Time is a wonderful healer, a provider of perspective that is almost impossible in the aftermath of a negative occurrence. Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to MK Dons in the Capital One Cup this week was certainly one of those. If you’d asked me post-match what I thought of the performance and its significance I’d have told you that it was an embarrassment and unleashed a torrent of expletives about the players and decisions made by Louis Van Gaal. I despise defeats like these, as I did when Fergie’s United lost at Southend, to Coventry and at home to York City. When the history books are written and stories told in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time, no one, United fans aside, will remember or care that this was a reserve eleven, thrown together and playing in a formation that few of them are familiar with. I still contend that, regardless of the players on the pitch and the competition the game was played in, Tuesday night’s performance by United was the worst I have ever seen from my team in over thirty years of watching them. Given that I witnessed a significant part of the 1980’s and, unfortunately, every game of David Moyes’ brief tenure, to put in a performance to trump the lot is some achievement. I also felt anger that, with no European football this season, the League Cup was one of only three competitions the club can win this season and that we were down to two by late August. What was Van Gaal thinking putting out such a weakened side and sitting, passively, as the Dons goals went in? The fans had every right to be angry.
Two days later I feel very different. Pre-match, as I looked at the two teams with a view to a small bet on the match, I remarked to a friend that this, obviously, wasn’t a team picked with a view to giving United the best chance of getting to the next round of the competition. This was a line-up in to which Louis Van Gaal had shoe-horned as many players that he wanted to leave the club as possible, either through sales or loans. The exceptions were Jonny Evans, just returning from injury, and the helpless David De Gea. Take Marnick Vermijl for example, primarily a full-back but on Tuesday levered into the team as a centre-back when a specialist in that position, Tom Thorpe, was sat on the bench. This was visibility, not suitability. Regardless of the injuries and misfortune that have beset the first-team squad, a far stronger side could have been fielded and would probably have beaten the Dons, but with hindsight it doesn’t appear that the manager’s primary intention was to progress.
This was an opportunity for those heading for the exit door to earn redemption or, at the very least show enough to attract new potential employers, a necessary short-term pain for longer-term gain. In the event, many sealed their own fates, offering performances so abject that we are unlikely to see most the older players ever again, bar Evans (who had an appalling night but for whom there is mitigation) and De Gea. The biggest concern after their showing is not the result, but how many other clubs, watching that, will want to take them and their hefty wages on. There will be plenty of interest in Danny Welbeck, perhaps the only player of significant value outside of the first-team, first-choice eleven, and there should also be a market for Shinji Kagawa, who had the fortune/misfortune to be substituted early on. But for the likes of Hernandez and Anderson, both of whom have rapidly fallen from a great height, it is likely to be a hard sell. United are paying the price for too readily tying promising players to expensive long-term contracts, then finding themselves stuck with them as they fail to reach their potential, lose interest or suffer injury and decline.
There was much criticism of Van Gaal post-match, for that team selection, for his seemingly passive acceptance of each poor pass or goal, for the rigidity of his system and stubbornness in refusing to change even when it became crystal clear that the 3-5-2 was not working as it should. Were David Moyes still in charge, in the context of an abysmal start to the season, he would have drowned in the bile that would have been sent in his direction. Van Gaal was criticised from within the fan-base, but it was largely mild and qualified by an ongoing trust in his methods and the restructuring and rebuilding of United that he is attempting to carry out. These double-standards appear unfair, but it can be argued that the measure by which each of the managers is judged should be different, for one has earned the right for time and has demonstrated in the past that his slow starts are often a precursor to great success. At Ajax, Alkmaar, and Bayern, early poor form was demonstrated to be a necessary evil as the sweeping changes that Van Gaal invariably makes when entering a new club were undertaken. Moyes had no such pedigree to fall back on and yet, despite this, most fans gave him several months before beginning to realise that something was seriously wrong. Fergie left Moyes a ship with holes in the hull. Moyes left Van Gaal a ship with holes, no sails and no rudder.
There is significant work to be done and it is possible that in 12, 18, 24 months’ time we will look back on the MK Dons defeat and appreciate that it served a purpose, albeit at the cost of short-term pain. The next few days are likely to see a raft of personnel changes at United, as a bloated, inadequate squad is trimmed and, hopefully, more high-quality playing staff are brought in. It may be that the 3-5-2 system which Van Gaal has adopted and now has, at times, teams in all groups at the club playing, will need to be adjusted or abandoned, but the manager himself has acknowledged that the acquisition of Angel Di Maria gives him the flexibility to do just that. Despite results, his assessment of the abilities of most of the members in the squad has matched our own, something which should be comforting. He can, largely, see what we see. The system the side is currently playing is, by Van Gaal’s own admission, necessitated by the balance of the squad and it is not one which he has stubbornly applied throughout his career. If there is one manager in Europe willing to put practicality before pride it is the Dutchman.
So whilst the 4-0 defeat in Milton Keynes was hard to take, it was part of a process which put the long-term health of the club and squad over the short-term need for results and trophies. As Van Gaal has said, this isn’t going to be a quick fix. If the process of rebuilding involves some players showing themselves up then so be it. Hopefully many of them will soon be gone and we won’t have to grumble about their under-performance and/or lack of commitment ever again.