Manchester United are crumbling, so why the lack of fan fury?

Jonathan Wilson on 6 December 2018

Drip, drip, drip.

Watching Manchester United these days has taken on a strangely repetitive quality. Usually when giants flounder there is a grim fascination in seeing them fail, in watching players raised on success having to deal with defeat and misfortune. But not now, not any more. United grind on. They pick up some points, they drop some points. Nothing much changes. The narrative seems to have stalled. They have good players who can get them goals but they have a propensity for chaos that means 15 games into the season they have a negative goal difference. The slow erosion of everything Manchester United have been goes on.

Drip, drip, drip.

A 2-2 draw against a team who are now 20 games unbeaten is no disgrace, of course, not even when that team are Arsenal, who haven’t won in the league at Old Trafford since 2006, who on Wednesday night still seemed to be drained by the emotional frenzy of Sunday’s north London derby, who lost players every four or five minutes to injury and who at times regarded the ball in their box with all the decisiveness of a group of nervous Victorian maidens spying a butterfly on their first jaunt out with a raffish lepidopterist. But that is a 2-2 draw that leaves United 18 points behind the leaders, Manchester City – which is, coincidentally, the precise number of points City have dropped over the past two seasons put together.

Drip, drip, drip.

Sacking season is nigh. Mourinho’s father was sacked by Rio Ave at Christmas 1984; he knows football has no season of goodwill. Perhaps more pertinent, the third anniversary of the defeat at Leicester that brought his second exit from Chelsea comes a week on Friday. The following Sunday will be the 46th anniversary of the 5-0 humiliation at Crystal Palace that cost Frank O’Farrell his job as manager of United. The parallels are not exact but in both cases there was a sense of inexorable decline that needed just one final trigger to tip the manager over the edge.

Drip, drip, drip.

In terms of results at least, this is not as bad as Mourinho’s final season at Chelsea. Then he was removed after gathering 15 points from 16 games. Even if United lose at home to Fulham on Saturday – Claudio Ranieri, the benign assassin, waiting for Mourinho once again, wondering whether all those jokes the former professional translator used to make about Ranieri’s lack of English really were that funny after all – they will have eight points more at the equivalent stage than Chelsea did three years ago. But Chelsea, perhaps, were a little unfortunate in certain games then, whereas United this season were fortunate to beat Newcastle and Bournemouth and could easily have lost to Wolves and Southampton: the performances haven’t been so different.

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Drip, drip, drip.

But perhaps the more relevant comparison is with United’s past. This is not, admittedly, like 1972, when they went into that game at bottom-placed Palace in second bottom. But football now is not like 1972. The rich have a safety net; even in the worst seasons they can only fall so far. And this, by United’s standards, is shaping up to be their worst season of the modern age. Extrapolate 23 points from 15 games over a 38-game season and you get 58. That would, admittedly, have been enough last season to pip Burnley for a Europa League place but it would also represent United’s lowest points tally since 1989-90. They are on course to concede 63 goals, something they haven’t done since 1978-79. If Mourinho, self-styled arch-pragmatist, enemy of poets and Einsteins everywhere, isn’t sorting out the defence, you begin to wonder what is left.

Drip, drip, drip.

The most notable boos at Old Trafford against Arsenal on Wednesday were reserved for the introduction of Paul Pogba.
The most notable boos at Old Trafford against Arsenal on Wednesday were reserved for the introduction of Paul Pogba. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Yet what is odd is the lack of fury. There should be howls of outrage, bedsheets in the stands, protests on the roundabouts, banners drawn from planes. Sir Matt Busby Way should seethe with revolution. It does not. The most notable boos at Old Trafford on Wednesday night were reserved for the introduction of Paul Pogba, whose relationship with his manager deteriorated further on Saturday when Mourinho singled him out for blame after the draw at Southampton (where he had lost possession 14 times). Reports that Mourinho denounced certain of his players as “spoiled” at the hotel even before the game suggest the discord here has become even more palpable than it was in those final days at Chelsea. The last of his skills to desert Mourinho, perhaps, is his capacity to inspire his loyalists and convince them it isn’t his fault, not when the board, the players and the media are there to be blamed.

Drip, drip, drip.

The end is coming. The Mark Robins escape that saved Alex Ferguson in 1989-90 doesn’t apply any more: as Mourinho’s immediate predecessor Louis van Gaal knows, the FA Cup saves nobody these days. Fourth place already looks out of reach, but the drift goes on and will perhaps endure until the end of the season, the lack of urgency in the boardroom adding credence to rumours of a possible takeover. But this cannot go on. Old Trafford doesn’t automatically sell out any more. United are not a club made for this low-grade antagonistic mediocrity.

At some point, erosion will take its course, the incessant dripping will break through and the edifice will fall.

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