“Is that the best you’ve got?”
Ed Woodward should spit those words out the moment Louis van Gaal picks up his phone. Manchester United’s executive vice chairman and manager reportedly talked after the team’s loss at Stoke City, with some outlets reporting today’s visit from Chelsea represented Van Gaal’s last shot. Although today’s shot was closer to its target, United still missed their mark.
When a team of United’s resources must comfort itself with “good” 0-0 draws, something is wildly amiss. But we knew that before today’s game against Chelsea. We knew it before United threatened to reach its first four-match league losing streak since the 1930s. We’ve known it since early in the season, when the team’s insipid attack and comatose ingenuity quieted preseason hopes they could compete for a title.
Nobody talks like that anymore. Instead, fans are left to take pride in relative progress. Wayne Rooney didn’t score or set up any goals on Monday, but at least he didn’t look like a corpse. Anthony Martial became the latest attacker to make Branislav Ivanovic look like Martin Demichelis, so nobody’s worried that he’s being played out of position. And with Ander Herrera back in the team and Juan Mata almost giving United a rare lead, people seem willing to engage the positives. The new United! Not quite as moribund as the old one.
Oh, but the bottom lines. In a season that’s been thrown wide open by the Premier League’s mediocrity, United are in sixth place. They’re closer to the table’s bottom half than Arsenal’s lead. While teams with little hope of competing for the title before week one challenge Manchester City and the Gunners, Manchester United’s placating themselves with treading water. A 0-0 draw? It could have been worse!
And yet, against a team that’s only three points above the drop, one that has been so bad that it recently fired one of the best managers in the world, Manchester United can’t even claim they should have won. That they were better? Sure, but this wasn’t the type of one-sided draw that leaves fans ruing points lost. No, if it weren’t for some cataclysmic finishing from Nemanja Matic, or a Real Madrid fax machine that’s become notoriously erratic, Manchester United could have lost its fifth in a row.
In that way, this was one of the most disappointing results of United’s winless month. Health issues, suspensions, poor form, lack of intensity – these were all poor excuses before, but they were used nonetheless. None of them are applicable now.
United had their players ready and had the right opponent. They were at home, had rested some players on Saturday, and were dealing with an unambiguous mandate. They were even helped by an opponent that played below their already dwindling standard. Yet come full time, as the players reconciled new effort with stale rewards, United were left with the two numbers which have defined their season: zero, and zero.
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