Louis van Gaal is not only struggling to impose his philosophy at Old Trafford, he’s also seriously underestimating the expectations that come with managing Manchester United, writes Derek Bilton.
A Theatre of Dreams no more.
With classic Dutch understatement Van Gaal described Manchester United’s latest footballing debacle – a thoroughly underwhelming 1-0 FA Cup win over Sheffield United on Saturday evening – as “not good”. At the same press conference a clearly riled Van Gaal also stated “How many chances have Sheffield United created? Nobody is talking about that.”
That would be League One side Sheffield United, a team 46 places below the Red Devils in the league. It’s come to something when the manager of Manchester United is demanding praise for keeping the shackles on a League One club. It’s clear that the Dutchman with the big reputation simply cannot grasp the expectations that come with managing a club like Manchester United, a club that gave the world Duncan Edwards, Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Eric Cantona among others.
It’s quite incredible that United – who it’s worth remembering have spent over a quarter of a billion pounds over the past 18 months or so – find themselves in this predicament. They are already out of the Champions League and at time of writing sit rather wearily in fifth place in a Premier League they used to dominate.
As an impartial observer I travelled with a friend to watch their 2-0 league win over West Brom in early December, and it seemed on that particular dank and dreary Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford all the fans wanted to sing about (when not counting Cantona’s) was going drinking with Georgie Best.
Those fans blatantly wanted to be entertained, like they were so often and so royally in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, but it seemed every ball backwards or fluffed sideways pass hacked away at the very fabric of what Ferguson’s United stood for.
A team of whose skilful, attacking, never-say-die philosophy peaked the night of that improbable 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp in 1999 to secure an historic treble, has been replace by a team of pragmatists happy to keep possession and not concede.
But is it all down to the boss and his conservative approach? Or do the problems run much deeper in M16? Let’s have it right, Van Gaal was not always so defensively minded. I remember one of his Barcelona teams a few years ago winning La Liga despite shipping 56 goals. They were hugely entertaining and there were no voices of dissent from the stands. And who could fail to be seduced by Louis’ all-conquering, impossibly young Ajax side of the mid-1990s? A team that went unbeaten in 1994/94 both domestically and in the Champions League.
But as LP Hartley once mused ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. This Van Gaal vintage, while organised and impressive defensively, offers precious little as an attacking force. And as it emerged after Saturday’s win that United have failed to score in the first half of a match at Old Trafford on 12 separate occasions this season, it is little wonder former greats such as Paul Scholes are queuing up to have a pop.
Scholes reasoned on Saturday evening that he would be “depressed” if he was part of a side that put in a shift like the Red Devils did against Sheffield United. Strong words from a man who spoke so little during his own playing days. But it’s clear that something is amiss at the football club.
Van Gaal is already on record as stating he will leave the club after next season. So will the suits upstairs be willing to give him an open cheque book again to smash into the transfer market, knowing he will be saying ‘Vaarwel’ just 12 months after that? The players too also know he’s not in it for the long haul and this may be a reason whys several big names (on even bigger money) are not stepping up to the plate on a weekly basis.
Rumours abound that they are not happy about the Dutchman’s training methods, tedious meetings regarding tactics, and less still those infamous ‘supper clubs’ consisting of tea and cereal on the eve of a game.
The supporters of course are also unhappy, with videos surfacing on social media of fans actually falling asleep in the stadium during Saturday’s Cup tie, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
The bottom line is LVG now needs to scrap the ‘philosophy and process’ thing, loosen the shackles and play the United way. You can’t tell me Messrs Martial, Rooney and Mata are not up to the job? These are fine players struggling in a system that doesn’t suit. So swallow your pride Louis, let the lads express themselves and with the time you have left at the helm give yourself a fighting chance to turn hopeless failure into glorious success.