Three months of the Premier League, and Manchester United has been curiously underrepresented in these entries. In the last two seasons, Manchester United were remarkable. Not remarkably good, you probably understand, but remarkable. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal served up some moments of absolute write-aboutableness. For Moyes, there was calamity and sedition, and Wayne Rooney wasn’t very good at football anymore. For Van Gaal, there was calamity, occasional excellence, and Wayne Rooney wasn’t very good at football anymore.
It was a peculiar couple of years during which few people were really able to grasp that Manchester United wasn’t Alex Ferguson. For many fans, it felt like learning to support a new club. That, of course, will also happen to Arsenal in a few years, possibly sooner. Arsenal will lose its longest-serving manager, the man who turned it from an English club to a modern one. This will happen regardless of who takes his place, even if the replacement stinks of Arsenal in the same way Van Gaal apparently has the stench of United not seen since Rafael’s arrival. Candidates who stink sufficiently of Arsenal include Dara O’Briain, a small golem created from Ray Parlour’s lost hair, the owner of Piebury Corner, and anybody who has walked down Blackstock Road, all of whom have been repeatedly asked about their possible interest in the job should it become available.
But none of that last paragraph is needed for any other reason than padding, and thus should have not been read. In fact, it is best if you now stop reading this diary. Come back in a week, having made a mental note not to read the second and third paragraph, and go straight from first to fourth, which is of vital importance.
Welcome back! Can you believe what happened this week? Indeed, seven of them. Anyway, back to last week’s action, when Manchester United beat Everton in a curiously bloodless affair, which has started to define Van Gaal’s second season. It’s not that United are especially terrible, nor are they especially especial. They simply exist, performing much as you would expect for a side largely interested in sticking to a system and hoping the players are capable of making it work.
So far, for all the money spent, Van Gaal is still unable to put out a side of impressive quality. After three transfer windows, the best central defensive pairing is Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. They are the premier choice because they are the only two players who can claim to be actual central defenders. So it goes for Matteo Darmian at right back. With Marcos Rojo currently ahead of others for the left-back position—where he will stay until Van Gaal again decides that he is a traitor and must be exiled—his defense is fine. It is the sum of its parts, no less. David de Gea is magic, but he has imbued those ahead of him with no confidence-inspired competence.
Ahead of the back four, the two best deep-lying midfielders, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, started, and the best attacking midfielder, Ander Herrera, was ahead of them, flanked by Anthony Martial and Juan Mata. Everything was in its right place, and it was enough to defeat a limited Everton.
What is weird about this is that it was an oddly cold performance from United. Usually, there is a fight against perplexing tactics, with Marouane Fellaini getting in the way of everyone in midfield, or a left-winger at left-back, or a central midfielder in defense, or a willowy Adnan Januzaj falling over outside the penalty box, before being sent to Borussia Dortmund to do the same thing. There was always something with United and Van Gaal, one obvious disaster to put right in the next match. It was usually addressed, but a new problem was always inserted by the manager to make sure that not only was there a step back with the right foot, and one forward with the left foot, but the shoes would never be on the right feet, and they’d be wearing trousers on their torso.
And yet to see United appear against Everton, with the best side a fan could hope for from Van Gaal, and dismiss Everton like the mid-table side they are, with the minimum of fuss, was just plain weird. This is not the United of Moyes, where desperation would often trump dissatisfaction, and the players would win in spite of spiting their manager. Nor is it Van Gaal’s last year, where Fellaini or Ashley Young would combine to engineer chaos and somehow uncover victory. With the new players settled, and the system being played out as intended, United are actually beating the sides they really should beat. It is dull and unaffecting.
That’s because, when it matters, United have made little progress. They lost to PSV and they lost to Arsenal, both matches in which they failed to make a serious dent. They were confused and lost, and Van Gaal either buggered things up from the start or meddled inexplicably during the matches. Sometimes he did both. This is what will cost Van Gaal his job. Any manager should be able to point United’s squad at most teams they will face and get three points. The backing in the transfer market means that it is the least that should be achieved. But a better manager would ensure that against rivals in leagues and groups, they do not lose, and they often win.
Van Gaal has not done that this season, and that is partly because of the biggest mistake of all: the wretched Wayne Rooney remains undroppable despite being the worst player in the squad, a captain who can make a difference in the sense that making things much, much, much harder for everyone else is indeed a kind of difference. That is another reason things feel pointless when it comes to Manchester United. Why should anyone care, when they’re doing it to themselves?