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A week is a long time in football; Manchester United supporters started it with the euphoria of having won at Anfield and ended it once more calling for the head of their manager Louis van Gaal.
Make no mistake about it, it is almost a universal will amongst the support that the club cut ties and make a fresh start. And since United’s defeat to Bournemouth and their exit from the Champions League, the pressure has built so greatly that it is bemusing on a weekly basis to see Louis van Gaal still in charge at Old Trafford.
The pressure on him is such that it’s with trepidation your writer pens this piece, thinking it may be out of date by the moment it is sent, considering the manager’s offers to resign and his return to Manchester last night.
As if any further proof were needed, United showed they are going nowhere on Saturday, with the defeat to Southampton as bad as any performance in living memory. Even the pragmatic approach which had been used as an indicator of progress from the mess the ‘trainer coach’ inherited is now a shambles; the rumours that the players had lost faith in the philosophy certainly seemed to be well founded going by the on-pitch regression. Nowhere is that better shown than the dip in form of Chris Smalling; it has been a theory that one of United’s better performers has been so impressive because of the defensive structure preferred by the manager. The lack of discipline has exposed Smalling; and has exposed that all of the progression has been negated. Once discipline (remember, such a key word under Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign) is lost, it is near impossible to regain it. And so a change becomes inevitable.
The bigger issue is that even with the change – which is undoubtedly necessary – United have a number of problems that do not even begin to be addressed by the arrival of a new manager.
The first and most obvious is that the identity of the new manager at this stage will be Ryan Giggs or Jose Mourinho. A change is required now if United’s season is to be saved and neither of those options represent a sure thing. A gamble on Giggs will be seen like mismanagement if it goes wrong. Mourinho is by far the highest qualified man available but even one of the world’s eminent coaches comes with a damaged recent reputation before even considering the potential carnival that comes with him. If United were trying to lessen their reliance on Jorge Mendes, the hiring of Jose Mourinho places the super agent in a great position of power once more.
Which brings us on to the second big issue – the board; if any chain of events would ever prove that problems at football clubs extend beyond the manager, it is that at Manchester United. Sadly for Louis van Gaal, replacing the manager is far less expensive than replacing the playing squad for a board who – even if culpable themselves – are hardly likely to throw their own hands up in the air and walk away.
Yes, there are problems caused by the ownership and the work of Ed Woodward. Whenever United go through a tough time there is a section of support who begin to complain about the Glazers but a finger can hardly be blamed for a lack of investment and it’s this lack of understanding that creates a divide. The real issue is that – for whatever reason - Woodward has not only refused to pull the trigger and he has now, reportedly, refused to accept the resignation of Van Gaal on more than one occasion. This presents the impression that neither the manager or the players have the belief they can turn it around and the Monday morning rally cries of ‘hope’ become more desperate and frustrating.
It becomes worrying for the support that there is obviously some sort of political conflict at a higher level – it will be a minor miracle if Van Gaal’s tenure continues past this season, and so the question needs to be asked, what are the board waiting for? With each passing game, and the subsequent reduction of opportunity to qualify for the Champions League or win the league itself, the board become more culpable, and it is this lack of critical thinking that instills the most pertinent fear amongst fans.
And if the change happens now, this week, the new manager has only a couple of days to bring in new faces which it seems are clearly needed. Another black mark against Woodward and, in these circumstances, a potentially very expensive lesson as selling clubs will appreciate United’s desperation.
The problems extend beyond the first team – the recent FA Youth Cup humiliation against Chelsea shone a light on the issues that were existing even before Brian McClair’s departure last year; the club do not seem to have the same dedication to their production line as they once did. There are still some players who have exciting potential - Callum Gribbin, Axel Tuanzebe, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah look as if they could be future Manchester United players – but the concern isn’t their potential or talent, it is the opportunity.
Yes, Jesse Lingard is in favour at present, but this is concerning for fans who doubt his genuine presence as the game changer that United need, while James Wilson – a striker who should really have been given an opportunity during this goal-shy period, instead of being sent on loan – sees his Old Trafford career stagnates.
It will anger fans further still that it no longer seems like a matter of if, even to the board. The longer they take to say “when”, the deeper the problems will become.
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.
Give him your opinion on this article on his Twitter page @yolkie_by: Wayne Barton, January 26, 2016