So. Three defeats in a row for Manchester United, for the first time since 2001 (and the first time they have lost three inside a week since 1992). United are currently looking as groggy as Superman after a swig of a kryptonite smoothie. Meanwhile, their season has assumed all the predictability of a British weather pattern. What is to be done? This, after all, has widely been referred to as a season of transition, but that word is deceptively gentle.
Tuesday night, for example, saw Manchester United succumb to Sunderland in the semifinal of the Capital One Cup, a second bruising cup defeat in three days. What's more, they did so underneath the dissatisfied gazes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, who looked at each other and shook their heads when the final whistle blew. Beneath them, David Moyes looked to be writhing in discomfort. The central midfield once again had all the structural integrity of candyfloss, and Tom Cleverley, for all his efforts, mostly looked as unhappily out of place as a mince pie in August.
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Cleverley, in many ways, said it all with his performance. Though he may be trying the patience of even his staunchest supporters, he is really trying. Against Sunderland, as ever, he refused to hide from the ball, even as he was dispossessed time and again. He recovered from a wretched first half to deliver a majestic corner onto the head of Nemanja Vidic, and the accomplishment of his assist suggested that whatever problems he is currently experiencing at Old Trafford are at least partly psychological. It was Cleverley who would be adjudged, unfairly as the replays turned out, to have conceded a foul inside the area, leading to Fabio Borini's match-winning penalty. He was withdrawn early, and trudged crestfallen back to the bench.
Maybe Cleverley and Moyes are in somewhat similar positions. They are both walking very nervously in the footsteps of club legends; Cleverley following Scholes, and Moyes following Ferguson. Any player or manager at Old Trafford will know of the pressure placed upon them by history, but it is a burden which success keeps at bay. This year, sadly, the procession toward glory, certainly in the Premier League and the FA Cup, has come to a halt. It's not for several years that Manchester United have been out of contention in both of England's leading domestic competitions by the middle of January.
Again, what is to be done? Well, the best thing is probably to embrace the unfamiliarity of it all. Some have remarked that Manchester United's predicament is no different from that which is experienced by the regular football fan each week, but there is something almost uniquely divergent about Manchester United's performances from week to week. One day, they're outmuscling Arsenal and dismantling Bayer Leverkusen; the next, they're failing to put up a fight at home to Newcastle. One day, Ryan Giggs looks to have wings on his heels; the next, he's jogging barefoot through treacle. This season, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get.
Such is the wildly divergent nature of Manchester United's performances -- even, when at home to Stoke and away to Hull, in the course of the same match -- that this is a year when anything is really possible. It's as if the football gods are still working out just what to do with the Old Trafford club, as karma for 20 years of dominance.
Of course, the wise, sanguine and jaded will note that this state of affairs is due not to any such gods, but to the parsimonious Glazers, the deteriorating squad with which Moyes was left and a plethora of teething problems that he has had in his new role, to say nothing of Ed Woodward's eye-watering summer transfer window.
Mere facts aside, though, Manchester United fans are where they are, enduring the mounting cackles of everyone else who's glad that they've fallen from grace. At such a moment, there are four things they can do. First, find whatever darkly comforting humour in the situation that they can; two, summon up as much support and constructive criticism as possible; three, remember how bad the gloating from fellow fans feels, and channel that resentment into greater passion for their club; and, finally, fourthly, put a small bet on their team for the UEFA Champions League, even if it's just a wager for a bag of crisps. Hey, why not: With so many other ridiculous things happening this season, then why not this one?