Norwich City, a team which I didn't even realize was back in the Premier League until two weeks ago, turned over Manchester United at Old Trafford. If I'm being honest, we learned absolutely nothing from this result, but some things that we already knew just became even more painfully obvious.
Forget About the Title
It's not happening. United are only 9 points back from league leaders Leicester City (!), and there are 21 matches still left to be played. But United are a nonsense team, and the damage done by van Gaal may be too much to repair. Even if the board does the sensible thing and sends van Gaal off packing to retirement, it would be overly optimistic to expect all four teams above United in the table to stumble. Finishing in the top four is still within reason, but even that will hinge on a change in the dugout (more on that below).
In this season's laughably bad Premier League, this United squad is good enough to win the title at a canter. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and a charlatan manager means that opportunity has now gone.
Early Season Solidity Was Fool's Gold
For months now, we've been reminded that United had the best defensive record in the league. The Red Devils were unbeaten at home, and had the highest average share of ball possession of any team in the premiership. Over the last several games, those excuses about United being "hard to beat" have been shown up for what they were - fool's gold. United have lost in consecutive games to newly promoted teams, and there was never a minute against Norwich that they looked likely to win. The decimation (through injury and suspension) of the defensive midfield double pivot has exposed the defense, and the last few games are probably a more accurate reflection of the quality of the backline. Chris Smalling's improvement is genuine, but there's not a single other fit defender that belongs anywhere near the first team picture. Without David De Gea's heroics, United may not have been in the top half of the table, never mind the top four.
The Players Have Downed Tools
It's been apparent for some time that the players have stopped responded to van Gaal, but today was a nadir. After half an hour of competent attacking, Norwich's goal knocked whatever little belief was left out of the United team, and the players never recovered. This is now a team completely devoid of confidence and conviction, and most of the players aren't even bothered to put in a proper shift. Daley Blind and Juan Mata were the most obvious culprits against Norwich, but at this point, it would be more difficult to identify a player who is trying. It's possible that Wayne Rooney is, but he's become so useless that it's hard to tell how much of his incompetence is by choice.
Fellaini is Not Worth It
Against Bournemouth last week, fans were bemused to see Marouane Fellaini substituted, as the Belgian had been arguably United's most potent attacking threat. Starting again in a midfield two with Michael Carrick that was positively brimming with dynamism and mobility, Fellaini again was a threat in Norwich's penalty area. But for all his aerial prowess, Fellaini is one of the worst central midfielders to regularly appear for United in several years. He has no passing ability to speak of, he's slow, he's clumsy, and he has a first touch to rival Rooney - a player who plays as if he died on the pitch three years ago.
It would be churlish to ignore the attacking outlet that Fellaini provides when he's on the pitch, but the sacrifices that have to made to accommodate his presence - i.e., having a qualified midfielder playing in midfield - are too great. Both of Norwich's goals today may have been prevented, had there not been a giant Fellaini-shaped hole in midfield each time the Canaries set off on a counter attack. It's bad enough that the team invariably resorts to a long-ball approach once Fellaini is on the pitch, but his lack of positional sense and inability to track runners leaves the defense vulnerable time and again. He's only one of the myriad problems facing this United team, and he's not even the worst or most obvious (Jesus Christ, Wayne), but he should never make another appearance in the shirt.
Van Gaal Has To Go Now
There is absolutely no point in giving him until the end of the season. The football has never been any good to watch since van Gaal took over, aside from a handful of games when injuries and suspensions forced him into putting out a watchable side. Now that the results are as dire as the playing style, it's impossible to make a case for van Gaal keeping his job. He's lost the players, he's lost the supporters, and it's only going to get more hopeless from here. Ryan Giggs may have no clue what he's doing, and José Mourinho is an odious cock, but either would be preferable to the awfulness of van Gaal. He was a sensible appointment post-Moyes, he's done some helpful things with regards to reshaping the squad, but he has outlived his usefulness and is now actively damaging the team. For him to still be in charge by next weekend would be an act of gross negligence by the board. Ta ra, Louis.
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