Man United face critical summer as impatience grows at Old Trafford
A fourth win in five games, including away victories at Manchester City and West Ham, should have ensured a happier vibe among Manchester United fans. Boring football, scarce goals and a top-four finish looking unlikely have seen to that. Even if United finish fourth, there's the possibility that they could be denied a tilt at Champions League qualification if archrivals Liverpool or Man City win another trophy and finish below United in the league. Talk about a double slap across the face at the end of a poor season.
Saturday's stupefying 1-0 win relegated Aston Villa for the first time in 28 years, but the match had the air of an end-of-season dud. Tickets were easy to get hold of outside the ground, with the atmosphere as flat as the team's performance inside.
Expect similar against Crystal Palace at home on Wednesday. There are still 3,000 unsold tickets for the Eagles' visit, and efforts to sell them were hampered by fans being unable to get through to the ticket office because of a flood of applications for FA Cup semifinal tickets blocking the website and phone lines.
After Wednesday, attention shifts to Saturday's FA Cup semifinal at Wembley, where at least 31,606 United fans will attend. Most will travel from the northwest, and a couple of thousand will do so on free coaches laid on by the club in a generous gesture.
The FA Cup is keeping interest in this season alive, but even a victory wouldn't shift the groundswell of opinion for Louis van Gaal to go. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is well aware of this; he knows the football isn't entertaining and that the team don't score enough goals -- just 40 in 33 games, one more goal than 18th-placed Sunderland.
As he continues to consult a range of individuals about the future of the club, Woodward will watch the levels of season ticket renewals closely. Britain's biggest club stadium is still selling out, but the prospect of a third term under Van Gaal might change that. The deadline for renewals is May 20 and, unlike in recent seasons, there are fewer people waiting in the wings to pick up the slack from any who don't.
While fans have long talked about giving up their season tickets for a variety of reasons -- from rising costs to a change in personal circumstances or the club's ownership -- the actual football has seldom been an issue. It is now.
Most of the hardcore will renew regardless. United is such a big part of their life that there will be a significant void without it. The actual game is only one part of matchgoing, a day out with friends.
It's an individual choice, but the struggle will be getting those fans who've got more pressures on their time to renew when the football is so poor. Maybe they were attracted to games when United were exciting, which they've not been for 75 percent of matches at home.
A change in manager will lift the mood. New signings will do likewise, but even then fans are once bitten and twice shy after the patchy recent recruitment.
The club have deep pockets to sign players, and Woodward has names he's interested in and whom United have scouted. Yet can he and his people be trusted to spend well? United have squandered the best part of £300 million since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down three years ago. There's no way that the current team is £300m better than it was then. In fact, it is actually worse and represents a waste of a fortune.
Take the core squad that won the league in 2013. David De Gea, Rafael, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra, Tom Cleverley, Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. Phil Jones, Nemanja Vidic, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez all started more than 20 games; while Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young, Anderson, Chris Smalling and Nani started more than 15 across the four competitions in which United competed.
Upon taking over, Woodward said that it needed little "retooling," and nobody laughed at the time. In hindsight, the team needed four or five players.
With Vidic and Ferdinand ageing, United needed one top central defender to go along Jones, Evans and Smalling. They needed a top central midfielder, probably two. That was the weakest area of the team -- and a vital one. And a wide man as close as possible to the quality that had been lacking since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. Perhaps a right-back too.
Recruitment since has been muddled, expensive, panicked and largely ineffective. One reason is because too many people have had a say in who United have signed and not all excel at recruiting top-flight footballers, despite having the money to spend.
It also shows that changing manager is only one factor for United and that there are still structural issues at the club.
Jose Mourinho, if he is to be the man taking charge, would likely bring in his soldiers aged 25 or 26 with the aim of instant success, which, given his track record, he's likely to achieve before he starts falling out with people, as he's done at almost every club he's worked for. Ryan Giggs, who also wants the job, thinks that United's youth system is what sets the club apart from the rest.
The two options are almost opposites and Woodward, whose own position is under scrutiny, has been weighing all this up. He was an investment banker who has been hugely successful at bringing money into United. He could walk into another CEO position at a top club tomorrow, but he's not from a football background and yet he heads up United's negotiating team for new talent. He's the go-to if a big club want to sell a big player. He'll ask about the personality and think of the marketability of a player. He'll also consult his manager rather than the executives closest to him who are also not football people.
Shouldn't he be appointing someone with expertise in that area, who can work alongside the next manager?
There are other options beyond Giggs, Mourinho and even the contracted Van Gaal. Mauricio Pochettino is an outstanding coach whose young sides play fast, aggressive football. He acted decisively in getting rid of Tottenham's underperforming players like Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Younes Kaboul, Etienne Capoue and Emmanuel Adebayor. The Argentine transformed the fortunes of his team and individuals, including Harry Kane, who'll attract huge bids this close season; Eric Dier, who has become one of the best holding midfielders; Danny Rose and his compatriot Erik Lamela.
There are deeper reasons why each manager should or shouldn't come to Old Trafford than can be covered. Pochettino, for example, is happy at Spurs, where he has a new training ground and new stadium coming. He likes living in the capital and he has control. But Manchester United, if they were to be a suitor, are Manchester United.
Does the new manager come alone? Mourinho and Pochettino are used to working with a sporting director. United don't have one. They've preferred to give all the power to the manager because it worked under Ferguson, but it hasn't worked under Van Gaal or his predecessor, David Moyes. Too much money has been wasted on overpriced players. It's not the fault of the players or their agents, but United could be far better operators, as the recent mishaps in recruitment have shown.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.