Monday 19 March 2018

Sunderland captain John O'Shea shocked by Manchester United's rapid decline

Sunderland 2-1 Manchester United

Wayne Rooney ducks for cover as John O’Shea gets in a header at the Stadium of Light. Photo: Getty
Wayne Rooney ducks for cover as John O’Shea gets in a header at the Stadium of Light. Photo: Getty
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal looks on. Photo: Getty
Sunderland defender Lamine Koné (L) celebrates after heading the ball to score his team's second goal. Photo: Getty

Martin Hardy

It has been over for a while, the drip, drip effect of a football club in demise, the slow lowering of expectations, the blind ignoring of reality.

More confirmation came on Saturday afternoon, when the weight of words, this time from Louis van Gaal himself, was added to the welter of statistics the prosecution has piled up against him.

You know it's over when the manager starts questioning the desire of his own players. Van Gaal did that when he said the 13-times champions of the Premier League could not match the passion and desire of a side who started and ended the day second bottom of that league.


In the more comforting surrounds of the club's own television station, his guard slipped further. He was worried, he said, when he watched the warm-up. His players did not look up for it.

The statistics were once more trudged through. The lowest points total after 26 games for Manchester United in the Premier League. The lowest number of goals scored by the club at this stage of a season. The failure to win 17 of the last 26 games. Fewer points than the vilified and jettisoned David Moyes, twice as much money spent.

They were trotted out like a weary prosecution which pours on the evidence for a jury to reach its inevitable conclusion.

The case against Van Gaal did not need the statistics, but they certainly add to it.

Those presenting it were weary. The team looks weary. Even the gusto that used to follow the club's away support has been diluted by a manager who is leading a club on a slow downward path.

"Manchester United have made no progress whatsoever under Louis van Gaal," said Alan Shearer in the 'Match of the Day' studio. "I don't see any progression whatsoever."

Shearer was right, but it is no longer about a search for progress; it is now about the speed of decline.

Sunderland versus Manchester United in the Premier League had not produced a home win since 1997.

They had terraces back then and it was at Roker Park. The modern era was five years old. It was ages ago.

That was the only previous home victory for Sunderland over United in the Premier League.

It is a fixture they do not win and in Sam Allardyce's recent revival of a club which for long spells of this season has looked ready to be washed away came the startling realisation that a third goal for the home side was as likely as an equaliser in the closing stages.

Wayne Rooney has watched - and participated in - the collapse of United from champions to also-rans. He spoke with anger afterwards about being second best, but the team overall does not share the captain's fire.

When John O'Shea was asked the question about whether his former club had lost their aura, he knew it was coming.


United do not scare anyone any more, not even a team like Sunderland, fighting to save themselves from relegation.

O'Shea naturally retains a strong connection with the club he joined as a teenager from Waterford, graduating from the academy to make 392 first-team appearances.

Like so many others who gorged on success under Alex Ferguson, he is struggling to comprehend how rapid their decline has been.

He was polite and diplomatic, but the fact remains that Sunderland knew they had a good chance of beating United, which has never been the case before. He said as much in the dressing room before kick-off.

"Because of the season they are having and the amount of injuries they have got, it is difficult for them [to retain their aura]," O'Shea said.

"They still have some very good attacking players. I thought our full-backs did particularly well in closing them down, but they don't have as many [good] players as they used to have. That said, they had only lost once in 2016 before here.

"They have been getting a lot of credit recently. They are still a very good team, but, they are not challenging where they want to be in the table - that's for sure.

"Champions League qualification is the minimum target for them. That is the given beforehand, when you look at the squads and the budgets, and what is spent at clubs to get into the Champions League.

"Not just Man United, the top five and six spend big to get into the Champions League, because that is where the rewards are and that is what attracts bigger and better players.

"That is the challenge they have and they are having to adjust. It's difficult for them. The quality in the Premier League is increasing."

Van Gaal (left) has never sounded more defeatist than he did in the aftermath of this defeat.

The top-four finish that represented a minimum requirement back in August, is slipping away from him and he was in no mood to argue otherwise.

Perhaps the constant chatter about his future and the belief that Jose Mourinho's arrival in the summer is a fait accompli, has knocked the fight out of the Dutchman.

Never mind that there are still more than enough points available, as well as games against the teams above them in the table, for United to finish in the top four, their biggest games now will probably come in the Europa League, a competition so often derided during Ferguson's glory years.

Rio Ferdinand even went so far as to call a United team in the Europa League an "embarrassment", but nobody will be looking at it like that at the moment, least of all Van Gaal.

United will play their strongest possible side against FC Midtjylland in Denmark on Thursday night because winning European football's second-tier competition could be their only route back into the Champions League next term. It is also a major trophy to win and should not be sniffed at in United's position. Neither will the FA Cup.

There is intense pressure at Old Trafford and O'Shea sympathises with the young players who, like him, have come through the academy system there.


"I was a young lad coming into a team, but that was after winning the league," O'Shea said. "It was that bit easier. If you are coming into a team that is not first or second in the table, there is that bit more pressure.

"You will see with managers, they want to bring in young players when the team is doing well. But United's hand has been forced because of the injuries they've had."

Sam Allardyce has added power, cohesion and shape to Sunderland, but neither of their goals would have been scored if the visitors had had a good centre-half.

Daley Blind lost Jermain Defoe for the first - an innocuous free-kick from Wahbi Khazri that sneaked past David De Gea.

Chris Smalling lost Lamine Kone for the second - a header that Anthony Martial, who had struck a fine equaliser before half-time, could only redirect off De Gea into the United goal with eight minutes remaining.

In another time, De Gea would have saved both the goal and the blushes of a central defensive partnership that so characterises the demise of the club - but even the good players get dragged down by the mediocrity that is now Manchester United.

Independent News Service

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