MARTIN SAMUEL: Clueless or classy, which United will turn up?

MARTIN SAMUEL: Clueless or classy, we never know which Manchester United will turn up… they have the players but seem to be making it up as they go along

  • Manchester United are blowing hot and cold with every performance this season
  • Nobody on the United bench seemed to realise every player was up the field 
  • Istanbul Basaksehir scored a breakaway goal and caused huge embarrassment 
  • Referees need to wise up when it comes to strong forwards going down easily 

Paul Scholes compared Manchester United’s defending to football at an under 10 level. It wasn’t. It was worse than that.

If any under 10 team had won a corner but left nobody back to cover the lone striker, their coach, or even a well-meaning parent, would have raised the alarm from the touchline.

That is what was truly disturbing about the first goal United conceded in Istanbul. Neither Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, nor his coaching staff, spotted it. Not Mike Phelan, not Michael Carrick. And these are empty stadiums. It is not as if managers and coaches cannot make themselves heard in the current climate.

Manchester United showed their weak under belly with a painful defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir

So what if it is all just random? United’s advancements, their best performances under Solskjaer, the victories into which we read progress, development and corners turned?

What if it is merely what happens when a collection of good players — and United have plenty — are gathered? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For if nobody on the field or the touchline spots Demba Ba on his own how much guidance are these players actually getting?

We have all seen games under Solskjaer in which we have been impressed with the strategy. The two wins in the Champions League this season, victories at Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, a hard-fought draw with Liverpool.

Every United player had gone up for the corner, allowing Demba Ba to break free unopposed

Then we have watched when United appear clueless and under-coached: at the end of the 2018-19 season, in Istanbul this week, against Tottenham at home, against Chelsea in an FA Cup semi-final.

And yes, there is inconsistency everywhere in a strange season. Yet this has been going on for nearly two years. Watching United is like one of those Scandi-noir thrillers with leads and lines of enquiry that appear so positive, only to fizzle out. 

We thought, at last, Solskjaer was getting the value from Anthony Martial, but no. Bruno Fernandes is going to be the player of the season, or maybe not. This is Paul Pogba back to his best, blink and you’ll miss it.

Incredibly, given that this timeframe includes a 6-1 home defeat by Tottenham, the worst start to a campaign at Old Trafford in 48 years and defeats by Burnley and Crystal Palace, United were on a record-breaking run of away victories going into the match in Istanbul.

They hadn’t lost away — discounting neutral venues — since January 19. And yet if they didn’t win anywhere until the same date next year — well, it’s not unimaginable.

United are unpredictable in a way an elite club should not be. The modern super teams are set up for remorseless consistency. They all have blips — as Liverpool did at Villa Park — but most weeks we know what we are getting. Yet United could embark on a run of five league wins starting at Everton on Saturday, or begin an equivalent run of defeats, and we could not call either from here.

They win, they lose, but who knows what it means? By now we understood what a Pep Guardiola Manchester City team looked like, what Klopp wanted out of Liverpool. We can see Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal starting to emerge, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham.

Club legend Paul Scholes compared United’s defending to football at an under 10 level

Solskjaer’s United, however, remain a mystery, almost as if they don’t exist. Sometimes they come off, sometimes not. Sometimes they remember the other team has a striker, sometimes they don’t. Maybe the board will remember Mauricio Pochettino is available one day, too.

Football can be a mirage. Franz Beckenbauer disputed the existence of Holland’s famous total football strategy. ‘There was never such a thing,’ he said. ‘There were just 11 great footballers. But by the time you realised that, you were already two goals down.’

Or two goals up, as Istanbul Basaksehir were. United have the players but seem to be making it up as they go. It’s total something — but what?

Refs must wise up to strongmen acting like weaklings

Everybody thinks they have the prettiest wife at home, said Arsene Wenger — and every football manager thinks they have the centre forward who does not dive.

So Jose Mourinho defends Harry Kane, even though there is footage of him pulling exactly the same stroke with Aaron Cresswell against West Ham, that he did against Adam Lallana of Brighton. 

And Jurgen Klopp speaks up for Mohamed Salah despite his fall to win a penalty last Saturday bearing no relation to the contact made by Arthur Masuaku.

Mohamed Salah’s tumble against West Ham’s Arthur Masuaku has received much criticism

Professionals know this too. Martin Keown argued Kane forced the Lallana collision, Graeme Souness said Salah fell in an unnatural way and succumbed to contact, more than a kick. 

It is to be hoped referees have also noticed the artfulness. It would be impossible to make a career as a striker in the modern game without enormous strength. 

Even the smaller forwards, like Raheem Sterling, have it. Kane could play as a target man, if necessary. Salah can be extremely powerful when holding opponents off. 

Maybe referees should think about that more, too — the clue is in the sheer inconsistency. Shazam one minute, Billy Batson the next.

Dalbert farce down to the ref

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has written to FIFA asking for reconsideration of the handball law. He wants referees to go back to deciding whether an infringement was accidental or not. 

His letter coincides with another travesty, the penalty awarded against Dalbert of Rennes, in the Champions League tie with Chelsea.

Estevao Dalbert was mightily unlucky after the ball deflected off his shin up onto his arm

Yet again, the humans, as much as the rules, are to blame. The ball struck Dalbert’s shin and bounced up to hit his right arm. Having consulted a pitchside screen, German referee Felix Zwayer confirmed the penalty and issued a second yellow card. 

Off? How did he reach that decision? Nobody in his right mind could conclude Dalbert handled deliberately. A rotten situation was made worse. Yes, the rules need addressing — but the referees are not helping.

Time to tear QPR off a strip

A frightening development. Queens Park Rangers wore their third strip against Cardiff last week — while playing at Loftus Road. 

