It was fitting that it should be Anthony Martial who kept the weak flame of Manchester United’s season burning for another week. The 20-year-old has been the obvious bright point in a murky, dank season, one during which supporters have typically resorted to dark humour as a coping mechanism. Marouane Fellaini playing 27 matches by mid-March is the unfunny punchline.
Meanwhile, the hokey cokey of United’s next manager continues unabated. Jose Mourinho this weekend spoke of “reading lies” about his future, but his own desires for the Old Trafford job are no secret. Ryan Giggs’ name continues to be mentioned in more than passing, while Laurent Blanc and Mauricio Pochettino are now also being touted. It’s only four days since headlines claimed Van Gaal’s coaching staff are confident of their boss seeing out his contract. Summary: Even the club aren’t yet sure.
United’s managerial situation must be solved with something approaching efficiency. The club has gained a reputation for farce and slapstick, far more inclined to public mishaps than quick resolutions to high-profile problems. It feels as though Van Gaal’s downfall is obvious to everyone but those who matter, while the lack of communication from the club is damaging. The overwhelming suspicion is that plans for the p*ss-up in the brewery have never gone smoothly. Invitations were lost in the post and a tray of glasses dropped; Ed Woodward erroneously ordered six barrels of non-alcoholic beer.
Yet the greatest concern for supporters is not that Van Gaal’s exit will be drawn out – we’re already past that point – or that the club will fudge up appointing his successor, but that the managerial situation overshadows the surgical work desperately needed on the squad. If you thought the recruitment of coaching staff and managers was bad over the last three years, take a look at the players.
Against West Ham on Sunday, Martial was the only summer signing who started the match. Five others sat on the bench – Sergio Romero, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian. The class of 2015 have been kept behind for extra tuition.
While the absence of Romero is predictable, each of the other four players have struggled in differing levels to adapt. Depay will require great patience, but Mourinho’s record with initially inconsistent wingers is appalling. Schneiderlin should be first choice, but Van Gaal’s preference for Fellaini is not one for the Frenchman’s CV. Darmian started excellently before tailing off badly, while Schweinsteiger’s injury concerns rubber-stamp Pep Guardiola’s warning about a failing body.
The previous summer’s work wasn’t faultless either. Angel Di Maria’s performances for Paris St Germain this season are an extended demonstration of ‘Look what you could have won’. The Argentinean always preferred Paris to Manchester, but it’s worth remembering just how good he was in September and October before Van Gaal sapped away the joy. Neither Ander Herrera or Marcos Rojo have truly settled after almost two years, while Daley Blind has played a handful of games in his preferred position.
Martial offers a glimpse of something brighter, a better day. The Frenchman is the one summer 2015 signing who was supposed to be a dangerous risk at the price, yet he is the only guaranteed starter among them. We’ve come a long way from those ‘What a waste of money’ headlines.
Martial’s success also provides evidence for a change in United’s transfer market tack. Previous windows have followed a similar pattern, the club publicly courting global stars only to be repeatedly knocked back. Woodward may be a wizard at earning plastic straw sponsors in Indonesia, but his inability to tie up such deals only make him and the club look foolish.
Public interest in Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Paul Pogba might make the club feel important and provide hope to gullible supporters, but it is built on sand. If, as is likely, United miss out on the Champions League for the second time in three seasons, those rumours are ridiculous and unhelpful. Like a mirage in the desert, the flash of hope only ever ends in unquenched thirst.
As with Martial, United should be looking at the brightest potential rather than the biggest names. The manager may have to be ruthless with underperforming squad players on high wages (Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Juan Mata) and get far more out of last year’s recruits. It’s an incredibly tough task before a ball has even been kicked.
When Alex Ferguson departed, so too did his omnipotence and omniscience. This is the age of communal input into transfer activity, and United have struggled to cope with the change. This summer they really need to get it right.
After such an extended farewell tour, a drawn-out departure accompanied only by mixed messages, the danger is that Woodward and co breathe a sigh of relief after Van Gaal’s replacement is finally confirmed.
That would be their biggest mistake yet. The appointment of the club’s next manager is the start of the club’s mighty summer task, and nothing more. Manchester United are looking to address a three-year slump in the space of three months.