Excoriation of United’s players invites fitting derby day response
When will the club's industrial-scale decline be blamed on the people running it?
Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba during the defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
This is the one, this is the one we have waited for. Although perhaps not quite like this.
There have been plenty of epic-scale, thunderously-billed, pundit-gurgling Manchester derbies in the Premier League years, games to match Old Trafford’s stirring pre-match soundtrack. But never one as apparently empty of red-shirted hope as tonight’s meeting, a game that will come close to deciding the destiny of the league title.
Listening to the background chat during a week when even Paul Pogba has pronounced himself shocked – shocked! – to find meandering levels of commitment in the Manchester United midfield, and you could be forgiven for concluding United’s post-imperial decline is now complete.
Ten years on from Alex Ferguson’s airy dismissal of City as brash and vulgar parvenus this is apparently United’s status now; only the second toughest late-season obstacle – after Burnley away – in their neighbours’ procession to a successive Premier League title.
This fixture was rescheduled in February due to City’s FA cup commitments. Looking at the calendar back then it was tempting to foresee a deliciously agonising note of jeopardy.
Which one of their most reviled Lancashire rivals, City or Liverpool, would United’s players least like to hand the title to?
Two months later there is at least a silver lining in the sight of United’s players trudging around Goodison Park like a platoon of dying robots. No need now to worry, chaps, about those conflicting passions for the red shirt.
Instead the concerns ahead of derby day have been more basic. Things like: do the players actually want to play? How much high-strength glyphosate is required, how much topsoil must be removed, to rid yourself of a team clogged by human knotweed? And what do you do with a novice manager who has both dramatically found and then dramatically lost the dressing room in world record time?
All of which should sound an alarm for Pep Guardiola’s nerveless but slightly bruised reigning champions. Blaming the players, eviscerating their characters, making a scapegoat of Phil Jones, Fred, and whoever else is still on that randomly assembled payroll: this was always likely to present itself at some point. Quite what the reaction will be is another matter.
In many ways blaming it all on the players is simply the logical end point. United’s managers have already been blamed, four non-sequiturs in five years after four in 42 before that. The post-Fergie void has been blamed, as though making bad decisions after more than two decades to put a proper succession plan in place is entirely normal practice.
And now finally blame has settled around the players themselves and the notion of some basic lack of “character”, aided by Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s post-match comments and by a defining televised excoriation from Gary Neville.
At which point two thoughts present themselves. First, when will that circling mini-industry of pundits, ex-players and talking heads have the will and the courage to blame United’s industrial-scale decline on the people who are actually in charge of the club?
And secondly taking the players to task in such personal terms is probably the best way of ensuring a reaction tonight. Not least when in reality the current squad is just a little short of the highest quality, reliant on ageing parts in some positions, badly supplied in others.
It is one of the oddities of United’s modern history that a pair of central defenders as limited as Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should be among the survivors of £500m spent on players over five chop-and-change years. And yet nobody would ever accuse either of not showing heart. Smalling’s entire career is a triumph of will over pedigree, a player whose basic determination has overcome the fact he appears at times to be playing with three legs, each one made of wood. Trying hard is not the issue here.
It was a particularly invertebrate performance at Goodison. But why should Fred, an ageing Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial expect to get the better of Idrissa Gueye, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard?
This is not a supercharged group of United players, but a slightly random assemblage, a cut-and-shut job glued together with no coherent plan under five different managers.
Even the low-throttle running stats are more to do with personnel and style than simply refusing to move. Matic, Paul Pogba, Martial, Romelu Lukaku and three centre-backs in the back four; this is not an XI that is likely to outrun the opposition even when it wins. But scolded and chastened, it could still be a dangerous prospect for City.
For all the talk of collective cowardice only Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus have won at Old Trafford since Tottenham in August and the 3-0 win that confirmed the end of days for José Mourinho. For all the talk of moral decay the failings of others in the race for the top four – the Spursiness of Arsenal, the Spursiness of Chelsea – has left this very much a live fixture for United.
And, for all the despair, United’s players can still inflict a killer blow on City’s hopes of a grand season’s end. If they manage to get at that City defence it won’t be matter of kilometres run, but of defending with resilience and then attacking at speed. Marcus Rashford loves these derby games. There is a suggestion Alexis Sánchez could play a part. This is a game set up for the counterattack.
Whereas City, for all their poise, are operating on some fine margins of their own. Six games have been won by a single goal margin since the end of February. Sergio Agüero has one goal from open play in the Premier League since early February. Kevin De Bruyne, the real note of high-end variation in midfield, is injured again.
Either way, and whatever the result tonight, those around United might like to tear their eyes away from the foreground and take a look instead at the club hierarchy.
When was the last time anyone made a good decision in the Old Trafford boardroom that didn’t involve selling something? Even the good decision to make Solskjær temporary manager was instantly countermanded by the terrible one to make him permanent in mid-season.
There is a profound sense of stasis here. At the end of David Moyes’ three-quarter season in charge, nine months spent wandering around looking haunted and eyeing the emergency exits, United were 22 points behind City. Fast forward five years and four separate blueprints and the situation has changed slightly and United are now 26 points behind.
More than that, they seem to have reached the end of something. This is not fundamentally Diogo Dalot’s fault, or Fred, or any of the other less-than-elite recruits. The players have a chance to show it tonight; and in the process to add another note of drama to a thrilling title chase.