And no, it wasn’t one of those occasions when the opposing kitman packs the wrong shirts and there is a clash. Cardiff took the field in blue because they knew Rangers planned to wear red and white halves, with black shorts to commemorate their 1975-76 season — when they came second.

Now second was big for QPR but it wasn’t as if they actually won anything — as in 1967 with the League Cup. Nor is it a particularly special anniversary — the 45th — or even a noteworthy date. 

The Cardiff fixture was on October 31, making it almost 45 years to the day since a momentous 1-1 draw at Coventry, the catalyst for a run of 17 matches of which QPR won four.

Queens Park Rangers did away with their home shirt against Cardiff, but their timing was all off

So not only did the club lack the patience to wait for the 50 years to be up, they couldn’t even delay until January when their incredible run of 13 wins and a draw in 15 games began.

QPR actually timed their commemoration for the part of the 1975-76 season that cost them the title. Equally, the strip they would have worn for the majority of that campaign was the one rejected against Cardiff — blue and white hoops.

The commercial imperative for shirt sales — and that is what is driving this — was not apparent back then. Clubs only changed when they had to.

At a guess, QPR would have worn red and white that season in little more than six of 42 games and never at home.

This must not become a trend. It should require exceptional permission for a club to eschew its colours at home. And the 45th anniversary of a draw with Coventry is not that.

No substitute for good faith

Pep Guardiola, like most managers of elite clubs, is in favour of the five-substitute rule.

‘It makes no sense,’ he said of the decision to remain with three. ‘Who voted? Who are they to decide this? They have to protect players.’

Here’s what also makes no sense. That in Manchester City’s six Premier League games so far, Guardiola has only twice used his full complement of three subs.

His average of 2.16 per game is among the lowest in the league with only Aston Villa and Burnley making less use of the bench. Newcastle, West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves have used maximum substitutes in every game.

Pep Guardiola, like most managers of elite clubs, is in favour of the five-substitute rule

West Ham manager David Moyes says he has changed his mind on the issue, having seen the physical toll the truncated schedule has taken on players, even though he knows five would benefit the biggest clubs with the best squads. Yet what this impasse demonstrates is the complete mistrust that now exists between the elite and the rest.

An idea that would benefit player welfare at 20 clubs is suspected of being just another power play by a handful, making the athletes the collateral damage of an internal feud that began when six clubs operated as a cabal, meeting in secret and alienating the rest. 

Now they struggle to get anything done without motives being questioned, no matter the positives.

Grayson right on shutting door

Grayson Perry caused a stir this week by suggesting the pandemic could benefit the arts. ‘I think every part of life has got a bit of fat that needs trimming, a bit of dead wood,’ said the artist. Cue outrage.

Yet Perry had a point. He talked about exhibitions that were put on to impress other curators, theatre productions that found favour only with actors, writers or directors. It is no different in sport.

This week, Sally Munday, chief executive of UK Sport, wrote to the government seeking clarity after the one-year Comprehensive Spending Review was announced. This revealed the Treasury decision to scrap long-term planning and focus instead on the financial impact of coronavirus across the next 12 months.

Grayson Perry caused a stir this week by suggesting the pandemic could benefit the arts

Various governing bodies representing Olympic and Paralympic sports were hoping to receive news on funding for the 2024 Paris Games by December 18. A 12-month strategy will make it difficult. 

Yet modern pentathlon isn’t the only industry having it tough. These are exceptional times. In an ideal world we have funds for all yet, as Perry acknowledged, choices must be made. 

There was £274million set aside for the Tokyo Olympic cycle. Do we have that money now? ‘Some of them we simply don’t give a damn about,’ Perry said of the arts. That’s true. In severe recession, there must be priorities, and it may not be possible to facilitate every Olympic dream. Funding is not a right.

Horse death merely a passing detail 

The most surprising news from the Melbourne Cup this week was not that another horse died — it seems an annual event — but that the euthanising of Anthony Van Dyck should fail to make many headlines.

Anthony Van Dyck was the 2019 Derby winner; he beat Stradivarius in the Prix Foy at Longchamp just last month. He won more than £2m in prize money. Yet his death, from a suspected broken fetlock on fast going, was a passing detail in many reports, despite being the sixth horse to die in Australia’s most prestigious race since 2013.

The euthanising of Anthony Van Dyck shamefully failed to make many headlines

If there is a fatality at Cheltenham or in the Grand National, it makes news. Yet to lose a horse of Anthony Van Dyck’s calibre on the flat — after Melbourne Cup deaths in 2013, 2015, 2018 and two in 2014 — is treated like an unfortunate event. 

It’s almost as if those within the industry are too embarrassed to confront it. They should, it’s a scandal.

Time to get along… 

Rick Parry, Richard Masters and Greg Clarke — the heads of the EFL, Premier League and Football Association — have been called before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee next week to answer questions over the failure to agree a financial rescue package for ailing clubs.

Why can’t they all just get along?

Maybe it’s the carve-up Parry was plotting, at the expense of those he now needs to lend a hand. 

Rick Parry and Co have been called before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee to explain why a financial rescue package is still yet to be agreed

Maybe it dates back to Parry’s previous appearance before the DCMS committee, when he spent the time grandstanding, unchallenged, at the expense of the Premier League. 

Maybe if the DCMS committee members had not divisively encouraged this unhelpful charade relations would not have become strained. Maybe if the DCMS came up with one original thought of its own, football wouldn’t be in this mess, either. 

Maybe it is the DCMS that should be appearing before the DCMS select committee. 

Derby despair? 

It bodes well for Derby that the member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, who has been given the green light to buy the club, is the same Sheik Khaled bin Zayed Al Nehayan who attempted takeovers at Liverpool and Newcastle but never came through with the money — despite being worth a reported £15billion. What could possibly go wrong? 

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