I am sitting here, trying to reflect on an incredibly disappointing result against Everton and distinguish the defining characteristic of Manchester United’s repeated inability to close the gap toward the top four Champions League births. How did we manage to capitulate for the umpteenth time this season? Put simply, it’s because as many of us have realised there is a lot of Deadwood on our televisions and I don’t mean we’re seeing a great deal of Timothy Olyphant and the TV Show on repeat. No instead of Olyphant we are treated to the Elephant or Marouane Fellaini as his given name would have us refer to him as.
Mourinho has proven once and for all that he is not a miracle worker. Calls for him to be sacked are premature to say the least, as he has not had the luxury of the numerous transfer windows to bring in the top quality replacements we are so obviously crying out for. However, the decision to prevent young, eager saplings (youth products, such as Fosu Mensah) flourishing whilst retaining faith in the termite infested oaks such as Fellaini is absolutely stupefying. In football terms, Jose was attempting to weather the storm as the tremendous wind of Everton’s attack came crashing repeatedly against us. Instead of heading for the safe harbour of dependable beeches (Blind or Bailly), Jose opted to utilise the creaking oak (Fellaini) and paid the price for this most awry assessment of the situation.
Fellaini, by no means, is the only player who can attract criticism and accusations of not being of sufficient quality to merit his United squad place. If anything, the two centre backs Jones and Rojo are among the primary candidates to be shipped out by the club in the next couple of transfer windows. Perhaps now as I write this with a calmer and more retrospective viewpoint, a draw was a rather fortuitous result given that the latter somehow escaped a straight red for his horrific, two footed lunge in the 17th minute. Similarly Jones, despite being a tall and physically imposing centre half seems to get out jumped far too easily, most notably by Olivier Giroud and Enner Valencia in recent matches.
Starting with two centre backs that always appear to have a mistake in them is symptomatic of Manchester United’s problems with true squad depth and quality if injuries surmount. For his part, there were rumours that Jose had realised the defensive frailty he had inherited in the summer and that the acquisition of Jose Fonte of Southampton was one he was attempting to secure in the latter stages of the summer’s transfer window. Sadly, the intended transfer didn’t materialise and despite assertions to the contrary, a plethora of injuries have ravaged the defensive line leaving us tremendously exposed at the back. It should be noted that, the lack of clean sheets this season means that even against the most average of attacking teams, who can string together barely a couple of chances, we look likely to haemorrhage goals and points at any moment.
Looking further forward, the reliance on several key elder statesmen seems extremely myopic and replacing Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney in the near future seems an essential component of securing a more vivacious, youthful side. Although Jose has revitalised Wayne Rooney, shown through a couple of excellent performances over the last month, the team should not have to rely on these older players, and cannot, should we hope to retain our place as England’s biggest and most successful club. Furthermore, our key players need to retain their discipline as the suspensions for Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Rooney over the last month or so have severely hampered our chances of finding a successful formula to winning successive games with some of their deadwood replacements.
A key example of this type of replacement is Jesse Lingard. He is a player who is all effort and willing running but lacks the productivity and skill to perform at the highest level. His record, as of the moment of writing this article, for Manchester United, reads as 33 appearances and 4 goals in the Premier League. Although a significant amount would have been substitute appearances it is indicative of a wider endemic of deadwood at United that Lingard is often selected from the start, a damning indictment of the squad’s shallow pool of genuine top quality.
A further example of this is Memphis Depay, who only a year ago ranked first on France Football’s top 50 best young players in the world, whose potential seems to have evaporated. Depay’s record for Manchester United in Premier League performances, the mitigating circumstances of substitute appearances withstanding, reads as 33 appearances and 2 goals. The cries for his inclusion from a significant amount of United fans would seem fallacy when presented with this statistic; where his return is worse than that of Lingard, for whom there is no similar clamour to reinstate him in the first team.
The jury seems to still be out on a handful of other players not yet mentioned in this article that have yet to prove their worth. Of these, Morgan Schneiderlin seems a primary culprit as someone who has failed to live up to their perceived quality who should be ashamed at not being able to force his way into the team. Although Carrick has been a regularly outstanding performer for Manchester United over the last decade, Schneiderlin at over 8 years his junior should have made the central defensive anchoring position his.
Even the much maligned Marouane Fellaini was preferred in this position at the start of the season which shows how far his star has fallen from his final season at Southampton. As Jose increasingly experiments with finding players who can provide the winning mentality he has even brought in Bastian Schweinsteiger, who he repeatedly tried to oust during the summer transfer window.
Carrick’s merits are in such stark contrast to the other players because of his ability to provide classy contributions wherever he is placed in the team. As Xavi Hernandez noted “Carrick gives United balance and can play defensively too. He passes well, has a good shot and is a complete player”. Were Xavi still playing for Barcelona could he honestly praise a Manchester United central midfielder with such platitudes as he did here or for Scholes as he famously did? Paul Pogba apart, this department looks worryingly lightweight along with the defensive cover aforementioned.
In this respect, we probably move to the last area of deadwood to tackle, at full back, with certain players being forced to play roles that are not their natural position without recognised specialists to perform them. Antonio Valencia has performed admirably it must be said at right back, aided by his redoubtable physical attributes of lightning speed and muscular form to out strength his opponents. However, his positional sense and defensive decision making have been called into question on occasion, for example, in standing off Dmitri Payet and allowing him to turn toward goal against West Ham for their equalizer in the EFL Cup.
At left back, the struggles intensify as Luke Shaw has struggled to reassert himself coming back from his length injury lay off. Some United fans feel that Matteo Darmian’s decidedly underwhelming performances here have gone under the radar somewhat. In 2012-13 Darmian made the most tackles per game (5.3) across any of Europe’s top 5 leagues. So where has this full back gone that was our player of the month of August last year and who has elicited comparisons with legendary AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini?
It should be pointed out that the players Jose has brought in are top quality to try and rectify the dearth of class. I, for one, believed a title push at the start of the season was not beyond the realms of possibility, buoyed by the marvellous, mouth-watering prospect of the magisterial Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Even Eric Bailly, of whom I had only caught small highlights of, excited me as a strong, powerful defender who could become a rock like, overdue Nemanja Vidic replacement.
At first, the signs were positive that the Manchester United garden was rosy and in full bloom with a 100% perfect start to the first few league games. We thought Jose’s green fingers had somehow managed to conduct a miraculous repair of some desperately declining trees (players) and that the evergreen success of the Alex Ferguson era (titles and trophies) had returned.
Sadly, now as I reflect on those heady days of three months ago, the garden,as the winter has drawn in, has well and truly frozen over with the leaves of our title and top four hopes lying in tatters on the floor. Has this process of eradicating the deadwood, through trial and error, had an irreversible effect on our current season? As we look forward at the beginning of December to the remainder of an increasingly barren looking season in the league, it’s tempting to say that the deadwood, if anything, is not some of these players but Manchester United’s season itself.
By George Kyle