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The hideous sobriety of Manchester United

We're not saying Manchester United should take to the field drunk. But we are heavily implying it.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

For those of you that have never had the dubious pleasure, the most discombobulating stage of drunkenness comes when a crucial task presents itself -- the unlocking of a door, perhaps -- and the fog lifts from the mind, but not the body. The brain knows what it has to do -- put the key in the lock, then turn it, like always -- and tells the body, but the body simply cannot understand the instructions correctly, as though they were coming through in a different language. And so the evening ends with the lock covered in scratches but still resolutely locked, the keys in the gutter, and our hero sleeping on the doorstep until a more coherent time arrives.

Don't drink, kids!

Anyway, Manchester United are nothing like this. Manchester United have the opposite problem. A rigorous and scientific investigation by the Guardian discovered that United, this season, have been by some distance the least inept team in the Premier League. No team has done so well at avoiding the tiny little errors -- throw-ins to the opposition, bookings for removing ones shirt, etc. -- that nearly all football teams make. There are no medals for this.

It's not too much of a stretch to expand this beyond the Guardian's lighthearted remit and do some serious inference. Because there's something in the fact that Manchester United haven't many mistakes at an individual level, yet have achieved patchy results thanks to performances that range from dull through very dull and on to hey, I wonder if I could get this paperclip all the way into my eye. This is because the team that makes the fewest little mistakes is often just a polite way of defining the team that refuses to take even the smallest risks. Against Norwich on Saturday United were, for the most part, tidy, neat and controlled. They were also tepid, timid and wholly uninspiring. In short they were, as they have been all season, terrifyingly and appallingly sober.

(As a team. Metaphorically. We're saying nothing about the players' personal habits.)

If the most discombobulating part of being drunk is as described above, then the equivalent moment during sober periods is that moment when the mind is caught off-guard by the overwhelmingly vast and impersonal universe. When any action more complicated than keep breathing or don't fall over or play a short square pass to Michael Carrick seems to branch out in millions upon millions of directions, more than the brain can possibly comprehend, all likely to end in failure at best, humiliation at worst. This leads to the inverse of the earlier problem, where the willing body is let down by the panicking brain. The bodies of Manchester United's footballers are capable of doing wondrous things; the minds of United's players are desperately scrambling to keep the screaming at bay.

(The late Terry Pratchett called this state knurd, and suggested that it could be induced by overly strong coffee, which dragged the drinker back from drunkenness, through sobriety, and then out the other side. But he had the advantage of writing about a flat planet on the back of some elephants on the back of a turtle, so could say anything he liked. Some of us are stuck writing about the real world, a water-covered lump of rock orbiting a perpetual explosion, and can't just make things up as we fancy.)

This state of existentially overexposed sobriety catches everybody at some point or another, but United's players seem to succumb with unusual regularity. The obvious conclusion is that something is going wrong down in the machinery of Van Gaal's methods. He's a coach who prides himself on making his footballers think about their decisions, and he's succeeding up to a point. But that point is, sadly, a persistent internal monologue that runs Oh God, that won't work, nor will that, that's not on, nor is that, everything's impossible, I look like a fool, he'll drop me for ever, I'll play a short square pass to Michael Carrick.

This is why almost every United goal these days looks, at least to the outside observer, a bit like a mistake. Somebody does something they're not supposed to do -- succumbs to a moment of intoxication, if you like -- and then suddenly: oh! A goal! Take Juan Mata's goal against Norwich, which came when Marouane Fellaini abandoned the plan and plonked a long, high one into space behind a central defender. Or Anthony Martial's goal against Leicester, which followed a high-risk, high-reward outside-of-the-boot cross from Antonio Valencia. (This, incidentally, is a nice illustration of the difference between being uninhibited in one's football versus actually being drunk: if Valencia had been out on the ale all day, he'd have tried to use his left, and fallen over.)

Nobody wants to see Manchester United in a mess, slipping and sliding and flailing around, charging into scraps and then vomiting all over their Mercurials. But equally, nobody wants to see a too-sober, over-starched, buttoned-up United, tiptoeing their way through games, spooked half to death by the potential negatives of letting down their metaphorical hair. Whoever's in charge next year, be it Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho or whoever, needs to introduce a little metaphorical tequila into United's preparations. Yes, mistakes will probably come. But so, too, might dancing. And a little dancing would be a wonderful thing.