Man United slide continues and Louis van Gaal finally admits he's failing
After spending the majority of his time as Manchester United boss claiming things are better than they were, Louis van Gaal is finally acknowledging that he's failing and not hitting the expected targets. He still has time but with only 12 league games left to bridge a six-point gap on Manchester City in fourth, it's slipping away.
Miss out on the top four and it's basically impossible to think Van Gaal will be in charge next season. Instead, he'll be sitting by a Portuguese beach with the next United boss picking up the pieces. Just as David Moyes and Van Gaal did, that person will stress the rebuilding job at hand, the implication being that he's been left a massive task by his predecessor and should be cut more slack. And so the cycle will continue, with the bar of expectation briefly lowered as a new boss is only charged with achieving a top-four finish and his players are afforded time to gel along with his ideas.
This is the new reality for United with the club's name, support and reputation exceeding the capabilities of a team which has long slipped from the top.
Success in football is cyclical. In the Premier League, Chelsea are currently 12th, Liverpool eighth and Leeds United no longer play top-tier football. AC Milan are sixth in Italy, Lyon fifth in France, Valencia 12th in Spain, Feyenoord sixth in Holland and Galatasary 15 points off the top in Turkey. The mighty do fall but while United were never going to continue winning trophies season after season, fans weren't being unrealistic in hoping for more given the quality of players in England's most expensively assembled side.
Instead, United have finished seventh, fourth and probably somewhere in between this season. They've so far accumulated fewer points and scored fewer goals at this stage of the season (26 games) than any for 26 years. In 1990, United were in a 26-year title free-drought that finally ended in 1993. This year will be a third without a title, but even Moyes' side had more points and had scored eight more goals after 26 games.
As the title gradually edges out of sight, United are like a cricket team chasing a total that is mathematically possible but always unrealistic.
Title talk was suspended by all but those detached from reality after dismal December. Top four talk is now being batted away as unrealistic, with the best hopes of Champions League qualification for next season via winning the Europa League. That's Manchester United in 2016: struggling to finish in the top four over 38 games and thus hoping for qualification via the vagaries of a knock-out competition their fans had long derided as being second best -- or a competition Liverpool entered and played on a Thursday night.
United have become like Liverpool, a team playing below the best and chasing fourth. Or, failing that, sixth. And United are failing. They've splurged millions on new players with grand reputations, but the reputations of those players diminishes in M16 -- the exact opposite of what the club hope.
For a long time, United were a parsimonious club who for decades baulked at the costs when their managers identified the best English players from Alan Ball to Gary Lineker to Terry Butcher; in the modern era, they have indulged Van Gaal with money. It was been largely spent on players who, compared like for like, might be marginally better than those they've replaced. Yet those they replaced were part of a winning machine which had the life slowly drained from them before they were shifted. Javier Hernandez, Rafael and Daniel Welbeck had seen their confidence battered and their performances stifled.
United's latest set back was at second bottom Sunderland on Saturday. The Mackems, who'd only won six games all season and hadn't beaten United at home in the league for 19 years, scored with goals from two players they bought in the January transfer window. Another late goal cost United points, as it did the week before and at Newcastle last month.
Despite significant injuries, Van Gaal opted against any signings in the same transfer window. He had the option, make no mistake about that. His refusal means teenagers Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Donald Love are the club's only fit full-backs. Granted, he's been unlucky with injuries to full-backs or players whom he's deployed at full-back, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones and Guillermo Varela are all out.
That said, luck evens itself out. Luck meant United kept David De Gea, one of the bright spots in the team, this season. Every team has at least some positives. De Gea's a magnificent goalkeeper with the best distribution of any United stopper. Even though he missed the first chunk of the season, he's already kept 13 clean sheets. He must be wondering how much more of his career he's prepared to waste at a club that doesn't come close to competing with the best. And while the transfer obsessed hoover up stories linking United with the world's best players, which of them are going to want to join a club not in the Champions League?
So we're left to accentuate the positives, like Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. Only just 19, he crosses the ball like Cafu, Paul Breitner and Junior combined. The Mancunian takes a touch and then centres, but his inexperience gets exposed.
It's also true that from game to game we see moments, flashes of play or the odd great goal and win -- welcome relief for a fifth-placed team unable to accumulate successive league wins in three months.
United aren't good enough to win the league. They're not consistent enough, they don't have the spirit and they don;t have the manager. This is how it has been for three seasons, the life of a team in fifth.
The team's next two games are in cup competitions against sides who play in stadiums with 10,000 seats. One, Midtjylland, were formed in 1999. The other, third-tier strugglers Shrewsbury, had eight put past them by United in a 2000 friendly. I remember it well, a pleasant day out in a handsome English town. Fans will travel to both with the intention of having a decent excursion knowing that they're not going to have them in May when the biggest trophies are presented.
In both matches, United should still progress comfortably despite this most uncomfortable of seasons, a team with hopes hinging on a cup like they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Then came Sir Alex Ferguson.
Despite retrospective criticism of the team inherited by Moyes, Ferguson privately maintains he left a very capable team that needed 2-3 changes. He'll admit with regret that the youth system was left to slide, something that has continued through little fault of the people who'd been successful. Paul McGuinness, one of the coaches he promoted, was told to clear his desk at Carrington by the club secretary John Alexander last Wednesday evening after 28 years of service. Staff were stunned and worry who will be next. Such is the air of uncertainty; even the hunters fear becoming the hunted.
As the Champions League lights up again, this dreary United season limps on, on, on towards the season's end.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.