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Things went from bad to worse on Saturday as a far from impressive Norwich City side walked into Old Trafford and left with all 3 points without really needing to do anything special. United started brightly but once more failed to convert possession into chances. Norwich broke well on the counter-attack to score twice and the Reds never really looked like recovering. Here are five things we learned from a humbling defeat to the Canaries.
1) Martial through the middle
Goals have been a problem all season and Saturday afternoon against Norwich proved no different. The lack of opportunities is worrying but even those few that come along aren’t being ruthlessly put away. United are devoid of a truly clinical finisher (cover your eyes before looking at Javier Hernandez’s record at Leverkusen), capable of gobbling up the easy chances and creating a few of their own. Nevertheless, in Anthony Martial the club have bought a young player who undoubtedly has the potential to fill the void.
Martial has spent a lot of his early career playing in wide areas but Manchester United always seem to look more of a threat when the young Frenchman is deployed through the middle. The former Monaco man is far from perfect but consistency can hardly be expected accounting for a lack of experience and the pressure of a big money move. Against Norwich, once more Martial displayed dazzling feet and composure where it mattered most in the penalty area and smashed home to give the Reds a glimmer of hope. Often doubled up on by the opposition when played wide, United’s no.9 needs to be afforded the freedom to be in dangerous areas more often.
2) No cohesion
It would be wrong not to acknowledge that injuries have certainly taken their toll. In fact, it’s not too farfetched to pin-point Luke Shaw’s unfortunate injury as a turning point. Up until that moment the team (and Luke Shaw as an individual) were showing some encouraging signs. However, defeat at Old Trafford to a Norwich side who brought nothing revolutionary was just the latest in a lamentably long line of recent performances and results that are sounding alarm bells.
There seems to be a lack of cohesion both on and off the pitch in terms of structure, selection and direction. The mantra appears to be simply to keep possession with no thought then given to what to do with it. Wide players neither stay wide nor play in the pockets, midfielders frequently vacate the middle of the field yet fail to offer any tangible attacking threat and the forwards never really appear to be in the game.
A foundation of possession is laudable but there should be a clear and coherent direction of methodical movements in an attempt to move forwards and break teams down. Right now, the Reds are neither fluid nor rigid; just a mess.
3) Player perspective
Inevitably the doom and gloom is well and truly starting to set in and Louis van Gaal is shouldering the majority of the blame. Despite this, one look at the league table should provide some perspective for a number of reasons. Firstly, this season is one like no other in recent times; incredibly competitive with surprising results so frequent that perhaps the surprise has gone. Leicester City sit comfortably aloft at the top while Chelsea are languishing just above the relegation zone; as bad as United’s performances have been things could be a lot worse (although granted they should be a lot better).
But if you look at the squad currently assembled, is it really a squad that should be competing for the title? Arguably not; there is very little true quality and a complete lack of balance. Fans have been spoiled throughout the Ferguson era but realism now needs to take hold. An awful lot of money has been hopelessly wasted without any tangible improvement to the squad. There are young players with good potential and older players not what they once were. With the exception perhaps of David De Gea and an improved Chris Smalling very few others are players approaching their prime and delivering week-in, week-out.
Make no mistake; this is an average squad and Ferguson is no longer at the helm, perspective is needed.
4) The end is nigh?
For many, defeat at home to Norwich was the final straw and the clamour is now very real for Louis van Gaal to be shown the door. There is no question that results and performances of late have not been good enough but there are mitigating factors that have been overlooked. As mentioned above, injuries have played their part and it needs to be accepted that this squad is perhaps just not as good as many believe that it is (or at least could be).
With that said, however, the statistics are damning: no win in 6, just 7 shots on target in the last 4 Premier League games at Old Trafford and just 4 wins in the best part of the last 3 months. Performances have warranted nothing less and there seems to be no coherent direction or even an ounce of progression. The club feels as though it’s gone stale and with Louis van Gaal admittedly a short term fix a big decision may need to be made for the benefit of the long term future.
The job that the Dutchman has done should not be belittled and at the time he was appointed he was arguably the best option available. Van Gaal steadied the ship and dragged the club back into Europe’s elite and has laid some good foundations in terms of possession and the introduction of youth. Now though perhaps is the right time to move on and move forwards with a new man given licence to build on those foundations.
5. Proper planning
When Sir Alex Ferguson retired the club made a lot of bad decisions and even now there doesn’t seem to be any form of long-term vision in place. As much as Reds will loathe to say it Manchester City have got a lot of things right where United have got them wrong in recent years. Van Gaal is not the long-term solution and it is hoped that thoughts turned to his successor even just after he was appointed.
For many, Guardiola is the dream but there is a very good chance that once more it is the blue half of Manchester who will be celebrating stealing a march on their neighbours in that regard. The question also needs to be asked if Guardiola would even be the best fit for this current United outfit and, more to the point, if he would be up for the challenge? The current playing staff are far from tailored to Guardiola’s style of play and it is a damning indictment on the structure of the club from top to bottom that so much money has been spent for so little return on the pitch.
Standing still is tantamount to falling behind and it may be time for the Board to adopt a proactive approach. Whilst many would oppose, Jose Mourinho is available and would take the job in a heartbeat. He is also a manager who would get the best out of a squad that currently lacks quality, even if it wasn’t pretty.
Either way, it’s high time for proper planning and a long-term vision from top to bottom to be formulated and executed or the current muddled nightmare is destined to continue.
Manchester United need an identity.