What stir is this; what tumult’s in the heavens?
Strange times at Manchester United. If the alarm hadn’t already been sounded it surely rings loud now after chaos reigned at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Tumult and then some with Leicester City, lowly newly promoted Leicester at that, inflicting United’s third defeat of what increasingly looks like a long season to come. Stir? Louis van Gaal was enraged.
There was no little incredulity at Old Trafford as the east midlanders smashed five past Van Gaal’s expensively assembled team. With the defeat comes disbelief, but not really that one of the league’s lesser teams secured victory. This has happen too often for surprise. Nor even that United shipped so many, with a defence broken asunder in recent times. But more specifically that the Reds should be so utterly bereft of leadership when it was needed most.
This, after all, is the club of Duncan Edwards, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Roy Keane. Leaders all. Of different types too: those natural in command, and others who set the tone to follow. United is seemingly lacking both.
On Sunday, when Van Gaal so desperately needed his senior players to offer an example, to organise, to translate training pitch strategy into match day execution, none came forward. More broadly, when a leader of the intelligent, progressive kind is so badly required at Old Trafford nobody has emerged from the class of 2014.
In both respects United should be served by club captain Wayne Rooney. The talisman on-the-pitch; the marketing symbol off it. The man awarded the club captaincy by Van Gaal, a huge new contract by the executive, and proffered “special privileges” all in the same arc.
Yet, on Saturday, United’s leader became the captain to demand his crew paddles faster as the bow sinks below the waves. In one notable incident Rooney screamed at his team-mates, the callow Tyler Blackett included, moments after the Scouser gifted Leicester possession and with it a third goal. This is rotten leadership fast sinking into the class of Dickens scoundrel.
On the pitch Rooney completed 81 per cent of his passes; fewer still in the final third – this from the man who, at number 10, was deployed by Van Gaal as United’s creative fulcrum. At least the captain was at least partly contrite in admitting that “we should have kept the ball better.”
Prone to the Hollywood ball, Rooney failed with each of his long forward passes and, in attacking zones, Rooney managed just one shot – off target, of course. True, Rooney completed an assist for Angel Di Maria’s goal, but the pass was so underweighted that the Argentinian was forced into a sublime finish simply to complete United’s move.
Defensively Rooney made two tackles, but no blocks, interceptions or clearances. It was a performance of, sadly, common mediocrity and very little intelligence.
This is a strange kind of leadership – one his team-mates seem reluctant to follow. Then, on current evidence, Rooney might not convince his shadow to follow him into the sunset. This from the man who has twice sought refuge in the arms of United’s bitterest rivals; once more into the breach dear friends – ‘unless a better offer comes my way’.
Rooney wasn’t the only failure on Saturday, although the captain’s rotten form is the antithesis of inspiration. At the back Rafael da Silva and Marcos Rojo were repeatedly caught out of position, while Jonny Evans and his replacement Chris Smalling enjoyed error-ridden afternoons. Even Blackett, who had looked composed for an hour, suffered in the chaos of United’s defensive disintegration.
There should be little surprise in United’s defensive malaise. Where the club lost more than 1200 appearances of experience in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra, the trio was replaced with two, expensive, and adolescent left-backs: Rojo and Luke Shaw.
Meanwhile, Smalling, Evans and the Phil Jones were groomed to be the next generation of great United central defenders. Perpetual injury has dogged each, to say little of the technical limitations now inherent. None of this, however, is a surprise and United’s failure to acquire an experienced central defender in the summer appears more like negligence with each passing game.
In midfield Di Maria’s brilliance was not matched by Ander Herrera or Daley Blind, who were too often over-run by Leicester’s all-action engine room. Rooney did little to halt the flow in his deeper role, nor Juan Mata the second half substitute thrust into an unfamiliar position in central midfield.
With it Van Gaal had little choice but to react furiously after a performance as inept as any last season.
“You never expect that when you’re 3-1 ahead and you are two goals ahead for the second time,” said the Dutchman.
“You have to kill the game and keep possession but we could not do that. We gave it away with penalties, and you cannot win a game when you do that. I think we created a lot of chances and we made superb goals. But a game lasts 90 minutes and you have to do that for 90 minutes, not 60 minutes.”
Rooney echoed his manager in declaring the performance not “good enough as a team.” He could say little else except, perhaps, to include greater self-analysis in the critique.
The seemingly untouchable Scouser is set to continue in the United side even if there is little clear evidence he is the best player in any position. Special privileges indeed. Although the former Evertonian may no longer be first choice striker, with Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao starting on Sunday.
“I was not so satisfied with Rooney as a striker,” Van Gaal said. “That is why I changed. Rooney can play in more positions, he’s a multi-functional player and I have tried him in a striker’s position. He has played well, but not spectacular. Falcao is a striker and I think he can do it better.”
Whether Rooney deserves the role at ‘number 10’ is moot, although Mata’s greater use of the ball, outstanding control and understanding of tempo are surely more important qualities in the position. Or, to put that another way, a player of Rooney’s profligacy in possession, leaden first touch and dependency on overhit passes might not normally be considered a team’s principle creator.
Wedded to Rooney in one way or another Van Gaal remains – a political decision that may yet come to haunt the Dutchman. It certainly did little good on Saturday. Leadership this was not as chaos broke forth.