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Panic in the Stretford End II

Thursday 23rd August 2018

The first time I wrote an article with this title, I applied a musical theme. United had just lost the home half of the Manchester Derby to City. The mood afterward was no less temptestuous than it is in the wake of another defeat to Brighton. So, here we are. This time, let’s be cinematic.

The Cornetto Trilogy is to film comedies what United’s three-year title run from 2006-09 was to its fans: consistently entertaining and delightful. The three movies, starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and directed by Edgar Wright were made for £29.7 million pounds and grossed £122 million worldwide. Inexpensive but exceedingly profitable, not unlike the economical manner in which Sir Alex Ferguson built his 13 Premier League champions. And yes I know United had two three-year runs in the Premier League era, the first happening from 1998-2001. Don’t ruin the metaphor.

The point here is that Manchester United lost their winning formula when they lost their great manager. Now, they’re spending crazy sums to keep up with Manchester City while producing horrible seasons more in line with box-office bombs like Ishtar, The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

The raging entitlement that exploded across social media following United’s defeat to Brighton at the AmEx left me feeling a bit like Simon Pegg’s lead character in Shaun of the Dead. Waking from an all-night binge, he stumbles through his London neighbourhood oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that’s gripped the city. I wasn’t hungover and knew fans would be upset, I just didn’t anticipate the level of anger and bitterness. People were lashing out at everyone from the board on down like they'd reached The World’s End.

Why? It’s the season’s second game, ffs. There’s still 36 more and ten pubs to go.

Do United fans expect everything to fall in their lap just because Jose Mourinho's the manager and Paul Pogba's in the squad? Do they forget how difficult it was virtually every year under SAF? Paul Scholes has. He continues to disparage Pogba on the telly, sparking a Twitter war with the Frenchman’s agent, Mino Raiola, who reminded the former United midfielder that the present one needn’t play where he’s not wanted.

Raiola’s sarcasm invited crude responses featuring words that began with f--, sh-- and knob--. All for a loss on Match Day 2 in a year where the World Cup means it’s still preseason for many United stars. Fans fretted over that circumstance as soon as the tournament ended but suddenly forget? Again, not that United ever have it easy in the Premier League.

Fergie Time doesn’t exist because United consistently blew away opponents. It came into being because the side so often needed every last second to eke out victories and rescue draws. Think Federico Macheda v Aston Villa in 2009. When they didn’t need time, United took help from officials. Less than a year after Macheda’s goal, Mark Clattenburg overruled his linesman’s offside call to award United on defender Scott Dann’s own goal. I could cite Fergie Time examples throughout the Scot’s reign, including the ultimate Champions League edition when they came from behind against Bayern Munich.

United always struggled, often to a bad ending. Fans were calling for Sir Alex’s head throughout his career which, now that I think on it, makes me wonder why I expect better behaviour today.

All the angst is premature. Eric Bailly had a bad game. He was responsible for two goals. Without those mistakes, United win. End of.

There’s no point in raging that Pogba couldn’t be Superman and fly to the rescue. I probably shouldn’t mention that Romelu Lukaku missed an early opportunity that would've changed the game’s tenor, considering that’s been washed away by the tsunami of criticism for United’s defenders, their no.6, the manager and Ed Woodward.

Nor does assigning blame where it belongs suggest the full squad doesn’t share responsibility for every loss and every win. The meaning behind that mantra isn’t that the other ten played as badly as the Ivorian. It’s that they support and trust him to come back stronger.

People are going to roll their eyes and smack their foreheads when I mention that Phil Jones suffered a similar outing against Tottenham, last season. Go ahead, get the f--s, sh--s and knobs out of your system, but Beeker was half of the most maligned defensive partnership to ever ship less than 30 goals in a Premier League campaign.

Those same people think a marquee defender will fix the problem immediately. Leonardo Bonucci is the Di Caprio of marquee centre-backs. Ask yourselves why he was swapped back to Juventus this summer after supposedly arriving at San Siro in the last to rescue AC Milan? Then wonder how the Bianconeri needed the Italian version of Fergie time to come from behind to beat Chievo Verona 3-2 on the weekend with Cristiano Ronaldo unable to find twine while Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini defended the Old Lady’s goal? Juve fans aren’t calling for Ronaldo to be sold or new defenders to be bought. They have faith. United fans have panic.

Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, has choices.

First, he must decide whether Bailly retains the mental strength to rebound from his horrible outing. If the manager believes he does, then he’ll continue with the current tandem. If he thinks not, he’ll play someone else. Mourinho's said, in reference to Pogba, that players who work hard are entitled to bad games. In practice, there've been consequences.

When Jones imploded against Spurs, Mourinho sat him the next match versus Huddersfield. He brought him back for the defeat to Newcastle before a hamstring injury cost the defender four games. Chris Smalling bore the brunt of criticism at St James Park although he responded with timely contributions against Crystal Palace and City. 

By the time Jones returned, United had beaten Manchester City then lost to West Brom. The season decided, Beeker [I love calling him that] played just twice more while the boss found time for Marcus Rojo, Lindelof and Bailly. Given Bailly and Lindelof began this campaign, it’s safe to say Mourinho gave up on Jones and Smalling somewhere in there.

If he feels similarly about Bailly, will one of the two exiles start against Tottenham? Bailly and Jones are similar players, all about hustle and energy, whereas Lindelof and Smalling play a more positional game. Pairing an athletic defender with one who reads the game better provides balance at the back. That’s why we saw Smalling with Jones last term and Lindelof with Bailly this. Maintaining that blend means starting one pair or the other on Monday night at Old Trafford, which in turn means taking on a dangerous opponent with a duo lacking either confidence or match fitness.

Mourinho may feel more confident replacing only Bailly. If he opts to go like for like, he’ll be asking Jones to step in against the team that undid him last season. Personally, I think he’s more likely to start Smalling, who'll be a calm, veteran presence next to Lindelof. Neither will take the risks Bailly or Jones do, but removing temptation may be the best choice for United’s defence at the moment. Smalling also finished last season with as many goals [4] as the more heralded Nicolas Otamendi at City.

That’s not to say United shouldn’t or won’t move for a centre-back in January, merely that there’s little point in dwelling on that now. The Red Devils must play nigh on 30 games before the window opens. Mourinho needs a more immediate solution. Fans need to calm down and let the man think.

After all, it's not like United is trying to catch a certain club from Wales, is it?

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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