Only Manchester United. Only Manchester United could bring their injury tally to 14 first-team players even before the game. Only Manchester United could make a team from Denmark, a team who hadn’t played a competitive game for 70 days, look like the better side by quite a margin. Only Manchester United could be penalised by the referee for playing the ball backwards from kick-off. Only Manchester United could labour in creating opportunities, while their opponents made and wasted more chances than they would care to remember. Correction: Only Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United are capable of each of the aforementioned.
The Europa League round of 32 first-leg clash with FC Midtylland was supposed to represent a respite of sorts. A draw with Chelsea and defeat to Sunderland had left United’s Champions League qualification via traditional means in serious doubt. The club are just one point above Southampton and West Ham in the Premier League table, and six points behind the top four. Speculation continues to mount over the managerial situation, with Jose Mourinho casting a shadow over the current reign. After ignominious elimination from the Champions League, Europe’s secondary competition provided another opportunity.
Instead, Midtjylland served only to exacerbate the issues at Old Trafford. A nervousness permeated the United defence; a sloppiness pervaded their passing; an indecision hindered their attack. Where the minnows of Midtjylland were direct, United were meandering. Where the third-placed side in the Danish Superliga were solid in defence, United were panicked. Where the hosts looked confident, the visitors looked positively timid. Meek. Fearful. United were beaten, and deservedly so.
“My personal wish is to win the FA Cup,” said Van Gaal on Wednesday. “I have already won the UEFA Cup and I want to win a title in England. That is why I have come to this country, to make Manchester United champions or give them a title.
“But I understand – for Manchester United it is much more important to win the Europa League because it will give us the Champions League. It is not only my best route, but ours I think.”
That route is not blocked after another insipid performance on Thursday evening, but the path is far more difficult than it should ever have been. Their opponents were formed in February 1999. Their most expensive signing this season was £2million striker Vaclav Kadlec. Their average attendance is around 8,000. They lost 9-1 on aggregate to Napoli earlier in the competition. They came into this game on a run of four without a win, and hadn’t played a competitive match since December 10. FC Midtjylland were the David to United’s Goliath, and we all know how that story went. The giant was beaten, and comfortably so. The Danish side were the victors in every department.
From the boardroom, to the manager, to the players, ineptitude appears to have inflitrated each level of the Old Trafford hierarchy. Van Gaal was not removed after failure in the Champions League. Van Gaal was not removed after any of United’s seven Premier League defeats this season. Van Gaal will not be removed after this. For that very reason, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward deserves reprimanding. He has created a situation where he would look foolish were he to sack Van Gaal now. He oversaw the appointment of the Dutchman, and his desperation to succeed is somewhat understandable. But there is surely no other option.
As for the players, they must take more of the blame than has already been apportioned. Chris Smalling has looked a shadow of his former self of late. Ander Herrera was handed another opportunity to impress and, as has become his habit, squandered it. Despite his goal, Memphis Depay looked generally disinterested. Anthony Martial must curse his luck that he is the only player in the side boasting a semblance of discernible pace, skill, talent and positivity.
Injuries have decimated this squad. That much is not up for debate. United headed into their Europa League round of 32 first-leg tie with FC Midtyjlland with Wayne Rooney having been ruled out for several weeks on the eve of the game. The captain was the 13th injury absentee in Van Gaal’s squad. David de Gea made it 14 by twisting an ankle in the warm-up. This is a casualty list that any club would struggle to deal with.
But the personnel makes little difference; they all share the same coach. They all answer to the same man who has spent nearly £250million to take Manchester United from seventh in the Premier League to fifth. They all respond to the same man whose position at the club has become indefensible. They all must listen to the man whose managerial reign has become more of a failure than that of his predecessor. David Moyes was given little over 11 months before United realised their mistake. How much longer will it take for them to identify the same problem with his replacement?