Most of entertainment has come off the pitch for Manchester United fans this season and this week has been no different.
As Louis van Gaal’s men prepare to welcome Everton in the Premier League on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson has taken many of the headlines with two of his recent comments.
The first was his surprising claim that Tottenham’s Dele Alli was the best young midfielder he had since Paul Gascoigne. This view might come as a surprise to many of the players whom Ferguson coached, particularly Paul Scholes, but it is as great an accolade as England’s newest star could have received.
The other newsworthy remark was his praise for 18-year old striker Marcus Rashford, whom Ferguson described as “a sensation and one of the best in years.“
Rashford’s emergence has come at a moment when United are struggling much more than usual in attack. A team with the second best defence in the Premier League — they have let in only 27 goals in 30 games, with only Tottenham having conceded fewer, with 24 in 31 — would usually expect to be higher than sixth in the table. Yet United have scored only 38 times. That’s seven fewer than Chelsea or Liverpool, 10 fewer than Arsenal and 13 fewer than Everton, their next opponents.
The challenge this summer is how they will invest in their attack, given they have three young forwards, Rashford, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial, who have an average age of 20 and who do not yet look as though they can produce the volume of goals that a title-challenging side would need. They also have to contend with the toll that time and injury are taking on Wayne Rooney, whom it was recently revealed was asked to play through the pain of a muscle injury by Van Gaal.
In the meantime, though, there is still a substantial amount to play for, and United’s attack cannot click a moment too soon. With eight games to go, United, West Ham and Manchester City are separated by only a point as they go in search of the final Champions League place.
The match against Everton is one where they should be expected to maintain momentum, with Roberto Martinez’s side having one of the poorer defensive records in the division, with 41 goals conceded in 29.
In one sense, United and Everton are a team of polar opposites. The former is far too closed in its play, afraid to open up in attack unless it is exposed at the back, while the latter is far too open, the equivalent of a boxer who is convinced that he can only throw his very best punches with his guard down. The game between the two will therefore be a clash of coaches committed to philosophies, which may very well end up getting them the sack — Martinez for being too reckless, Van Gaal for being too conservative.
The pair also have a similar problem, in that their best players may soon have their heads turned elsewhere. David De Gea has been excellent again this season, but the man who is surely Spain’s future No.1 may be tempted by the thought of Champions League football elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Romelu Lukaku has expressed a desire to play in the same tournament, and you would not bet against him being on his way this summer. He will be United’s main threat, as swift, skilful and as bruising a proposition as Chris Smalling and Daley Blind have faced all season, and will be ably supported by Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley, as gifted a pair of young playmakers as a Premier League team can currently boast.
Yet the lack of defensive resilience will probably be Everton’s undoing, as it has so often been this season, and with Rashford and Martial looking in ruthless mood, United should have just enough to take advantage.
The questions over Van Gaal’s future will continue to come, but he can at least reflect on having put together one of Old Trafford’s most exciting young strike partnerships in the last few years.