In most seasons, if a Manchester United F.C. supporter learned that their star forward would be sidelined for four-to-six weeks, hours after the club drew the reigning European champions for the UEFA Champions League Quarterfinals, that fan would be pretty melancholy.
But if that Manchester United fan also spent the last eight months in isolation and upon returning to the world learned the reigning English champion lost 12 games since August, the fan would faint, wake up, and then return to utter isolation.
In a season of woes, Manchester United only got worse news Friday when they learned that they not only would have to face FC Bayern Munich in the UCL Quarterfinals, but also would be without striker Robin van Persie for the next four-to-six weeks. The conclusion? United will get a painful exit from Champions League and will lose RVP for roughly six Barclays Premier League matches, likely preventing the Red Devils from even salvaging a UEFA Europa League qualification berth.
It was already an abhorrent season for United before the news: they’ve lost nine Premier League matches—already almost twice as many as they had last season. They were knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round, and at the hands of Swansea City A.F.C. They lost to archrivals Liverpool F.C. twice in the EPL, not scoring a single goal. And they lost to West Brom, Everton, Newcastle United, and even Sunderland and Stoke City. With two months left in the season, United are knocked out and out of the running in three competitions and are in seventh place in the Premiership, 18 points from the top of the table.
Then the luck of the draw. Oh, how Manchester United must hate it.
Manchester United drawing Bayern for the Champions League Quarterfinals is almost the ultimate right hook to the club’s face. Of all the times, they must think. It could have been Dortmund or even Chelsea. But no, they say with drooped heads, it had to be the title holders who are the best in the world right now.
Bayern will throttle United. This may be the Knockout Stage where anything can happen, and Bayern may have been held in check by Arsenal F.C. for parts of their Round of 16 tie, but the defending German champions are on a completely different level than Man U. Maybe even two levels.
From goalkeeping to defense to midfield to attack, Bayern are supremely better than Man United. The Bayern passing is far more crisp, in-sync, and talented than the Red Devils’. No one in the Man U midfield has more than three assists in all competitions; Bayern have six midfielders with more than three assists. The Red Devil midfield has been a huge liability for them during the entire campaign. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley have been disappointing, Adnan Januzaj can’t do enough on his own, and Shinji Kagawa and Marouane Fellaini have been practically non-exist under manager David Moyes. Even the addition of Juan Mata doesn’t make United much more formidable down the key middle, as the Spanish international has struggled to find form and pass well this season.
Bayern, on the other hand, are much smoother and play tighter in their midfield. Boasting a gigantic pool of skilled midfielders, Bayern have been able to rotate their talent to ease the pressure on everyone. The all-around threats of Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben (40 goals and 20 assists between them) can beat United’s midfield by themselves. If you add an ensemble from the midfield and defense that includes Philipp Lahm, Mario Gotze, David Alaba, and Toni Kroos, even if they are meant to support the cast more than lead it, and the amount of pure talent tears Moyes’s club apart.
It’s no wonder, then, that Bayern’s strikers look so good while United’s don’t. The wide spread of passing for Bayern allows Mario Mandzukic and other strikers to get deep in opponents’ own halves and attack from all angles. That’s contributed to Bayern scoring nearly three goals a game in the Bundesliga and averaging 4.33 goals per game in March. United, though, have no major midfield to support Wayne Rooney and van Persie. The load, then, has fallen mostly on Rooney, who has played well with more action, scoring 13 goals and garnering 16 assists in 30 all-competition games, but the production has essentially died there; Van Persie has been too injured and unproductive to follow up back-to-back 30 goal campaigns. The United offense that led them to 86 Premiership goals and the title last season has hit the back of the net 40 fewer times in the Premier League this time around.
So we already know United must be tearing their hair out, because they know they’ll be knocked out of another competition because they have to face a completely superior offense. But the defense just makes it unfair. Over the last three years there’s been no European defense even remotely close to being as good as Bayern’s. They’ve reached historic levels of stinginess. Through 25 league games Bayern have allowed only 12 goals. 12 goals. That’s how many goals some teams surrender in a month. The German titans have averaged 0.48 goals surrendered this season.
Man U, though, have surrendered about as many goals as Bayern has let in over the last three seasons. The Red Devils don’t have a horrible defense but when their offense hardly makes a club blink, then Bayern’s wall of strength will barely even need to move when they face the club. Add that onto the fact that David De Gea has always been a lackluster goalkeeper, and Bayern look completely set to make United’s season even more miserable.
Manchester United could live with it, of course. If they really wanted to, they could laugh nervously, sigh, and say they were fortunate and glad to make it to the Quarterfinals and are glad to have just made it to the Round of Monsters. That would have been a reasonable reaction if Van Persie didn’t wallop Manchester residents yet again.
Because van Persie will miss the next four-to-six weeks—four-to-six league matches—because of a sprained knee he suffered against Olympiakos F.C. on Wednesday, United likely won’t be able to salvage even a Europa League berth. United will only face one of the top four clubs during that time, Manchester City F.C., but losing van Persie for that many weeks puts them in much more doubt in their other matches, even if they are mostly against mediocre clubs.
Man U play their worst football when Rooney and RVP aren’t on their pitch together. Rooney can go up front as their lone striker but he is meant to play the wings and help feed the ball to van Persie, which is much more critical with the United midfield being so feckless. If Rooney has to go straight up the middle, he has to either charge through himself, which is always difficult for any player not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, or he has to depend on the weak passing from behind him. When they had to do that when van Persie was out most of November, December, and January with a thigh injury, Man U had their worst skid of their season, scoring about a goal-and-a-half a match, losing to Everton and Newcastle, and getting knocked out of the FA Cup and the League Cup.
Manchester United’s potential doom lies in the fact that they are simply too inconsistent against the small clubs. Seven times this season has a club not named City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, or Everton, the top-level English clubs, won or drawn with United. They have the most surprising losses for a team with talent, and have surrendered quite a number of goals to the same clubs. By the time van Persie returns, assuming he’s healthy, and Man U face Southampton F.C. in May, the club that’s three points behind United in the league, the Red Devils could be in a huge hole in the race for the top six and have to win that match.
If Man U were already in a good spot in the Premier League table, then they could still have much more hope of returning to Europe, but they’re still three points back of Everton and six behind Tottenham Hotspur F.C. Everton have to still face Arsenal F.C. and City, but Spurs only have a tough test against Liverpool and then should finish in fifth place.
For the last 20 years United have made up for decades of expectations, capturing roughly one title per season. It felt like a dream for them, easily being one of the best teams in Europe. The instant turnaround after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, and the realization over the last few months that they would not compete for the Premier League title and that they would not return to Champions League, was so sudden that most United supporters probably still can’t believe their eyes when they see Manchester United’s name so far down the league table. They surely must have been convinced that the worst tide had passed, that the most successful English league team in history had reached its low point this season.
Then Friday happened: it was like a day-long nightmare for Manchester United—but a nightmare with effects that looks like it will last the next year.