Nineteen hours after Manchester United’s final home game of the season ended in a 1-1 draw vs. Arsenal, the club emailed fans to say thank you for their support this season and added: “With a top four league position now confirmed, the Club looks forward to a return to European competition and what’s sure to be another unmissable season at Old Trafford in 2015-16.”
Another “unmissable” season? 2014-15 had its moments, but it wasn’t unmissable for the majority. The target of a top four Premier League finish has been achieved and that’s good enough for now.
After the recent wobble of three successive defeats, the confirmation of Champions League football is one reason why the atmosphere was so impressive at Old Trafford on Sunday for a game that meant little. Indeed, it was better than for several title-celebrations when United fans were spoilt by regularly winning trophies.
United played well in a first half in which Arsenal didn’t manage a single shot and a surprising number of players from both teams slipped. Players used to get booked when United and Arsenal were heavyweights going at each other, whereas now they slip. Maybe it was a tribute to Steven Gerrard.
The club email was also aimed at drumming up season ticket sales for next season. It also promoted membership which, for many fans around the world who don’t get to games regularly, is a status that can be produced to show they are a paid up United fan.
You can’t blame the club for their effort nor optimism, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality and there are as many questions as answers surrounding United, who finish this season without a trophy for the first time in a decade and only the third time since 1989.
There was a presentation before Sunday’s game as United’s Under-21s received their league title trophy, but Louis van Gaal remains unimpressed by the club’s youth set up. He wants to make changes and will do exactly that as he attempts to raise standards.
It’s not a new problem and United are not the only major club with youth issues. Barcelona’s B team look set to be relegated from Spain’s second tier, while Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid Castilla have fallen away from a title attempt in the regional third tier. Not that Madrid often promote youth players.
United are unlikely to look too much at homegrown talents this summer either, but to the transfer market where ample funds are again available. Incomings and outgoings will set the mood ahead of the first pre-season game vs. Club America in Seattle on July 17 and two probable Champions League qualifiers in August.
David De Gea’s image was used to promote memberships in Monday’s email, but there’s not a single person at the club who knows whether he’ll be at Old Trafford next season. There is hope but that’s all it is: Hope against the realism that he’s leaving for home.
United’s goalkeeper lets his performances talk and rarely speaks publically so cannot be accused of being a hypocrite, nor of contradicting himself by kissing a badge on his chest and then putting in a transfer request. It’s a clinical way of doing things in a sport infused with passion and emotion, where fans want commitment when it suits.
United fans don’t like the vibes they’re getting over De Gea. They’re used to being at the top of football’s transfer chain, but that doesn’t happen when it comes to keeping a Madrid-born goalkeeper who is wanted by Real Madrid. United will behave honourably, as they always have, and the player knows exactly where his club stand.
The club were concerned about an adverse reaction to De Gea on Sunday but he was applauded and had his name sung. Things like that can make a difference. Worried that he was going to be abused on the opening day of last season, Wayne Rooney was stunned by the positive reaction of travelling fans at Swansea. He stayed.
United’s match-going fans are incredibly supportive, even to underperforming figures. David Moyes really appreciated the backing he received, while there’s not a chance that four-goal Radamel Falcao or Angel Di Maria would have been received the same level of support in Madrid. That’s something for De Gea to consider.
He could follow Cristiano Ronaldo’s example and swap Manchester for Madrid. The Portuguese won nine trophies in six years at Old Trafford and, since moving in 2009, has managed seven in the same time at Real Madrid, including a solitary league title.
It’s up to De Gea and for all we know — and we don’t because he doesn’t speak — he might prefer being at a club which changes managers seemingly every five minutes. He might like being booed for finishing second and not cheered for finishing fourth.
That’s facetious, but with Victor Valdes already in place, United’s won’t stew like a Madrileno summer over De Gea. New players will be bought — two are ready to go as soon as the manager says so.
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There needs to be a significant improvement on this season if United are to genuinely challenge for the Premier League title and compete in Europe, which is what a club of such stature and a team of such cost should be doing.
The players will buy into Van Gaal’s exacting, highly-regimented and largely fun-free system on the training ground as long as they feel the club is heading in the right direction. That’s the view for now but fourth won’t good enough next season.
“You were amazing,” Van Gaal told the fans as he took the microphone on the pitch wearing the emboldened air of someone surprised that he was not getting criticism, “especially for me. And next year we see each other again”.
We shall and we shall look forward to seeing more progress under his stewardship, because talk of “philosophy” won’t wash much longer if it’s not backed up by further improvement.