Manchester United's minimum effort deserves minimum praise

Alex Livesey

Manchester United seem determined to make their title coronation as long, drawn out and tedious as humanly possible.

"We played like champions, I thought. We don't like to lose, we showed that today." Such was Alex Ferguson's assessment of Manchester United's performance against West Ham - it seemed to suggest he'd only seen the last twenty-five minutes or so, and that's how it often seems he manages - no subs shall be made until the sacred 70 minute mark.

Or at least it would be had he not also brought up some transgression to be annoyed about - Andy Carroll's clothesline on David de Gea. It's fair enough to bring it up as an injustice, but it's West Ham. Sam Allardyce's West Ham. Sam Allardyce's West Ham with Andy Carroll up front. To say you hadn't factored the likelihood of it into any gameplan would be the equivalent of defending a defeat against Barcelona with "well, they wouldn't let us have the ball."

It's obvious what United are guilty of - complacency. Looking forward to going on holiday, spending the end-of-season bonus or giving Wayne Rooney a knife in the back at the end of the season, whatever. In a way, it's forgivable - Manchester City were never going to claw back such a lead, and Roberto Mancini did manage to come out with an even worse excuse - the second worst of all time - with what amounted to "well, their goal was offside, so if it wasn't for that we'd only be twelve points behind them." It's simply not adequate.

There's being complacent and there's being complacent, however. United are not just coasting, they're phoning it in. It's loathsome to hear players, fans and staff at United say "points are all that matter at this stage of the season" when A) Jose Mourinho proved that points matter equally at all stages of the season, and B) If you won't try something a bit flash or turn on the style when you're fifteen points clear with a handful of games remaining, then you're not going to do it ever.

Anyone looking at United this season can see how they've won the title - at the top, it's a weak league. Nobody else has been consistent, and United have - at doing the bare minimum of what's required. In outrageously suggesting that this is one of the greatest teams to have graced Old Trafford, Ferguson and his accomplices seem to be demanding praise for something that they would've been absolutely slaughtered for not doing. It is, after all, United - the equivalent for a team lower down the league would be akin to "well, we've fulfilled all our league fixtures for the season, and you can't ask for more than that." What Ferguson's lot have done is barely any different - they're just there, they didn't implode or self-sabotage. I don't know at what point, when footballers progress through the academy system, they stop giving out gold stars for attendance. But it's surely well before professional level.

It's the ultimate depression for a season where we've been denied a title race, and haven't even had the continent to distract us as the top four leagues in Europe all endure the same thing. United used to use attacking, exciting football as the best means to an end - Ferguson has long considered that a quaint notion and defended it with trophies, but refusing to do it when there's nothing riding on the game is pretty much as bad as it gets.

To expect any manager to admit any failing, no matter how obvious, public or minor, is increasingly a pipedream, but when there's no evidence of them at least trying to correct it behind the scenes, it's infuriating. It's not the first time Ferguson's led a mediocre United side to the title, but before he had real competition - he was a managerial genius. Now he's the subject of a Chris Rock routine.

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