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Football Columnist Wayne Barton says Man United need a change of leadership on the pitch, as much as they do off it.
Manchester United’s last-minute surrender at Stamford Bridge underlined the problems that will dog the club until the summer at least.
A 1-1 draw at Chelsea is not a poor result even in this tough season for the Champions, though it undoubtedly felt as bitter as a defeat in the circumstances. Still, United have only themselves to blame, as it hardly took an incredible moment of invention to bring about the equaliser.
The trail of blame started at Memphis Depay; after a blistering start to his Old Trafford career, the youngster has flattered to deceive. He is hitting the headlines more for his grocery shopping than his exploits on the pitch, and his only contribution of note after being brought on for goalscorer Jesse Lingard was to inexplicably give the ball away in a position where the numbers were in United’s favour to seal the game.
Instead, Chelsea regained position and scored shortly afterwards. It is an obvious chain of events but it is too simple to blame Depay; after all, there were avoidable errors all over the United defence which contributed more to Diego Costa’s leveller. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson will be thoroughly disappointed to have ended another fine outing with the rookie’s error he made but, then, that is exactly what it he is. He can learn. He will.
Less understandable is the charge of Daley Blind which presented a gaping hole which, in turn, made a goal inevitable. The caveat to add here is that Blind is not naturally a centre-half, but he should still have had the positional awareness to know abandoning his area would have presented space where United could have been hurt.
Rewinding the clock back to Depay’s wastefulness - it is interesting to note that Wayne Rooney was disappointed, but hardly reacted with the wrath of captains before him. One can only imagine how Roy Keane would have tore into the winger. This is not to say that Wayne Rooney isn’t a good or even effective Manchester United captain but it highlights the subtle difference between what the Red Devils have and what they need in order to improve.
There is a distinct lack of leadership in the outfield team that needs address and it was this lack of leadership which was probably most evident in Costa’s goal. Chris Smalling has had an excellent season and was in fine form again on Sunday. In recent weeks, however, as United have seemed to be in more positive mood particularly away from home, Smalling has not had the benefit of a constant screen in front of him and he hasn’t always been as reliable as his reputation and form this season would suggest. Is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
If Blind was the one obviously caught out, the mistake was created out of a lack of organisation which United (and England) supporters would have hoped Chris Smalling would have in his locker by now. They dealt with Costa as a pair on Sunday and, crucially, when it mattered most, they were unable to prevent him scoring, and worst still, they presented the opportunity with a pretty basic mistake.
Smalling has improved, without question, but his recent form does at least give cause to query whether or not he will ever be the leader in the vein of his predecessors Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. No-one is expecting him to reach that level - it is absurd and unreasonable to expect every next defender to be better than the one before, particularly when it is commonly accepted Ferdinand is United’s finest ever in that role - but it isn’t unreasonable to presume that he could have benefitted from the experience of playing and training with those two bona fide legends and be a defender capable of marshalling this United defence in this respectively poor Premier League. The evidence suggests that when it comes to addressing the long-term partner for him, it shouldn’t be Blind, and the jury is still out on Rojo. It’s much too soon for the likes of Regan Poole or Axel Tuanzebe so is it now a priority to bring in someone like Mats Hummels? A player with the pedigree and reputation who may help Smalling in the same way that Vidic helped Ferdinand back when he arrived in 2006.
It is nothing short of miraculous to observe the positive things from Louis van Gaal’s reign begin to return. A cynical view might say that the players had given up on their manager and that they too bought into the hysteria that seemed to make Manchester United vulnerable after years of impenetrability; and now, with the acceptance he will be there until the summer, the benefits of the experienced Dutchman’s philosophy are coming back on show.
For long periods of the game on Sunday they dominated and it must be frustrating for supporters who see them play like they did, and as they often do against the bigger teams, but then also suffer through matches like the recent home defeat at Southampton. It has got to a stage where there would probably be a fair split opinion if you offered United supporters the chance to play all of their remaining games away from home. They will blame the manager’s pragmatism for their failure to challenge but the awful December run of form was on the players, who went from unlikely title challengers to a team who are beginning to look increasingly like outsiders for even the Champions League places.
It is also probably universally accepted that under the current regime, United will not return to be the powerhouse they have been this century.
But that doesn’t resolve the issues this season and simply waiting for a change in manager is to remain ignorant of the issues that will remain once he has gone.
United supporters are crying out for a change of leadership off the field but they need one just as much on it if they want to be challenging for honours in the near future.
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’.