.

Fair enough?

Ok I did say provocative farker. Lately Manchester United have cartwheeled or blundered into a run of victories where that proper MU footie – the full-on whirligig carnival, the attack-attack hurricane – has held a giddy sway over woe, embarrassment and self-destruction. Flashing directness from Di Maria with Rooney and Mata popping passes from an almost convincing hub; Fellaini (remarkably) playing as though he intermittently remembers the gist of it all; De Gea pinning things together or, yaknow, doing that saving the day thing ‘keepers do. Liverpool meanwhile have been so shot that it’s bloody fascinating.

Rodger’s team are so far from the swelling and relentless brilliance of much of last season that even those of us who expected a drop-off have joined the flummoxed zillions. On the one hand we accept that losing Suarez and Sturridge would be massive for any side but how to explain the utter disappearance of the zest, the belief, the running, the teaminess? Extraordinary.

Given that the first imperative for any manager must be to sort the buzz – the environment – around the team, the dip in positive energy that’s occurred at Anfield is mind-boggling -and a serious black mark against the previously burgeoning Rodgers. As we speak, a whole host of spotty Sports Psychology students must surely be hypothesising rhythmically around the phenomenon.

OOOH- has he simply lost the dressing room? Aaah – is the almost casual decency and articulacy of the man longhand for ‘he’s just too soft?’ Do-oooo the players think him one-dimensional as a bloke and as a coach? Wordy and scrambled? I-i-i-i-sss the essence of this that Rodgers lacks physical presence in a scrap, or does his list of strategies read a) attack with pace, beeeeeeyah) poop yer panties if this doesn’t work? And OH SWEET JEE-SUS why the utter vacuum where Liverpool used to be, eight, ten months ago? Why?

Could be that Liverpool don’t have that many good players. And/or that when the squeeze came on at the death of last season things conspired to expose them; they were unlucky but they were (mentally) weak. Or could be Ar Brendan is simply failing to motivate the group – evidently failing?

From Gerrard’s freakish slip to the trauma-fest at Palace, the suspicion does burn that Liverpool bottled it. They nose-dived from the carefree to the lamentably vulnerable and if they haven’t stayed entirely in that same, hideous, crushingly calamitous groove, they have stayed crap .

You can blame individuals or individual moments for last season’s non-consummation but that collective truth – that Liverpool couldn’t quite hack it – persists.  Corrosively.

People laughed when I singled out Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling for failing to bury Palace midway into the second half of that tumultuous, decisive fixture. They said it was ‘obvious’ the defence blew it (as though I didn’t know that). We all knew the back four was Liverpool’s achilles throughout the season but in that key moment a tad more composure, a tad more ice in the veins from front players would’ve seen Liverpool beyond any sniff of a comeback. For me it was a critical sign that they lacked that essential, murderous edge; they were too close to the ordinary humans chasing after them.

This is history and I’m not (actually) arguing that it is central now. It is present but not central. It may have been causative but today/this season ain’t about scars, it’s about current lack of ease, pattern… and therefore form.

Rodgers has failed to bundle or bully or mould his much-changed group into anything close to a bona fide top four side. There is no comparison between what his attack might offer on Sunday with what Suarez and Sturridge and a flying Sterling offered last year.

Lambert, honest and competent as he is, serves more as a symbol than a striker. He can and will get goals, but he is one-paced and limited; he will rarely electrify the Kop or anyone else. His former club-mate Lallana is arguably theoretically closer to the required pedigree but has played poorly and looked like just another gifted but bland dilettante.

Liverpool have gone from being so tremendously free-flowing they didn’t need to think about nuts/bolts/assembly, to being a side with no engine and no personality. Even Gerrard has only occasionally or momentarily thrown off the slough through sheer force of will. Rodgers must take responsibility for this.

On the other side on Sunday is Van Gaal, a man who may be fluking or scrambling his way somewhere brilliant or precarious. He knows McNair and Rojo and Blackett and Evans and Shaw and Rafael and Jones and Smalling may all fall short of the mark. Against Liverpool he may well pick three of them plus Carrick and genuflect his way ostentatiously through the contest knowing god may not help him.

For United, everything is a gamble. They have quality going forward but they have no consistency – and they still have no defence. Whether they will attackattackattack against their despised rivals will be one of many questions pondered between now and the outbreak of hostilities. The Dutch bruiser-sophisticate could claim a maniacal but spirited offensive is the only way to go given his options and the relative distraction of his opponents. This could mean a fabulous goal-fest or a simple, deflating loss, as United get undone on the break – six times.

Or, we could get a proper North-West derby game. Loaded with bile, low on quality (this one could get very low?), notably unattractive.

Van Gaal is trying to get his side to zip the ball about; he wants great movement as well as instinctive early passing but this demands confidence. As we have seen with Liverpool there’s nothing as infectious as doubt, so United must hope that touches are sure and folks don’t go missing – both may be at issue Sunday afternoon. I can already hear LVG eyeballing his tetchy superstars and setting out the mantra – you supply the dodgy Dutch accent.

We have to believe. When we pass – yes! Believe. When we press – yes! Believe. When we accept the ball under pressure – believe. We can win the game. We are positive. This is what we do.

Van Gaal will find more quality – almost certainly from outside the club – and then he will build.  Even in the chaos of now there is undeniable momentum.

