Superstition is a funny thing. I’m not usually prone to such dalliances myself. Neuroses yes; It’s only after a couple of decades of life experience and good advice that I’m able to develop a sore sternum without anticipating an impending massive heart attack. But superstition, not so much.
To me, Friday the 13th is just a series of bad slasher flicks, the association of luck with the colour of a random cat’s fur makes no sense, and it seems that opening your umbrella indoors has no superstition attached to it in the United States. How seriously can you take a superstition, when it only actually exists for a specific culture or region?
When it comes to football however, that all gets turned on its head. To this day, 22 years after betting on Man United to win the 1995 FA Cup final 2-1, with Denis Irwin to score first, I maintain a stubborn abstinence against predicting Manchester United scorelines ( bar the occasional tongue-in-cheek “reverse jinx” where I declare “2-1 to [whoever United are playing]”).
While not strictly “superstition”, once during an LA Galaxy playoff game a couple of years back, a friend said to me: “I didn’t know you were Catholic”.
“How do you know that?” I responded, puzzled.
“You just crossed yourself…”.
So even my latent Catholicism has been known to creep out during the tenser moments of games.
It is for this reason that I haven’t posted any direct Manchester United content in a while. It wasn’t the initial reason. I just had a short spell where I didn’t have much to say about them. Then I thought about posting with regard to the ongoing unbeaten streak, but it occurred to me that as soon as I did, we’d probably lose immediately. Then it stopped being a concern about bad timing, or happenstance and one about superstition. I didn’t want to give the streak “the kiss of death”.
Now that yesterday’s defeat to Arsenal has brought it all to an end, it seems I’m safe to post again. In any case, Jose Mourinho has spent all week setting his stall out to preempt this failure. He’s “focused on the Europa League” y’see. So it wasn’t even that devastating a loss, supposedly. Though lord knows, if things go wrong either Thursday against Celta de Vigo, or we fail to win the competition in any way, shape or form, we’re going to look a bit silly.
But back to the streak itself: it was in truth, a very odd one. Never has going 25 games without defeat felt so unspectacular, so underwhelming. Crucially, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an unbeaten run be comprised of such bad results.
Now that’s not to say it isn’t a step in the right direction. If we’d had more than one player putting a vaguely decent percentage of their chances away, we might have actually made an impact on the title race.
Even if we don’t finish any higher than 5th or 6th place, I still feel better about the team’s progress under Mourinho than I did under Louis Van Gaal last season.
With LvG, I felt like multiple parts of the team and strategy were fundamentally flawed. The United of 2015-16 played under a philosophy of possession for the sake of it, with no end product and a reversion to mass panic when the ball was finally (perhaps mercifully) lost. With Mou, I feel we just need a bit more consistency and a more cohesive front line, to be a serious factor in future title challenges.
Actually, we also need health and depth. The team has been a carousel of crocked players this term and it’s cost us as much as anything. The defence has been in perpetual flux and we’ve been over-reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get goals.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford haven’t been as prolific this season, though Martial has seen the more troubling sophomore slump.
Whereas Rashford has looked a little green and erratic, he still shows promise and has more-or-less put himself in place as Zlatan’s cover (though whether they cocky swede will don a United shirt again, remains to be seen).
Martial has looked more “out of sorts” and seems to have taken his dip a little harder. Some of this might be the differing trajectories of the players’ emergence. Martial was signed to do good things from day one. Rashford wasn’t even being hotly tipped by United staff before injuries thrust him into the limelight.
The young Mancunian has latched onto his opportunities and by default, blown by what modest expectations there were.
I still feel though, that neither player is ready to be “the star”. Solid components of strong side, absolutely. Names that strike fear into opponents across the land? I’m afraid not. They feel more “Solskjaer” than “Scholes”.
If Ibra doesn’t return (and in truth, even if he does) I feel United will need to look elsewhere for the club’s new face.
In midfield, I have to say that Pogba is getting entirely too much stick. Again, expectations are a factor. When a player is signed for a world record $150m, being special comes with the territory.
Because Pogba hasn’t chipped in with the goals and assists normally associated with such a signing, some are given to describing him as a flop. I strongly disagree.
His defensive and possession work are as good as any midfielders in the league and his lack of output on the attacking end, I’m laying at the feet of the boss.
The double pivot is not Pogba’s natural game. He thrives in a midfield three, contributing as a drifting number eight. Tending to defensive and retention duties, but also given license to support the attack.
Zlatan’s one, somewhat significant weakness, has been that he hasn’t been quite effective enough when it comes to dropping deep and cultivating possession. All too often, he’s looked for the crafty touch, or quick layoff and at times the execution has been wanting. That has made it difficult for either Pogba or Herrera to plug into attacking positions as much as they’d like, while the cheap giveaways have added to the midfield’s workload on the other side of the ball.
Ander Herrera by the way, has generally been excellent. A great tackler and distributor with strong vision. United need three men in the middle and in Herrera and Pogba, they’ve got two.
In defence, the success of the season in my eyes, has been Eric Bailly. He’s been a dependably stalwart all year, regardless who the latest list of casualties has put next to him.
One guy I think deserves an honourable mention is Antonio Valencia.
Dismissed in some schools of United support from day one as “Not Man United Quality”, he’s a player who has delivered as his body has allowed. He’s always been a player that gets the best out of what he has. For many years, that was simply a great cross, speed and the ability to change pace in an instant. Defenders might know what he’s going to do, but stopping him doing it wasn’t necessarily as easy.
If you had a hope of matching him for pace, he’d shift down a gear, as you hopelessly tried to backpedal, but already the ball was sailing into the six yard box.
Too soon and too often for United, injury first disrupted his time, then compromised it by limiting his explosive speed.
In recent seasons, he has transitioned into a makeshift right back. He’s acquitted himself well, but it was never his position and while he did well under the circumstances, it was “doing” well with the understanding that this wasn’t his role.
This year, I feel like he has completed the transition. He’s learnt the role, improved his timing and position play, and turned himself into an asset. He’s a player whose heart and determination aren’t mentioned enough.
Do I need to mention that David De Gea remains elite in his position and will be a huge loss if we can’t keep hold of him?
So this has turned into a bit of a ramble. The bottom line is, the streak has come to an end. It didn’t quite make the record books (my recent entry on the fallacy of “Premier League records” should let you know my feelings on this being the best streak since 1993), so it might just disappear into the ether.
It points to a platform that can be built on. The slightly underwhelming nature of the run, serves as a reminder that there is still building to be done.
How this season is recorded in United history, depends immediately on what happens Thursday night.