On a weekend that saw the passing of Old Trafford legend and 1968 European Cup winner, Nobby Stiles, Manchester United’s performance drew stark contrast against the character and bravery of the little man who overcame poor eyesight and diminutive stature to become one of the finest for club and country.
Without airs nor graces, from a working class family in war-torn Britain, a slight 5ft 6in frame and chronically poor eyesight, Stiles was to become a giant of the club. Nobby bled Manchester United. They were his team.
He handed his first pay-packet to his mum after becoming professional in 1959, didn’t care how much was in there. He was just glad to be playing for Manchester United.
Contrast that to the molly-coddled footballers we see at the club in the modern-era, post-Ferguson, another who understood the dividends which hard work, the right attitude and opportunity could bring.
United succumbed to Arsenal, who won at Old Trafford this afternoon, for the first time in 14 years. The Gunners were better, not great but they didn’t need to be, and United a poor shadow contrasting the Ferguson-era and even of some flickeringly good performances we’ve seen this season.
“I know these boys, they are a good bunch. They’ll be hurting today, but we’ll come back and work hard on what we haven’t done well and go again,” said Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer.
But from Solskjaer, we’ve heard this too many times over the last couple of seasons, as if it’s OK to lose, so long as you bounce back next game.
As Ole’s former team-mate Roy Keane said in the Sky Sports studio today, “These guys will cost Ole his job.”
The Irishman, who said he wouldn’t want to have to trust ‘that lot’, sadly is probably more on the money than the Norwegian.
United have done well in Europe this season, domestically they’ve been consistently successful on the road, but performances in the league at Old Trafford have been poor; three defeats and a draw in four matches.
Already they’ve slipped too far behind to become title-challengers this season and will need to work hard to secure a top four spot.
They came out as flat as a Dutch landscape this afternoon. If it was a reaction to their post-Rashford introduction, second-half performance against Red Bull Leipzig, then someone needs to get it into their heads, that after victory as in defeat, they have to ‘go again’. It’s not enough to just turn up, believe in their press and take victory for granted.
Clearly Wednesday night’s visitors didn’t leave behind any samples of their signature product. United could’ve done with some as they played second-fiddle to an Arsenal side on the back of successive defeats which dictated the first-half exchanges.
What should be even more disappointing to United and their fans, is that Arsenal probably didn’t feel it was such a gargantuan effort to come to Manchester and leave with the points. Empty stadium or not, that’s the least it should be for visiting teams at Old Trafford.
That still happens occasionally, but it depends on the mood United are in on any particular day. It’s certainly not a given any more.
Paul Pogba, despite his great talent, still has the appearance of liability, meandering about midfield without a care in the world. It was ultimately the French World Cup winner who cost United the game after failing to track Hector Bellerin’s run, then bringing the same player down for the penalty from which Abameyang won the match.
£40m signing Donny van de Beek must be wondering already if he’s joined the wrong club. Once again he began the match on the bench as United try to fit six midfielders into four spaces, which incidentally proved that ‘diamonds are not forever’, or at least that particular formation will not work against all opponents.
Did they really need the Dutchman, undoubtedly a fine player by the way? You have to wonder, but not any more than you do over Solskjaer’s perception that his back four needs the protection of two defensive midfielders in front.... against Arsenal!
Even Wednesday night’s hero, Marcus Rashford at times looked abstract, his shoulder shrugs providing an impression of ‘don’t fancy this today’.
We’ll not even talk about Cavani’s warm-up procedure. There have been more strenuous sun-bed sessions, as he watched the action from the touchline.
The absence of leaders is the most alarming aspect of Ole’s team. Liverpool can go out and fetch Alcantara for a fraction of what United paid for Pogba. Not only better value for money but superior quality too. United prefers to go after a 20-year-old from a Bundesliga club which refuses to co-operate, as is that club’s privilege, and still fail to land their man!
Anyway would Jadon Sancho have provided the leadership United so badly require? He would’ve been a nice signing, but leadership? Highly doubtful.
Arguably Harry Maguire is the type of leader United needs. But he cannot do it alone. He needs others around him, and the only one that comes close is Bruno Fernandes.
It’s maybe unfair to hark back continually to the Ferguson days, but look at the leaders in the Scotsman’s treble-winning team; Keane, Neville, Beckham, Giggs, Stam, Irwin, Schmeichel and so on. Even in later days, Vidic, Ferdinand, Ronaldo, van der Sar, van Nistelrooy, and previously, Pallister, Bruce, Hughes, Ince etc.
And to go back to where we began... the untimely death of Nobby Stiles, the little man with the huge heart, driving force in Sir Matt Busby’s glory days, provider to Best, Law and Charlton and protector of others, puts into crystal-clear perspective what’s missing from Solskjaer’s United. Bravery, leadership and heart allied to an innate ability to read and play the game.
Yes, football has changed immensely, but certain qualities will never go out of fashion.