Sunday could be a day where all things may be so subsumed in the vortex that the personnel barely matter. Liverpool will naturally want to still the storm and United surf it. Rodgers nor Van Gaal should have to stir the blood of their players but the two gaffers will still need to perform. Wonderfully, the challenge may revolve around the degree to which one bloke can influence and inspire eleven others. Meaning a very real, very feisty one v one.

Currently, this would favour Van Gaal and United.

United in their clunkiness.

Those with even the faintest notion of what’s going on in the world of football will know that the ‘relationship’ between Liverpool FC and Manchester United is spicy. In fact it ain’t spicy – or certainly not in any sense aromatically attractive – it stinks; it’s an all hummin’, gut-churnin’ clusterbomb of a thing, particularly off the park. Impossible (probably) to judge whether it’s the foulest rivalry of them all but there is an unseemly kind of hatred there that even mature and otherwise intellectually-viable human specimens seem to get caught up in.

Whilst this phenomena is historically and sociologically interesting I urge that we do get past it, erm… chaps and settle for the standard, or ideally elite-level exchange of witticisms common between opposing fans the globe over. Banter. Good-natured piss-taking or street-step, up-to-the-mike dissin’ of them Manc lot fer thur shockun defence or vice-versa/whatever. Let’s face it currently both sides have plenty of scope for abusing t’other.

Right now I imagine fans from Southampton to Sunderland are taking a certain rare pleasure in the sight of Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC – traditionally the swaggeriest of the swaggerers? – holding hands and walking rather shamefacedly into the Duffer’s Disco. Both are pitifully dad-dancing, or at least only fitfully finding the groove, being united in their clunkiness. Why is that?

Liverpool fans may be secretly the more concerned of the two ailing or failing dance-troupes. Because last year their side was so revelatory… and then came up short when it seemed like ultimate and redemptive glory beckoned. Scousers will be aware of and hurt by the accusations that pressure got to Liverpool when (as United fans gleefully point out) for the first time for aeons they were right in the mix at the back end of the season. It may be stretching it to think that Gerrard’s slip and those alarming capitulations were all down to pressure but something did happen to cruelly unravel a brilliant season. Now the feeling – the fear – will be growing in Liverpool that last year was The One… and it did get away.

Following a genuinely poor start Rodgers suddenly has his work cut out. Sure there have been changes but he would be wise not to make too much of the ‘disruption’ caused by the departure of Suarez and injuries to Sturridge. Liverpool FC are competing now in the big league in terms of transfers and bulking up their squad; so no excuses. Their failure smacks of lack of confidence and drive as well as due to individual issues with personnel. In other words it’s beyond excusing. Ar Brendan has to get topside of the group before (say) Balotelli’s propensity to sulk and undermine eats away further at the previously resurgent fabric of the club.

The Mario gamble I had no problem with. In fact, because I rate him highly, I thought Rodgers might conjure the best from Balotelli. This is still possible of course but that immediate prospect of the love-him/hate-him Italian enigma scorching into cult status having scored a bagful of screamers fades with each slightly dispiriting performance. The Kop needs something to shout about and Rodgers needs to provide.

Thirty miles east and the story runs parallel. Except that last season United were awful not brilliant. And van Gaal has had no lead-in time. But again because of the resources of the club excuses will not be tolerated. Real fans – of which there are, contrary to folklore, plenty – will give the man a little time because plainly there were cavernous holes in the squad but (again) things must simply be sorted.

The Red Devils cash having been splashed extravagantly, MU’s pre-season friendlies were quietly encouraging. Then the paucity of the United defence and the relative frailty of their confidence was utterly exposed in the physical and psychological crash-bang-wallop of real matches. Like Liverpool – only more so – they had no core, no solidity. The extraordinary inability to foresee and then cover the loss of Vidic and Ferdinand – both in decline for eighteen months – proved costly as occasionally sparkling forward play was made irrelevant by inadequate defending.

It may be true that there appears to be a world shortage of central defenders but for Manchester United to continue to line up with two or even three covering players demonstrably short of MU quality is either calamitous or remarkable depending on your allegiance or otherwise to the club. Either way it is an indictment of the shambolic transfer policy at Old Trafford. Incidentally the fact that van Gaal had to summarily abandon his plans to install a back three because the players were simply unable to cope with it speaks volumes on the issue of how truly premier our Premiership stars are, does it not? As with Ingerland FC, the rank inflexibility – the unskilledness? – of Jones/Smalling and co disappointed but surely did not entirely surprise?

The signing of Di Maria has been the chink of light. He looks United alright. Rapid and in the dubious modern phrase – penetrative. Falcao (in the traditional phrase) may need a goal but can clearly play heads-up footie of a high level; the attacking ‘problem’ for van Gaal (as for Hodgson?) seems to be settling on a role for Rooney… and van Persie. Shoe-horning all four of these mega-players into the same line-up may be unwise, may be impossible. Helpful of Rooney to get himself banned then.

There are arguably more problems of team shape for United than over at Anfield. There’s still, in short, a hole where the central defensive axis should be; a hole that spreads forward alarmingly into midfield when teams really get at them. They have players in there but no enforcer, leaving them vulnerable when the opposition squares up and fights.

What the clubs share – fascinatingly – is palpably thin confidence; susceptibility to pressure. This weekend Liverpool have what would appear a straightforward home game to West Brom. United meanwhile face them other scousers – Everton – in their first tough fixture of the season. How will they be if things go against them?

Managers earn their money in moments like these. Rodgers must bully or ingratiate his way in to a group that suddenly looks and feels exposed. Van Gaal has always known he was making a new beginning. Choose your words carefully, gentlemen.