Are Manchester United obligated to play more attractive football?
Manchester United scored 21 goals in their first seven league games this season — three per match. A 0-0 draw at Anfield in the eighth game — which is around the time United fans realised their team wasn’t going to win the league — was a fair enough result, but since then the rate has almost halved to 46 goals in 30 league games.
Romelu Lukaku was in with a decent shout to be the league’s top scorer by October. After 37 games, Mohamed Salah has almost twice as many as Lukaku’s 16. Manchester City have four players in the league’s top 20 scorers, Liverpool and Tottenham have three each. United again have been reliant on the goals of one man as they were from Zlatan Ibrahimovic last season.
As the goals have diminished, the entertainment has plummeted. West Ham 0 Manchester United 0 was the latest dull game featuring Jose Mourinho’s side, where the best moment was 3,000 away fans singing “It’s the worst f—ing ground we’ve ever seen” and the adjacent West Ham fans applauding in agreement. Some home fans even applauded the subsequent “You’re not West Ham anymore” chant. The London Stadium doesn’t have an ounce of the soul and spirit of Upton Park.
Let’s look at the positives for United: confirmed second place, their highest finish since 2013, De Gea kept an 18th clean sheet in the league and no players were injured or suspended in a way that could impact next week’s FA Cup final. United avoided defeat, which is unusual as the team have drawn one and lost four of their last five May away games. The weather was sunny, United’s team coach wasn’t attacked as it was at West Ham two years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson’s health continues to improve and Mourinho, who made eight changes, described the performance as “competitive”.
David Moyes, who did what was asked and kept his team up, also put on a positive face when he said that his “players showed a great attitude and thoroughly deserved a point.”
But come on, this is Manchester United. Let’s not spin anything or scrape the barrel any further: it was woeful. Again. Fans were streaming out long before the end, bored by what they’d seen.
An end-of-season fixture with little to play for — bar the £1.9 million per place (and West Ham could rise five places before the season’s end) — was hardly set up for a classic, but are fans being unrealistic in asking for United, with all those hugely talented players, to play more entertaining football?
Should Manchester United be holding out for a draw against the 15th-placed team who’ve won only five of their past 44 league games against them, because that’s what it looked like when two United defenders were brought on at the end. Where’s the glory in that? Fans around the world were attracted to United because of the football they play.
Do you think the players, some of them hugely talented, like playing in such systems? They don’t.
We’re not talking about the mind-numbing depths of Louis van Gaal’s football here, and in some respects Mourinho was lucky because he took over a team who’d been so dreadful to watch that anything was an improvement, but this United side comes up short too often in terms of entertainment. Yes, the results have improved and the trophies have been won. But what about doing justice to the potential attacking might of Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial? And, while they raise their game for the best in England, they get beaten by some of the worst teams in the league.
Save for a confrontation between Pogba and Mark Noble, for which West Ham’s captain was lucky to stay on the pitch, Thursday lacked excitement. Substitute Patrice Evra didn’t even get on the pitch to brighten things up — he’s yet to play against Manchester United in his career.
The chants about loving Ferguson were the right touch, the ones about going to “Wemberlee” showed that there is still a bit of life left in this season, but there’s a backlash waiting to happen if the quality of the football doesn’t improve. And there will be more players wanting to leave than already want to go, players who think they’ll be happier elsewhere, even if they earn less than what they’re paid at Old Trafford.
Thursday felt like a friendly. The London Stadium hardly adds to the intensity considering the stands are so far from the pitch, but even friendlies have their moments. Luke Shaw played well in the first half and hit the post with an effort.
The second half was terrible, a 69th-minute Pogba shot from near the halfway line that went well wide summing up the aimless, pointless nature of the encounter. Had the team finished strongly, hopes would have been higher for a stronger push against Manchester City next season. Instead, those fans who didn’t switch off months ago can’t wait for the season to end and are unsure whether to blame the manager or the players, to hope for large-scale changes in the transfer window or a more gradual shift.
United’s final game of the season is at home to Watford on Sunday, in one of the least anticipated matches of the club’s recent history. Michael Carrick will start for a final time as a professional footballer and will deserve all the applause that comes his way after 676 games in club football, 463 of them at Manchester United. Carrick won Premier Leagues and a European Cup. This current United side still looks way short of repeating those feats.