FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Escapism

Last season, Manchester United had many bigger problems than the struggles of Marcus Rashford. But they didn't have many that felt quite so miserable or so symbolic. A kid from the academy, coming off consecutive 20-goal seasons, and at times he looked like he was trying to play in hiking boots.
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Which is to say, as soon as the rumour that PSG were after Marcus Rashford emerged, the Warm-Up's first thoughts were: "Yes, Marcus! Get out. Get away. Get somewhere you can finally relax." (Then our second thought was something like, er, well, maybe PSG isn't the most relaxing football club in the entire world. But Paris is nice!)
Over last season, the riddle of Rashford's form was the riddle of United. It's not just the fact that him playing badly meant fewer goals, which meant fewer points, which was overall a bad thing for the club as a whole. It's good when attackers are good. More insight next week.
Rather, it was the obvious emptiness about his game: no form, no confidence, no sense that he could see a way back to his best, or even his really quite respectable average. It was the pervading sense that this is what Manchester United do, now. As an organisation. As a way of being. The club is a state of affairs that comes between players and their talent and prevents them from making the most of it.
This is why the relentless focus on transfers at United sort of misses the point. There are weak spots in the team, of course, but more important is the fact that nobody in United red is playing up to their own level. Well-run clubs, like the pale blue one across town or the red one just down the road, do everything they can to make sure their players can play to the best of their ability.
That runs from the minutiae of tactics to the overall environment of the club, from the transfer policy to the training ground, from the head to the heart to the hamstrings. United, through ignorance and carelessness and accumulated neglect, through the multiplication of daft decision by daft decision, do more or less the exact opposite. Which is why Rashford, like all of his colleagues, spent last season looking like a bad photocopy of himself.
You'd expect Erik ten Hag to improve all the things he is capable of improving, and that in turn may bring Rashford back towards what we all know he can do. Or at least, may make it easier to find out what he actually can do. (Maybe he is, as the angrier parts of Twitter seem to think, simply not good enough.) But you couldn't blame Rashford - or any other United player - if he decided that the path back to form leads away from Old Trafford.
According to Sky's information, PSG won't be following up on their interest just at the moment. A fishing expedition, then. Or, perhaps, a connection for the future. Either way, it's a handy illustration that things could easily get worse for United. The club are already having trouble getting players in. Much more of this, and people will start trying to get out as well.

Rashford: 'A fresh start' - Under Ten Hag a chance to skip last season's negativity

Hammered

It's a cruel game, this football of ours. Last night, Dundee United travelled to Alkmaar filled with hope, or at least optimism, having managed a narrow and surprising victory at home. Anything was possible. All United had to do was keep things tight, stay in the game, and try not to be five-nil down at half-time.
Oh no.
That AZ only scored two in the second half might be considered kind, or alternatively wasteful, but the business of humiliating their visitors was already well taken care of. Some United fans left early. Others stared into the middle distance, eyes glazed, hope pummelled. One even managed to fall asleep, until he was found by the television cameras and then immediately awakened by a barrage of text messages. Still, at least he was well-rested for the more important part of the evening: the drowning of the sorrows.
That tactical nap was sharper than anything United managed to put together on the pitch, as the Dutch - who had been favourites to go through even after the first leg - danced through the visitors' square, static defending. By the end it felt like one of those old games, from the Brylcreem days, where the plucky Brits get taken apart by visionaries from the continent that have invented passing.
But no game of football has ever been entirely worthless. Sure, Dundee United may be out of Europe, and the Scottish Premiership may look a little shabby next to the Eredivisie, and there may be some appalling headaches making their way back across the North Sea today. But the rest of us get to revisit The Guardian's piece on "The unlikely story of how 'Dundee United' became an insult in Nigeria". So that's nice for us.

Isolation

Credit to Antonio Conte, one of football's great innovators. Not content with turning every object he sees into a wingback - postbox? wingback - Tottenham's coach has found a new spin on old traditions. And we're sure this comes as a great comfort to Harry Winks, Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Sergio Reguilon.
Generally, unwanted first-teamers are sent to train on their own - helicopter? wingback - so that they get the message and pass it onto their agents. But this always feels a cruel business. And we've always suspected that it has the potential to backfire, if a move doesn't emerge. Then you've got a perfectly useful footballer hanging around, looking awkward and taking up space. And you can't even pick them, since they haven't been given the homework. No good for anybody.
But Conte is approaching the question from a different angle. (Pigeon? Literally a wingback already.) It's not that he doesn't want to coach all these players he's trying to sell, oh no. He loves coaching! But according to the Evening Standard, the players have been told that Conte can only work with so many first-team players, and you four? Just couldn't squeeze you in.
Ultimately, it's a question of self-care. At this stage in the season, Antonio needs to think about his own work-life balance. He's at capacity right now. Unless... unless... hey, you reckon that sandwich could play wingback?

IN OTHER NEWS

Absolutely tremendous stuff from Burnley, announcing new signing Nathan Tella with an extended riff on The Generation Game. For some reason. Now, it's been a while since we've seen the show, but as far as we recall, the objects on the conveyor belt didn't actually rhyme. Which makes this all twice as odd.

RETRO CORNER I

Happy 52nd birthday to Paris Saint-Germain. You can see why Qatar chose PSG to be their outpost in European football - as noted earlier, Paris is nice - but it has rather robbed PSG of what shambolic charm they had. From the endearingly erratic sort-of-big club that would crop up every now and then with a title or somehow persuade a genius to come and play - hey, Ronaldinho, have you heard that Paris is nice? - to today's relentless exercise in celebrity-led sportswashing. Not exactly ageing gracefully. Anyway, here's Pauleta scoring lots of goals in the before times.

RETRO CORNER II

Speaking of shambolic charm, happy birthday to Mario Balotelli. Somehow we'd missed the news that Balotelli - now scoring goals in Turkey for Adana Demirspor - had been called up to an Italy training camp last January. Roberto Mancini still believes. And watching all the early goals for Inter back, we discovered that we, too, still believe. Just a little bit.
And look! He's hugging Adriano! With the benefit of hindsight, what a haunted front line.

COMING UP

Action from the Championship, as Bruce Forsyth's Burnley — sorry, Vincent Kompany's Burnley - take their exciting new possession game to fellow relegatees Watford. And La Liga kicks off with Osasuna vs. Sevilla.
Have a good weekend, and we'll see you on Monday.
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