Premier League Review: Do Not Adjust Your Sets, It’s Manchester United
There are people who, almost charmingly, continue to treat Premier League as though it’s a sport. It kind of still in a sense or two, but ultimately it isn’t, not any more. It’s light entertainment. This Manchester United season has started, as all good melodrama does, with a plot synopsis. A story so far. The Nordic Saga of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in charge of the club long ago became more of a soap opera than anything else, so it was thoughtful of someone to take yesterday afternoon’s match against Crystal Palace and use it as an excuse to bring us completely up to speed with the latest from a football club that is now defined by the strength of its storylines and the amount of money that it can bring in during its increasingly frequent advertising breaks.
In a story such as this, of course, there is no cause to treat Crystal Palace as anything other than the supporting cast. True enough, they may have won the match, their first win at Old Trafford in three decades and their first league win of the season, but their story is of no consequence to the broader football churn. Far more exciting to discuss the clown shoes that Manchester United players now have to put on when taking a penalty kick, and the continuing decline-but-not-quite-decline of a club which could be forgiven for wondering whether, considering the diversification of core interests the corporation now has in its commercial department, it might not be considerably less trouble to knock this football nonsense on the head for food and go into logistics or micro-brewing instead.
So, previously on Manchester United: A Warning From History. After springing from the traps with a four-nil win against Chelsea a couple of weeks ago which was treated as something of an aberration, the team travelled to Wolverhampton for match that was trailed as a potential changing of the guard, with Jorge Mendes’ laboratory rats now sitting at the point of being able to overturn one of the top six. It didn’t turn out that way, but the extent to which neither Manchester United and Chelsea (who also had one of those matches last weekend with a home game against the freshly almost resurgent Leicester City) played out fairly evenly-matched draws against these teams couldn’t match the grand Old Trafford story arc of the age, when pantomime villain Paul Pogba heartlessly stole the ball from the show’s current heel Marcus Rashford but then whacked the penalty kick against the Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio and away to safety.
Boom Boom Boom-Boom, Boom Booda-Booda.
(Those are the Eastenders drums, for the uninitiated.)
It was quite a cliffhanger upon which to leave the watching audience, especially considering how early it is in the season. “Where can they possibly go from here?”, some will undoubtedly ask. And that’s not necessarily a straightforward question to answer, with the club having already offered us a plot twist worthy of Days Our Lives. Yesterday afternoon at Old Trafford, United played the long game with their supporters emotions. It took just over half an hour of Manchester United’s patented possession without consequence before Crystal Palace tripped a fuse in their defence by running at them a little, allowing Jordan Ayew to score. So far, so predictable.
What happened next, however, fell into the category of plot lines so unbelievable that they become works of genius solely because of how unlikely they are. When Manchester United were awarded a penalty kick, there was a collective holding of breath. Would Pogba go straight for the redemption storyline and insist on taking this one himself, or would he defer to the young Jedi, thereby demonstrating that everyone had indeed learned a lesson from this particular parable. It looked like the latter, but even this drama was topped when Rashford, having been selected to show the Pogba how it’s done after all, thudded his kick against the left-hand post whereupon it flew across the face of goal and wide.
Even this, though, was only an appetiser of what was to follow. With a minute and a half left to play, Daniel James – who looks an absolute steal at £15m from Swansea City, a sub-plot that doesn’t quite fit the overarching “last days of Rome” narrative currently encircling Old Trafford and so barely gets mentioned – curled in a deflection which might have clipped off a defender on its way through. But even THIS wasn’t quite enough to satiate the football drama Gods on this particular day. Two minutes into stoppage-time, one final twist. Tow minutes into stoppage-time at the very end of the match, Paul Pogba was caught in possession of the ball in a fairly innocuous position, but Palace broke and the ball eventually found its way to Patrick Van Aanholt, whose goal squeezed through Davis de Gea and in. It was a tired goal. Unnecessarily stretched defending, slack marking, and a mediocre shot which the goalkeeper should have saved. It was the perfect end to a perfect episode, a callback to previous story lines that also sets up the next edition of a soap opera that has continued to grip the nation for years, and which doesn’t show any signs of letting up just yet, even if it will need increasingly improbable plot twists to maintain the interest throughout the rest of this particular season.