Monday August 22nd, 8pm
Man Utd @ 17/4
Liverpool @ 10/3
Draw @ 6/10
We are two weeks into the new Premier League season and unusual, nascent patterns and trends are already beginning to form; fresh, unfamiliar rules are quietly being established.
Hair-pulling, for example, is no longer considered a foul. Aggressively propelling your forehead into another player’s face, according to many, isn’t actually a headbutt.
And God help you if you don’t look someone in the eye when you shake their hand at the end of a match…because Der Handshake Regierungsbeamter, Thomas Tuchel, will appear like a wiry, excited spider monkey to give you a very practical demonstration of how it is supposed to be done.
Thankfully, reassuring consistency has been provided by one major club. You know exactly where you stand with Manchester United. Because they have been precisely as awful as they were last season.
Although I am beginning to suspect that this time around they might, actually – somehow – be a bit worse.
Things have got so bad at Old Trafford that the strange world that doesn’t follow football is fully aware of its moribund stink. Even mega-rich Twitter wit, Elon Musk, saw an opportunity for some easy lols and likes by announcing in jest this week that he would be buying the club.
Trying to detail and explain all the things that have gone wrong at Old Trafford over the last few years would require an epic, Edward Gibbon, 6-volume, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-type endeavour.
But seeing as no-one has commissioned me, or Edward Gibbon, to write such a work – yet – I’ll just let you have a little sneak-peek from my draft conclusion: ‘everything’. Everything has gone wrong.
Just this week – to highlight one particular issue, though – we have witnessed the ‘transfer strategy’ again descend into a frantic, sweaty, pan-European game of Pin The Tail On The Overpriced Donkey. Tacks and arrows being stuck onto maps and flung wildly towards headshots on corkboards with all the precision and finesse of a nervous octopus that has somehow found itself at the oche of a major darts final.
Many fans will draw attention to a lack of spending from the hierarchy. But Manchester United have actually somehow manged to spaff £850 million on players in the last five years alone.
So what happened to these players? Presumably they were good at some point? They all, surely, possessed the ability to do extraordinary things to a football? So why do they now look as if they are unable to execute a simple 3-yard pass? Why is their only consistent dribbling not up the touchline, but down the front of their kit?
Wise sage Carlo Ancelotti spoke this week of the pressures of wearing the ‘heavy shirt’; of the unseen difficulties of having to perform for one of the biggest clubs in the world. At Old Trafford it is clear that confidence has drained from key players. And this drought, this dearth, has been transmitted throughout the squad like herpes.
Can they get it back? Once lost, how does one regain one’s confidence? Can it be engendered via complex Carrington training drills plotted by Steve McLaren? Can it be bought in the transfer market? Will signing Casemiro trigger a resurgence?
After Manchester United’s dismal showing against Brentford, the prospect of playing Liverpool in their next fixture might have nudged some players closer to asking their agents to get them quickly out of their contracts and onto the new season of Strictly Come Dancing.
But Liverpool’s start to the campaign has also been far from serene. And the void left behind by Sadio Mané at the attacking end of the pitch has been exacerbated by Darwin Núñez’s suspension for alleged galvanic head-thrusts.
For both teams, a boost in the elusive, nebulous quality of confidence will be the big prize when they ‘butt heads’ on Monday night.
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