It was a relief when Anthony Martial salvaged a draw for United in the FA Cup game against West Ham at the weekend, but the complexion of the 2015/16 campaign still looks bleak. Barring a miraculous turnaround against arch rivals Liverpool on Thursday, the club is set for one of its most embarrassing European exits. Meanwhile, hopes of Champions League qualification via the Premier League are hanging on by a thread.
Perhaps worst of all, Louis van Gaal has driven the club to a real identity crisis on the pitch; the team are still mostly playing without any cohesion, confidence or determination. The standard of football has dropped to its lowest level during the Premier League era. As well as losing the fear factor, Old Trafford has now lost its entertainment factor too. The club is far too great to fall away forever, and the almost inevitable change of management could be crucial this summer, but patience is needed during this dark period.
Amidst the darkness, however, there are a few bright sparks to provide light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, one of which was covered here. And then there’s our number 17. Most fans would have deemed it unlikely back in August, but Daley Blind’s presence at centre-back has been one of the few sources of cheer. After a fairly modest maiden campaign in England, the 26-year-old has evolved into a reliable figure at the heart of defence.
Throughout that debut campaign, Blind’s versatility appeared to see him destined for a life as this generation’s Phil Neville or John O’Shea. The Dutchman really struggled to nail a regular position in the side, but that has all changed in 2015/16. While some may have predicted this progression after a year of acclimatisation, nobody would have foreseen it coming as Chris Smalling’s defensive partner.
Blind certainly doesn’t stand out as a physical specimen suited to a life in this role, especially in the physical playground of Premier League football. The Dutch international isn’t overly tall, strong or fast. However, his consistent performances and growing relationship with the England centre-back have made him one of the most regular features in Van Gaal’s team. While the side has been lacking in the attacking third, only Tottenham boast a more economical defence this season.
Arguably Blind’s best quality is that he knows how to play to his strengths; his calming presence on the ball, combined with an eye for a killer pass, are key attributes to his arsenal. When added to the discipline and mental strength that he shows, it’s not hard to see why he is so highly-rated right now.
The rise of Blind has certainly come as a surprise to many. Netherlands-based Onlinewedden.com confirmed that most Dutch fans started the season with high hopes for Memphis Depay but had far more modest expectations for Blind. If anything, the roles have been reversed with the young winger struggling whilst the defender grows from strength to strength in his new role.
Whatever happens between now and May, the negative memories of 2015/16 will surely outweigh the positives. Nevertheless, it hasn’t been completely devoid of promise, and Blind’s individual progression and growing partnership with Smalling should be celebrated.
If the manager, whoever he is, can improve things in other areas this summer, the glory days might finally show signs of returning next term.