250 Million Failures

Defeated, deflated… Now, only a miracle can yield them a Champions League spot.

It is worse than we’ve all thought. Three years and a week after Alex Ferguson’s retirement announcement, his beloved child Manchester United are in a no-man’s land. Southampton and Arsenal have teamed together to throw Red Devils a lifeline to the fourth place and the Champions League football – and the team has thrown it away. West Ham have suffered a decisive FA Cup defeat to Louis van Gaal’s team less that a month ago – and it didn’t prevent them from striking back with a league victory. The Dutchman has been wisely rotating the squad, giving much-needed rest to some of his key players – and it’s still those players, who let him down in the end. To put it simply: it is one more pile of misery for every Mancunian fan out there.

There were so many hopes placed in this group of players prior to this season. The transfers of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial were supposed to give yet another, attacking dimension to the team that scored only 62 goals in 38 games of the 2014/15 league run. The press was looking forward to the advent of Sch-Sch midfield, with BPL’s top tackler, Morgan Schneiderlin and World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger both pulling in the red shirt. Yet another relief for the United fanbase was the deadline day’s madness, when one fax machine and a ridiculous chain of incompetence on Real Madrid’s side have forced the cult hero David De Gea to spend one more season at Old Trafford.

 

We are now nine months after that initial sparks of enthusiasm. Memphis Depay has become the biggest transfer flop of this Premier League season, easily surpassing last years’ odyssey of Ángel Di María. Even with Martial fulfilling the expectations, the team has only scored 46 goals in 37 games – and unless they put sixteen past Bournemouth this weekend, they are going to be remembered as the most misfiring MU team in decades. The Sch-Sch axis has never delivered: it’s German member underperformed and eventually got sidelined by the injury while Schneiderlin has been subbed of at the half-time of the West Ham game. And even though David De Gea had one more extraordinary year in United’s goal, it didn’t stop him from failing to handle Winston Reid’s match-winner.

But it’s not just about the massive let-down from the players who were supposed to carry the club on their shoulders – it’s the bleak big picture that leaves everyone utterly unimpressed. At Upton Park, we’ve seen a team that totally relied on passes to an out-of-position teenager, who was supposed to carve out the goalscoring chances by himself. At Upton Park, we’ve seen a team that needed Wayne Rooney on their own half all-around the clock in order to keep the floodgates closed. The old Hammers’ ground has witnessed it’s last visitors taking only three shots (to West Ham’s 20!) and voluntarily isolating Marcus Rashford from play (the kid had only fourteen touches on the ball the first half, he ended the match without a single shot to his name). The cost of all that? £250 million over two seasons – and that’s just the transfer fees.

Granted – Anthony Martial has been quite brilliant this year and Tuesday night was no exception. It wasn’t even clear if the youngster will play, as he had to pass a late fitness test following his warm-up problem with Norwich. Eventually, he turned out to be fit – only to prove over and over again that Michail Antonio still has a lot to learn in order to become a competent full-back. Positioning himself right by the byline, he would offer more quality than Mata and Rooney combined. Just like earlier this season, his tireless desire to be involved in play have made up well for the absence of Luke Shaw on the overlap as well as for the failed Memphis investment. Thierry Henry comparisons? Well, unlike his great predecessor at Juventus, Martial seems to be a good fit for playing out wide.

But that’s pretty much where the good news end. Tony, alongside with the aforementioned De Gea are now the only United players who could hold their heads up high, knowing that they did their best. As for everyone else – they’ll be looking back at the last nine months filled with regret. Juan Mata, pointlessly re-deployed down the right flank, unable to assist a single goal for months; Ander Herrera, horribly underused, gradually deprived of confidence; Wayne Rooney, demoted to the task of plugging holes in his teammates’ play… Two years ago, around this time of the year, David Moyes’ team was pinning all their attacking hopes to Adnan Januzaj’s dribbling ability. It’s astonishing, but twenty four months and quarter of a billion pounds later, the goalscoring guns at Old Trafford are exactly of the same size.

