This cannot go on.
As the boos echoed across a stadium that once echoed to glory at the conclusion of this limp, lame, wretched Manchester United performance, the dalliance with Louis Van Gaal’s much-trumpeted philosophy is surely reaching its end. Losing at home to Norwich does not suggest a club on the march to progress.
The Dutch manager has now accrued one point from a most benign run of fixtures against West Ham, Bournemouth and now Norwich. Sandwiched in between has been an exit contrived from the easiest of Champions League groups. Yet, in that gathering run of ignominy this was undeniably the low point. Here’s how bad it was. For the gallant visitors Norwich, their fourth victory of a tough return to the Premier League was their easiest yet.
For United supporters, this really was the most benighted of seasonal fare. But then you wouldn’t want Louis Van Gaal organising your Christmas. You can imagine what would happen. Despite spending a fortune at the butcher’s, he’d serve up a load of under-cooked turkey. In a place renowned for its decoration he’d turn everything monochrome. He would suck the joy from the most joyous of celebration.
It was not that United did not try. For much of the match they galloped down the wing, they fired in the crosses, they pressed and harried. It was just that every cross hit the first defender, every through ball was intercepted, every forward initiative was blocked. For an hour, not a single shot on target was achieved.
It was summed up by the performance of Wayne Rooney. This was the United captain’s 500th appearance for the club and he was clearly determined to mark the occasion with a win.
The trouble is, the legs are not as in tune with the will as they once were; he may have issued the mental instructions, but they didn’t seem to transmit. He had the ball in the net as early as the ninth minute, but the flag was long up to signal that Marouane Felliani had passed to him from so far offside he was in Bolton.
His performance was summed up when he was played in by Michael Carrick, a midfielder almost as inventive passing forward as he is passing back. At one time, from an invitation like that, Rooney would have torn into the box and rapped in a shot. Here he checked back, then hit his subsequent pass straight into the shins of a covering defender.
So was the pattern set United having a lot of the ball but creating nothing of note with it, Norwich patiently waiting their chance.
And the chances came on the breakaway. First on 38 minutes the lively Nathan Redmond sped past Phil Jones and passed to Cameron Jerome. The centre forward bundled into area, evading Ashley Young’s desperate slide, and hammered the ball past David De Gea. It was coming. The combination of lacklustre passing and poor defending was a disaster waiting to happen.
The last Norwich player to score at Old Trafford was Paul McVeigh in August 2004. The 11-year wait had clearly inspired Alex Neill’s men. And they had another soon after the game restarted. It was all too similar to the first. Poor passing and lame defending allowed Jerome to find Alex Tettey whose neat finish left De Gea helpless.
United had nowhere now to go. They had to attack. Driven on by those fans who had not had the fight bored out of them long ago by the Van Gaal philosophy, they began to pepper the Norwich box. Memphis Depay rampaged down the wing, Rooney tried an overhead kick, to the crowd’s huge relief Ander Herrera came off the bench. And relief of a sort eventually came.
On 65 minutes, after a goal mouth scramble, Antony Martial, showing great persistence, rode two tackles and hammered into the roof of the net.
Now the volume was really raised. Seizing on the hope, the crowd yelled out their expectation. But still the crosses were too long, the passes not astute enough, the pressure not converted into chances. It was summed up when Chris Smalling, in the last moment of added time, headed wide with only the keeper to beat.
United, as they have been so often this season, were left once again flat. And the man in front of the press box may have been voicing a thought forming elsewhere in Old Trafford. As the players left the field to a withering chorus of derision, he preferred to chant out the name Jose Mourinho.