Leaderless Manchester United lurch forward with few positives
Manchester United are lumbering toward their next fixture, Monday's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Shrewsbury, while smarting severely from their 2-1 Europa League humiliation at FC Midtjylland. The Danish side had not played since December, and it is fair to say they are enjoying the New Year more than Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman is currently presiding over a United squad lacking in depth, belief and identity. With each game this team plays, the expectation is they will produce a showing less than the sum of their parts. Many of the players who started in Denmark have won multiple championships either in England or abroad, so it is not that they lack experience in high-pressure situations. Instead, they seem to be simultaneously experiencing a career low.
If there is any consolation, it is that the present predicament cannot get much worse, and their next opponents cannot be viewed with complacency. Shrewsbury are 19th in League One and three points from the relegation places, which means the United should dispatch them with little trouble -- except that is precisely what many said about Midtjylland just a few days ago.
The truth is Wayne Rooney's knee injury came at the worst possible time, given that the England forward had finally found form and was playing as well as he had at any time in the past year. His experience would have been vital in a match such as Monday's, which represents as great a threat of an upset as any fifth-round fixture.
Although the absence of David De Gea might not be so keenly felt, given Sergio Romero's performance in Denmark, United have many problems elsewhere. Ander Herrera has been used so confusingly since his arrival at Old Trafford that it is almost a wonder Van Gaal approved his signing.
Too often, Herrera has been dropped or benched just as he seemed to be approaching some kind of rhythm. When he has been used, it has frequently been in a midfield two, even though he would be more suited to being part of a trio.
Partly as a result of this -- but not exclusively -- he has been well below his best recently, and it is a further indictment of Van Gaal's tenure that so many good players are playing far short of their potential.
It is difficult to remember another major club in recent years that has been so slow to replace a manager who is clearly unable to galvanize his players. If this deadlock is due to Ed Woodward's reluctance to dismiss the man he so proudly championed, it suggests he is putting his own concerns before those of the club.
One wonders what the club's owners, the Glazers, think of all this and whether they feel that Van Gaal's underperformance compromises Woodward's position. Given that the club's profits remain robust, maybe they have fewer concerns with the quality of the football being played. If so, that is a sad state of affairs, indeed.
It is also baffling, in retrospect, that there was any strong belief that Pep Guardiola might have looked at the structure at United and found it equivalent to that of Manchester City. United's problems go beyond the manager to needing senior people who are willing to give greater priority to what is happening on the field of play.
Of course, to retain perspective, this is not an existential crisis for the club, and it never will be. It is only a shame that they are now unsure of the quality they will produce from week to week, that an FA Cup game against League One opponents should be viewed with trepidation and that an institution that once prided itself on being discreet and well run should now be so dysfunctional at several levels.
Many might feel that something must eventually give, in the form of direct action or otherwise. Meanwhile, Shrewsbury await in the FA Cup, and no one has any idea which version of United will turn up against them.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.