United’s demise not a tragedy, but a damn fine comedy
There's that gloriously excruciating scene in The Office where Ricky Gervais’ character tells his staff that the company is downsizing, their branch is closing and many of them are likely to lose their jobs. But there is some good news, he points out. He’s being promoted.
A similar scene was played out this week when Louis van Gaal took on the David Brent role. The Manchester United manager admitted that the face-stripping debacle at MK Dons didn’t surprise him. He also revealed that he didn’t have the right players to fit his system. He also believed he needed at least a year to turn the club’s fortunes around and he also said ‘also’ a lot.
But there was some good news, he pointed out. And he introduced a wide-eyed Angel Di Maria, who appeared one Real Madrid mention away from bursting into tears. The winger looked like he was attending big school for the first time, desperate to return home, but equally desperate not to cry in front of the grown-ups or make a mess of his new uniform.
Di Maria spoke about winning trophies with United. There were wry smiles. Then he stated his goal of qualifying for the Champions League. There were muffled chuckles. Then he published his heartfelt, open love letter to Real Madrid supporters and everyone pointed and laughed at him, as if he’d finally blubbed in class and called for his Mummy.
For weary Red Devils, this week has been almost too much to bear, a sense that their perplexing players are tiptoeing towards tragedy. But really, this is United’s finest comedy hour since they signed Anderson.
The opening two weeks of the Premier League season have flown by, soaring on the wings of United’s effortless incompetence. Van Gaal’s calamitous Keystone Cops suddenly wear slapstick like a second skin. They are proving to be masters of the unexpected pratfall; their shambolic showing against MK Dons rivaled Charlie Chaplin.
They are slipping on banana skins that are not even there.
Just follow the arrows
They are making comedy seem easy. Whether its farce (MK Dons), stand-up (Di Maria’s press conference) physical (Jonny Evans), post-modern irony (LVG’s belief that he can work with intelligent footballers) or a meticulous pantomime routine (the back three), United are delivering a masterclass in comedic performance. It is becoming a natural extension of their personalities. No one is sure where the football ends and the comedy begins.
Of course the best acts depend on a straight man and they do not come any straighter than van Gaal. He feeds the lines – usually lines of 3-5-2 – and his tireless troupe delivers. How he doesn’t laugh when Evans stumbles in his own penalty box is a testament to the Dutchman’s professionalism.
He is beginning to resemble old comedy character Mr Brown - the indefatigable teacher convinced he could educate his oblivious students in Mind Your Language. A proud, experienced, determined educator, van Gaal spends lesson after lesson with a piece of chalk in his hand and shouting: “Look, it’s perfectly simple. We play with three at the back, which means the wing-backs do this. Can you see? Can you see what I’m doing with the chalk, Jonny? Look, just follow the arrows.”
But really, van Gaal’s dialogue is just exposition for the next funny set-up. No one takes his 3-5-2 nonsense seriously. It’s there to serve the comedy and give all his students a chance to fall over for 90 minutes - except for the tubby lad called Anderson who sits at the back of the class and eats Mars bars.
Perhaps inevitably, the Red Devils’ revue is slowly rubbing off on the act’s only straight man. Van Gaal fielded Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck, Anderson and Shinji Kagawa against MK Dons, proving he is not a man without humour.
In central midfield, Anderson has now transcended his status as mere comic relief. He has joined the elite ranks of comedians blessed with ‘funny bones’, that rare ability to produce good comedy without even speaking. He only has to amble onto a football pitch and people laugh.
He is not a Manchester United player. At times, he’s not even a player, but a club mascot who has slipped off his bulky costume and stayed on the pitch.
The King is dead, long live the King
Developing a flair for the farcical, Van Gaal also introduced Reece James, Marnik Vermijl, Saidy Janko and Nick Powell. He sent his young entertainers out in front of a live TV audience. There was no need for a laughter track. Those belly laughs were real.
Van Gaal subsequently conceded that his rebuilding project was more than a three-month task. He needed at least a year. He became the cheeky tradesman insisting that a job required more time, labour and money. Like a plumber in old overalls standing over a leaking tap and scratching himself, he effectively said: “Nah, this is more than just plugging a leak. The guts have got to come out. You’ve got too many holes at the back, there’s not enough pressure at the front and there’s an Anderson in the middle causing a blockage. This is gonna cost you at least £200 million and I can’t fix it until, ooh, let me think, a year on Thursday.”
Of course, this sidestep into comedy is not an easy, natural transition for a declining dynasty. When they were kings, United left others to play court jesters whilst they sat on their thrones, wallowing in their omnipotence and being fed grapes by scantily-clad WAGs.
Being the ruling monarchs for so long made them too serious, too stately even. They left the undignified clowning to relegation-threatened ruffians and other Premier League stumblebums.
So watching the regal Red Devils slip on one banana skin after another now feels a bit like watching Prince Charles appear alongside Jim Carrey in a Dumb and Dumber movie. It’s most unexpected, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.
United’s struggles are not a celebration of schadenfreude, but a chance to enjoy some damn fine comedy in the most unexpected places.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.