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.


The state of play on Merseyside is difficult to discuss dispassionately, right, given the investments we have in that very particular city? (And no, I’m not talking money.) Liverpool might instantly mean footie to many of us but just as likely music or what we might call pop culture to many others. Or soaps, or unions, or wit, or scallieness. For every individual unit of us-ness out here in non-Liverpool, there’s a ‘colourful’ Scouse something or other fit and ready to be engaged with, or seduced by… or something, it seems. Because the brand is kindof monster in terms of this little island; because that accent and those pop/otherwise arty or sparky people are extraordinarily in our consciousness. Which brings me remarkably (almost as though I planned it!) back to footie. For I am dangerously close to making some woolly argument for all that ‘You’ll never walk alone’ stuff being special.

There may be some blinkered academic at Royal Holloway College unmoved by or god forbid even ignorant of the indivisibility of ‘Walk On’ and Liverpool Football Club. (Christ. Can you imagine meeting them at a village fete, over the prize jams, laid out post-scrutiny with rosettes duly awarded? You scurrying on towards daylight, them in deep contemplation of the horto-biological origins of greengages.) But the rest of the sentient universe knows that one song is so richly of the city (now) that it represents a surging, emotive and maybe even envy-inducing peak of tribal oneness. Something full of contradictory shades of nostalgic invincibility and here-and-now, blokey pride, for sure, but frigate bird-appropriated, throat-displayingly and singingly splendid in its depiction of importantly and recognisably human and uplifting mores.

I have been in a non-scouse environment – in a village pub in West Wales – where, post Football Presentation Night ‘festivities’, that originally unremarkable song was revisited by an arm-locked circle of admittedly rather alcohol-inspired young men (and women) in a manner that chased hard upon the inspired heels of a certain “Ma hen wlad”. Which is to say that it gathered the gathered into a soul-brotherly Massive, transforming them and the moment into something (I kid you not) profoundly joined. Or perhaps more precisely it further encouraged and maybe embodied latent inclinations to share heartystuff. It was, in its chavvy but searingly honest triumphalism, possibly the single most wonderful moment of camaraderie I have ever experienced and it owed everything to a recognition of the specialness of that Kop Thing. A thing predicated on lungbursting expression of – yes! – community.

But enough about politics. There’s a Mersey derby this weekend with a fair amount on it. For Liverpool – in the red corner – there’s an opportunity to claw back some of the further slippage of the last few weeks. For Everton – The Toffeemen more often than the Blues – a chance to justify, to usurp, to thumb a nose. On form and in terms of recent team shape and unity, Everton are substantially in better fettle; being identifiably a side with purpose and some confidence. Liverpool, on the contrary, are in a mess; this does not, however, mean they are or should be viewed as underdogs.

This is partly because Liverpool are unquestionably – though not necessarily ‘deservedly’ – the bigger club. Their pull across the world dwarfs that of their uncomfortably close neighbours. King Kenny’s rather dissolute mob – is that fair? It feels it? – are light years away from competing for the Premiership, yet understood still as a world power in the game; because of all that Tommy Smith/Emlyn Hughes/Kevin Keegan/John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish/Ian Rush malarkey. That history. Of success. Which does dwarf Everton’s.

It may be important that one of few strikingly and resoundingly Liverpoolesque wins recently came against an Everton team scampering back up the table over the last three months following their own rather typically disappointing start to the season. The returning Gerard found his superman costume for the first time for about a year and that was that; 3 – 0. That the win was undeniably against the grain of the teams respective trajectories mattered little to either set of supporters. Since then David Moyles has again re-motivated his side whilst Kenny has apparently fumbled at the tiller. Everton are looking settled and strongish, with occasional bouts of instinctive team brilliance – I’m thinking in particular of those near-unplayably good chunks of their recent game at Sunderland, for starters. There they looked creative and sharp as well as aggressive in midfield and defence. The Addition of Jelavic and Drenthe and arguably Gibson plus the return of the South African prodigal Pienaar to a squad already containing Cahill, Rodwell, Fellaini etc has understandably enabled a substantial kicking on as the season has developed. Tempting for Moyles to wonder ‘What if’ all over again… but the Top Toffee has plenty to be optimistic about.

King Kenny however is in some difficulty. He needs the goodwill legacy that stills holds back much of the anxiety and almost all of the venom from amongst fans and critics alike. He has earned this good fortune more, surely, through his magnificent playing career and understanding of and role during times of real heartbreak for the club than through either of his periods of management at Anfield. His side is demonstrably and increasingly now perceived as being relatively poor – certainly unacceptably poor for a Liverpool side. Results very recently have been close to disastrous and there is – critically perhaps? – no sense that Dalglish is ‘turning things round’.

The media is relentlessly detailing the failures of several big buys. There is a seemingly interminable amount of distraction (through shambolic lack of discipline?) over various controversies which, to put it mildly, might have been handled better. I have been critical of both SAF and King Kenny in regard to much of this and regrettably have seen nothing from the Liverpool boss lately that makes me want to drift in to support him. His sullenness and ignorance – yes, I do think that’s fair – before the media and his utter blinkeredness have been frequently shameful, bad for the club and bad for the game. And I wonder at what stage if any the owners might consider telling him and his players to keep it shut even and maybe especially when they feel provoked or insulted or wronged. And I stress here that I am not responding here merely to some inelegant handling of PR issues; I think Dalglish and by implication the club have been wrong to champion Suarez and to inflame enmities when silences or blandnesses might have helped.

So I don’t rate Dalglish as either a bloke or as a manager. I find it ironic that as the figurehead for a club he clearly on the one level understands and unquestionably loves he can fail to link hands and sing the necessary… because though that song is indeed about loyalty, it’s about hope too; and hope depends upon generosity.

That football match between Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs may well be an absolute cracker. But it’s more likely to be wince-inducingly ‘physical’, frenetic and low in quality. Clatterings and bookings and only rare moments of composure or construction, fluidity. Fortunately, the rivalry sits beneath that ugly contempt ‘shared’ between United and Liverpool but it’s hardly a love-in. There is no figuring or forecasting this one because much of what occurs will be about capitulations or otherwise to moments of stress rather than expressions of form or talent even. Plus “It’s The Cup!!” Win or lose, the Diddy Men of Everton are currently the better side. But they are smaller, if you knowwharramean?