Bleak October

When United are struck down, occasional solace can be found in appreciation of another sport. This weekend, of course, the England rugby team were pummelled at Twickenham by Australia to compound my misery. As Monday morning begins, the rain is torrential and a two-week international break begins. There is simply no let up.

The England football team have been responsible for more misery on earth than Pol Pot and the Final Solution combined. Following their travails for the next week or two is not necessarily my idea of a good time. Rooney might score though. That would make a change.

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Context is important in assessing any event. Placed in between England’s pitiful capitulation in the rugby and Brendan Rodgers’s comedy sacking in Merseyside, we can all but hope that United’s defeat against Arsenal is lost in the ether.

The Londoners were superb and started with impressive determination. United have begun all their games slowly this season and LVG’s tactics seem to encourage a slow erosion of the opponents’ resistance. Arsenal went for the jugular and got it.

One fear is that Arsenal’s performance provides the rest of the league with a blueprint for how to beat Van Gaal’s United. The side are far too ponderous at the best of times and it has taken them until the second half to get going in every fixture this season. A quick start is something other managers will be taking note of.

Statistically, United will not win the league on current form. They have lost two games out of eight, which puts them on course to lose eight or nine games this season. That would have them finishing fourth or fifth in an average season.

A glance around though, shows Jose Mourinho rudderless in 16th and Claudio Ranieri thrusting Leicester City into the top five. This is far from an average season and that is one of the many reasons we ought to look at the wider environment.

In general, Van Gaal’s United have won against their rivals a decent proportion of the time. They beat Arsenal in the league last year and City as well. The loss to Chelsea, which effectively extinguished last season, was narrow and far from comprehensive. Liverpool of course, have been spanked three times in a row.

Those three defeats, and the shonky football that have surrounded them, has seen Brendan Rodgers given the boot over in Liverpool. Rodgers so nearly won them the title but I don’t think anybody truly feared they would recapture it before United under that regimen.

A refreshing part of Rodgers’s tenure was the obvious respect he had for Van Gaal. It seemed for a while a possibility of mutual respect developing between the clubs and supporters existed. Like it or not, Liverpool’s next managerial appointment is something United fans ought to keep an eye on.

The rival whose presence has more immediate relevance though is Manchester City. They swaggered to the top of the table with their 6-1 victory over Newcastle, against whom we only managed to draw 0-0. The Manchester Clubs meet at the end of the month and I am not sure I am looking forward to it too much right now.

About an hour after the game last night I tweeted that we had also lost 3-0 to Arsenal early in the treble season. The Manchester Evening News are also playing on this precedent in a feature today but there are, inevitably, too many variables to make a direct comparison.

I am struck by how changeable my opinion of this United team is after one result. Last week, with Martial, Memphis, Bastian, Smalling and De Gea, I had convinced myself we had the spine of a side that could win a major trophy.

After one appalling result, I now think we are doomed to languish in the nearly land, somewhere between Spurs on a good day and Arsenal on a bad one. Not quite doing anything of note.

The truth is likely to be somewhere in between. United are not going to win the treble this year but they could well win something. They are certainly better than Spurs and Liverpool.

And Sunday? Well, that was the best 20 minutes Arsenal have had against us since I have been alive. I hope that stays that way.

When they come to Old Trafford, we’ll have to return the favour.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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