Manchester United took control of their Champions League group on Tuesday night, but the relief for Louis van Gaal over his side ending their 404-minute goal drought must be tempered by the greatest show of open dissent from the Old Trafford stands in over a decade.
The Red Devils went close to seven hours without scoring prior to Wayne Rooney’s 79th-minute header to beat CSKA Moscow but despite the United skipper’s recent lack of goals or form, perhaps the most noteworthy occasion of the the night had already arrived 14 minutes earlier.
It came when the substitute’s board showed the numbers nine and 27. With United needing to find a way of breaking the Russians’ stubborn resistance, Van Gaal chose to remove the pace, flair and unpredictability of Anthony Martial and replace the striker with Marouane Fellaini, who possesses none of the aforementioned traits.
More so than the subsequent lack of any contribution from the Belgium, it was the reaction of the Old Trafford crowd which may cause Van Gaal most concern. It quite likely won’t, given the Dutchman’s stubborn nature, but it probably should.
Van Gaal has spoken on numerous occasions of his delight over the non-stop support he and his side receive from the ‘Louis van Gaal’s red army’. But this week has seen the tide turn slightly after the recent dirge the home and away support has been served.
The cries of “attack, attack, attack” and “we’re Man Utd, we want to attack” we loud and clear from early on at Selhurst Park on Saturday when United plodded to their third consecutive goalless draw. They were chanted with even more gusto at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, most notably at half-time, when Van Gaal made his way down the touchline, facing up the Stretford End, which made the instructions ahead of the second half crystal clear.
Not sure I’ve heard a substitution booed like that before at Old Trafford. Fellaini replaces Martial and almost mutinous response
— Daniel Taylor (@DTguardian) November 3, 2015
The withdrawal of Martial was final straw for many at the Theatre of Dreams. The young France forward has been a welcome tonic this season for United fans weary of seeing Rooney’s status rise as his talents have waned. Martial’s penetration, speed and technique have been shifted to the left wing to accommodate the ailing United captain, with both player and team suffering for it.
Against a CSKA side who appeared desperate to extend United’s run of goalless draws, the choice to withdraw Martial’s talents to accommodate Rooney’s return to the frontline and Fellaini’s inclusion anywhere baffled and frustrated most in the 75,165 crowd. It offered the fans the perfect moment to unite in their frustration in a manner not seen for some time.
Even under David Moyes, the dissent at Old Trafford never reached such audible levels. The former manager was simply seen as out of his depth and no one ever believed Moyes was willingly disappointing the Old Trafford faithful. United fans are far more comfortable with Van Gaal’s credentials, which makes the football he his serving up even harder to watch.
It is not simply that the toothless, pass-the-opposition-to-death approach flies in the face of the ‘United Way’ – a unwritten diktat that demands the Red Devils to be on the front foot and excite, or as Paul Scholes put it on Tuesday night: “blast teams away and be creative”.
Of course, it is not as simple as that against the Premier League and Europe’s best. But with the talent at his disposal, the impression many United fans have of Van Gaal is that he can be a coach too clever by half, stifling the creative forces within his ranks.
The Dutchman so often refers to his ‘philosophy’ but after 18 months under the veteran manager, the team does not embody a positive ideology. There can be little doubt that Van Gaal’s job has to some extent been a rebuilding one following the Moyes debacle, but as Sir Alex Ferguson suggested recently, neither manager inherited “11 corpses on the steps of a funeral home”.
Van Gaal’s finest work has come in the first two-thirds of the pitch. From being a shambles at times at the back last season, United are now the joint-stingiest defence in the Premier League, with Chris Smalling in particular reaping the rewards of the trainer-coach’s methods. It is generally accepted that all great teams are built from the back, but the rigidity United are showing in defence under Van Gaal is also prevalent in attack.
Despite possessing talents such as Rooney, Martial, Juan Mata, Memphis Depay and Ander Herrera, United have looked pedestrian and predictable all season – almost like the creativity and invention has been coached out of them. Van Gaal’s pre-match warm-ups have raised eyebrows as they involve some work on attacking shape, preparing the brain as much as the body. But too often, the creative talents look scared to deviate from the plan, fearful of the consequences for playing a pass or making a run that wasn’t meticulously planned. Herrera is one player who seems yet to win the trust of Van Gaal. Is the Spaniard unwilling or incapable of carrying out the manager’s instructions to the letter?
That is certainly not the case for Rooney, who “has more credits than any other player”, according to Van Gaal. The majority of fans don’t share that opinion. Despite approaching legendary status in terms of numbers – he is now only a dozen goals away from Sir Bobby Charlton’s club-record haul – many have struggled to really take the England captain to their hearts for a variety of reasons, so patience is usually thinner in the stands than the dug out when Rooney goes through one of his customary lean spells. The view, though, is Rooney’s struggles point to more terminal decline than a temporary blip, but the skipper’s influence appears greater than ever, despite his form not backing up his status as seemingly undroppable.
Van Gaal thinks he knows best, and more often than not, he surely does. But he would do well to heed the warnings coming from the terraces. He’s likely ‘lost’ certain senior players, like Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Scholes, who may have their own agenda. But other influential names have voiced their concerns rather more conservatively, and supporters share those worries.
The fan base remains squarely behind Van Gaal, but the tide is noticeably turning and not all share the view that “until now there is always progress, it’s always progress”.
It is far easier to coach a team to defend and be organised than to induce creativity in attack. Halfway through his three-year contract, the hardest work still lies ahead for Van Gaal and he cannot bank on the fans’ support if he offers up another season-and-a-half of idling, neutral football with the handbrake on.
By Ian Watson
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