We at the Busby Babe consider ourselves to be, fundamentally, optimists, and if that doesn't come always come across then that's the fault of the world, not us. So in this vein, we've attempted to find some silver linings around the edge of Sunday afternoon's hideous storm cloud of a performance. It wasn't easy ...
The return of three in midfield
United's best performances last season came while playing three in midfield, a formation that allowed United's two sort-of wingers to combine with those just inside them as well as the full backs, and so generate the on pitch overloads and ensuing space that Louis van Gaal craves. Think Fellaini's first goal against Tottenham, or Mata's first against Liverpool. So, naturally, Van Gaal began this season playing a more rigid 4-2-3-1.
He's largely stuck with it as well, until half time at Arsenal, when United's complete inability to get hold of the football forced his hand. Afterwards United were better, albeit they were better against a side who were three goals up and had their cigar on. Now it's possible that Sunday's reorganisation was simply a panicked response to an appalling performance, but given how stodgy United have been so far this season, we can but hope that Van Gaal's considering a return to last season's greater fluency.
Though, thinking about it, that would leave no obvious place for ...
Wayne Rooney! More evidence for the prosecution of
Come the second half and the tactical rejig, Rooney was moved out to the left wing, his third position in this season's thirteen games. His performances, and the assessment of them by various websites and media outlets including this one, are generally divisive; for everybody who believes he needs to be melted down for glue, there's another who believes that his continued endeavour and hard work is far from United's most pressing problem.
So to what degree he's been bad is, perhaps, up for debate. But in how many games as he been good? Not "not bad", not "okay", but "actually and properly good". We reckon it's two, the stroll against Club Brugge and the League Cup tie against Ipswich.
Two good performances in thirteen games, both against weak opposition. There is not another player in the squad who would be allowed to get away with such sustained and aggressive mediocrity (and that's if we generously allow that he's been mediocre in the other games). At best, he's being carried by those around him. At worst, he's an albatross-shaped handbrake.
He is, of course, captain. He is the face of the club and a senior professional. He is also paid an absolute fortune. Were none of those things the case, were he being assessed entirely on his performances, then he would have been dropped long ago; we've seen Van Gaal drop players for plenty less. We can only hope that Sunday brought the matter into sharp relief: at some point, Van Gaal's going to have to choose between Rooney's status and his own job prospects.
And, while we're at it, the defence! More evidence for the prosecution of
Er, if that makes sense. United's defence did well in the opening stages of the season but looked shaky against Wolfsburg and then vanished completely in the opening half an hour against Arsenal. It's probably not a coincidence that those two sides are by some margin the cleverest, quickest, and most technically accomplished sides that United have played. Along with perhaps Swansea, to whom United also lost.
Let's expand this a bit further, even though we're still dealing with a small sample. United's clean sheets this season have come against an undercooked and unprepared Tottenham, an already-beaten Club Brugge, a heavily rotated Ipswich Town and the bottom three teams in the Premier League. And while you can perhaps point to a freakish goal here — Christian Benteke's flying volley, perhaps — or a moment of good fortune there — Christian Eriksen hitting the bar, say — there's a general trend, which is that against any team with even a modicum of wit and movement in midfield and attack, United have at least conceded.
Chris Smalling and Daley Blind have, on the whole, impressed this season, at least in their individual battles. Smalling's been excellent in the air and in the tackle, while Blind has played some gorgeous passes. And the absence of Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo has forced a certain amount of improvisation. Maybe this contradicts our wish for a 4-3-3, above; maybe there's a solution encompassing both. But as a unit, and as a team, United are vulnerable. That can be ignored in victory. It cannot be ignored in embarrassment.
Um ... Morgan Schneiderlin is clearly the greatest central midfielder in the world
Quite what the plan was isn't entirely clear. It looked like Van Gaal had instructed Bastian Schweinsteiger to press Arsenal hard and high, leaving Michael Carrick to cover the runners from midfield, but that would be the footballing equivalent of setting your trousers on fire and then jumping out of a window. But whatever United's manager was thinking, he inadvertently proved one of the great rules of the game: nothing becomes a footballer's reputation more than missing a humiliation.
Though I suppose you could argue that nothing does a midfielder's reputation more damage than being overlooked as a substitute in favour of Marouane Fellaini. Either way, over the course of his two hour rest in north London, Schneiderlin went from useful to essential, and it will hopefully be quite some time before United take on a decent side without the Frenchman somewhere in the middle of the park. Keeping possession is all very well against the diddy teams, but against Arsenal and the like, somebody has to do some running.
And, er ... Anthony Martial still looked good in an abysmal team
Poor lad. Come to Manchester United, get your big break, and have to shamble about in front of that mess.
You know what? Stop this. What the hell are you talking about? What the hell am I talking about? There's no silver linings. None. None whatsoever. Cloud upon cloud from horizon to horizon. It was Arsenal. Everybody knows how to play Arsenal. Fred the Red knows how to play Arsenal. Death, taxes, Arsenal. This wasn't just a managerial mistake, this was profound managerial negligence. The wrong team, playing the wrong way, and doing it badly. And let's just hope that it wakes Van Gaal up. There's your silver lining, you fool: either he'll sort himself out, or he'll humiliate himself out of a job.