The two-year tenure of Louis van Gaal certainly did not help this struggling side. Three months after his appointment, he let go of Danny Welbeck, stating that he prefers Rooney, van Persie and Falcao over the young lad. A year after that departure, the Dutchman saw injury-plagued Falcao returning back to Monaco after a failure of a season in United’s shirt. At the same time, LvG was getting rid of van Persie – the ageing striker went to Fenerbahçe for just £4.7 million. Since Rooney’s contributions have diminished as well (12 goals in 33 games, as opposed to 17 goals in 29 matches of 13/14 season), it was obvious the team needed a new, prolific forward. Not according to van Gaal’s plans, though: that summer, he would also ship the super-sub, Javier Hernández, to Leverkusen…

17 goals in 28 Bundesliga appearances. He’s not looking back.

It’s May 2016. Chicharito, van Persie and Welbeck are now playing in different countries for different teams, but they still have something in common. And it’s not just the spell as Red Devils in their résumés. No: at the moment, they are all boasting better goal/game ratios than the most efficient United forward, Anthony Martial.

At least against West Ham, Martial was lethal in front of the goal. Both of his two attempts have landed in the back of the net – both were also the results of monumental mistakes by Aaron Cresswell (first goal) and Darren Randolph (second one). Unfortunately, those were the only Manchester United’s shots on target in this game. And, what’s worse – apart from them, the most they could come up with was Wayne Rooney’s lone, missed strike 23 minutes into the game. Sad, but true: the visitors have fired 3 (three) shots in 90 minutes. There are plenty of lone strikers in England who come up with more attempts each week by themselves.

The Hammers’ utter domination was undoubtedly the result of much more vigorous display from Mark Noble and Cheikou Kouyaté. The former, enjoying a purple patch of form recently, has won five tackles, one aerial duel and made one interception. His Senegalese teammate wasn’t far behind – he contributed four won tackles and got forward so frequently that United midfielders had to resort to fouls to hold him back. The visitors got overrun so thoroughly that van Gaal subbed off helpless Morgan Schneiderlin at half-time. However, since Marouane Fellaini has been unavailable through suspension, the boss had to bank all his hopes on Michael Carrick’s experience at retaining possession. For a brief moments in the second half, it kind of worked – but in the end, it wasn’t enough to salvage a draw.

 

The disaster struck from the hands of a player who has been rather dependable this season. After being retrained to centre-back, Daley Blind has exceeded the expectations and the games like 3-1 over Liverpool in September or 1-0 derby win at Etihad in April have proven that he can be more than useful in a new role. However, at Upton Park, the ball-playing sweeper has been simply floored by the sheer physical power of Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Michail Antonio. Those three players kept exploiting the relative (180 cm) lack of height from the Dutchman, further underlined by his less-than confident play. Blind would almost gift West Ham a 2-0 lead by horribly breaking the offside line. In the end, it took him a bit longer to ruin the result for MU – but it’s been a logical outcome of an awful performance.

Assuming United will beat Bournemouth – Louis van Gaal has led the club to a four-point decline compared to the previous season. Assuming United will outplay Eddie Howe’s team 3-0 – LvG caused the team to score thirteen goals less. Even the aspect the Dutchman is reportedly most interested in – ball possession – has dropped from 61.0 to 56.6 percent per game. In fact the only relevant stat that improved compared to the last season was the number of goals conceded – three less than by the end of 2014/15 (with one game still remaining). Is this a disaster? For a club thought to be in a transitional stage – maybe not. But for a club that burned so much money on ultimately inferior players – it has to be.

 

Apparently, for good or worse, the van Gaal’s era will continue at least until the next league campaign. Just recently, the team has missed out on Benfica’s midfielder Renato Sanches. According to the rumours, MU boss has rejected the 18-years old due to the massive release clause he’d have to pay for his services. Shortly afterwards, Bayern Munich had no such objections and spent the initial £28 million plus bonuses, that could reportedly increase the total transfer fee to a whooping £60 million. It was, of course, the sign of declining prestige of Man United’s shirt – but more significantly, it showed how much faith Malcolm Glazer still has in the leadership skills of the manager he picked in 2014.

And now, regardless of the FA Cup final result, it will be the hunting time again. £150 million? £250 million? £300 million? The 2016/17 war chest could be a record one. The list of potential signings impresses as well: André Gomes, Raphaël Varane, Antoine Griezmann, William Carvalho, Islam Slimani, Aleksandar Dragović… If only someone was accepting the bets for United’s brand new, shiny, expensive transfer flop, I would’ve gladly put a couple of bucks on that.

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