Nothing in the Premier League is ever as it seems for long (apart from Aston Villa). In this most operatic of seasons, all that had been missing was the emergence of a teenager nobody had heard of to turn a game or two and jolt the narrative in an unexpected direction, to play, if you will, the Kiko Macheda role. And then came Marcus Rashford.
With four goals in a little under an hour of football, the 18-year-old turned the Europa League tie against Midtjylland on Thursday and then the Premier League game against Arsenal on Sunday. Manchester United, sunk in introspection after the defeat at Sunderland, has won three games in a week and the talk of Louis van Gaal stepping down as manager before the end of the season looks premature.
Perspective, of course, is needed. Beating Shrewsbury in the FA Cup and reaching the last 16 of the Europa League wouldn’t usually be great cause for celebration at United–and neither, for that matter, would beating Arsenal at Old Trafford, where Arsene Wenger hasn’t won a league game since 2006.
But, given how bad things had gotten, given the nature of the wins, this was a real mood-changer.
Even Van Gaal, whose mood this season has followed a familiar pattern of post-game gloom to pre-game defiance to mid-game resignation, has seemed more sparky. His theatrical collapse in the technical area in protest at a perceived dive by Alexis Sanchez was a glimpse of the furious, feisty, funny Van Gaal who used to inhabit touchlines a decade ago.
It earned a huge roar from a crowd that clearly relished the sight of homebred teenagers sending Arsenal’s title challenge even further off course. Chants of “Louis van Gaal’s army” replaced the invocations to “attack, attack, attack!” The possibility of a glorious finale–an FA Cup or Europa League triumph–has opened up again. And United is only three points behind Manchester City (which has a game in hand) in the race for fourth place. If you can’t hire Pep Guardiola as manager, you can at least ensure he has to start at his new club in the Europa League.
That sentiment may be a consolation, but it also suggests just how far United has slid since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson three years ago. Van Gaal points out in his defense that his side has lost only one game this season by more than a single goal–the away league game at Arsenal–but that is slightly beside the point. The richest club in England should not be scrambling for fourth place in the league, should not be going out of the Champions League in the group stage, should not be losing to Middlesbrough in the League Cup.
If the inconsistency and the lack of achievement in the two principal competitions were the result of a focus on youth, if there was a belief that this was all part of a plan that could come to glorious fruition–as it did for Van Gaal’s Ajax in the mid-1990s–in two or three seasons, perhaps that would be forgivable. Yet even though Van Gaal has given eight Under-21 players debuts in the past four months–and is to be applauded for the willingness he has shown throughout his career to give youth its chance–it would be misleading to pretend that were all part of a grand plan.
Rather the dependence on youth has been forced on him by a ludicrous spate of injuries–Van Gaal looks like he'll be without 13 senior players for Wednesday’s meeting with Watford. United’s first-team squad is an unbalanced, expensively assembled mish-mash. It probably is true that the squad Ferguson left behind after winning the league in 2013 needed strengthening, but it’s also true that attempts to bolster it have been chaotic.
Ed Woodward, who replaced David Gill as CEO at the same time as Ferguson was succeeded by David Moyes, has shown little aptitude for transfers. United is in danger of becoming an English version of Real Madrid, heavy on glamour and revenue and light on trophies.
That has only added to the sense that Ferguson’s departure has left a vacuum, as so often happens when a long-term leader leaves a club, as happened at United after Matt Busby retired in 1969. There is a widespread belief at Old Trafford–perhaps not shared by Van Gaal–that he will leave in the summer, a (relatively) dignified way out for him and a face-saving measure for the man who appointed him, Woodward.
What’s intriguing is that only two candidates are ever discussed as a possible replacement: Jose Mourinho and Ryan Giggs. It appears two factions have emerged within the boardroom. There are the newer, more commercially minded directors who see Mourinho as a charismatic appointment to rival Guardiola’s at City and believe he would bring short-term success. And there are the older directors who worry about the reputational damage Mourinho may do and what sort of mess he would leave behind when he departs, as he always does, during or at the end of his third season. They favor Giggs as maintaining a sense of continuity with the past.
It’s reasonable to worry about Mourinho–the constant conflict he seems to need to motivate himself and the growing feeling he may not be as great as he once was; between 2002-03 and 2009-10 he won six league titles, two Champions Leagues and a UEFA Cup, but since then he has managed only two league titles.
But it’s also reasonable to worry about Giggs. His frontline managerial experience amounts to four games as caretaker in 2014 and appointing him would extend the influence of Ferguson and the Class of 92, the high-profile group of former players who came through the youth set-up together. The lesson of Busby was that a clean break from a powerful former manager may be painful but is probably healthier in the long term.
The polarizing nature of the two candidates, the apparent reluctance to consider a third party–Mauricio Pochettino, for instance–suggests how entrenched positions in the boardroom may have become.
For now, though, Van Gaal carries on, fighting on three fronts, looking for a glorious farewell and perhaps reasoning that, if the boardroom split is bad enough, it wouldn’t take too many more wins to make him staying on into the third year of his contract seem the least divisive solution for next season.