A couple of years ago, England manager Roy Hodgson boasted that he could stop Manchester United with a pub team. "Give me six months and I'd organise them, if they had a half-decent goalkeeper and a couple of centre halves who can get in the way of the ball," he said. He thinks that's impressive; well, we here at The Busby Babe reckon we could do it in half the time and with eleven inflatable training mannequins. Louis van Gaal's side turned in an eye-gougingly tear-jerkingly gut-wrenchingly tedious performance in their FA Cup third round fixture at home to Sheffield United on Saturday, escaping with a 1-0 victory only courtesy of a stoppage time Wayne Rooney penalty.
At this point in the match report we usually segué into a first half recap, though the fact almost nothing happened in the entire period makes that rather difficult. As ever, United saw plenty of the ball; as ever, the opposition goalkeeper could've unpacked the deckchair, had the Mancunian weather not been as dismal as the football being turned out by a set of experienced top-flight footballers (yes, we have checked).
In a game in which Andreas Pereira should've been given his chance to shine and Memphis the opportunity to find some form, they were both left on the bench. Marouane Fellaini waddled around as ineffectually as ever, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera were lively but inconsequential, and Wayne Rooney smashed a long-range shot miles over the crossbar. The players didn't care, and the fans didn't seem to either. Maybe that's for the best.
Little changed early in the second half, though Sheffield United at least had the good grace to record the game's first shot on target with just over 20 minutes left. Alas, Chris Basham, former Premier League clogger of Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool, was unable to cause David de Gea a problem. As the clock ticked on, United showed flickers of desire through the admirably determined Memphis. But his appeared little more than that of the Titanic's band: cheering, absurdly reassuring, but still aboard a sinking ship.
It was telling that when United fortuitously found an opening in stoppage time, it was all thanks to Memphis. He skinned the visitors' Dean Hammond with some impressive pace, only to be tripped in the area. The referee awarded a penalty and Rooney stepped up to slot the ball into the bottom corner, with United subsequently hanging on for a narrow victory. In truth, it wasn't much to cheer.
The recent defeats at Norwich and Stoke (and Bournemouth and Wolfsburg) at least carried some emotional value: despair before amusement, hope for a result before a hope for van Gaal's swift sacking. But this contest offered absolutely nothing; as if staring into a footballing black hole with nothing to be seen nor felt but an interminable emptiness. The sensation when Rooney slotted home was less like the emotional investment that usually accompanies watching one's own team score, and more the dispassionate ennui felt when absent-mindedly flicking on Sky Sports of an evening, glancing in the top left and noticing Barcelona have tonked another eight past Levante. It wasn't happy, nor sad, funny, entertaining or exciting. It just was. Van Gaal out.