Many Manchester United fans have lost patience with Louis van Gaal’s brand of football, but Ian Watson believes a little patience will be rewarded.
It’s been an uncertain few years for Manchester United fans following the step into the unknown after Sir Alex Ferguson. So perhaps many of them – and some of their former heroes – could be excused their irritability and persistent mood shifts around Louis van Gaal.
After the Champions League stalemate with PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday, the Dutchman was once again the villain following a lifeless second-half performance that reaped no goals and only a point, meaning a nervous evening in Germany lies ahead in a fortnight.
The stalemate drew boos from the Old Trafford crowd upon the final whistle, and not for the first time they were aimed towards the bench more than the players on the pitch. Halfway through his reign, the honeymoon period is certainly over for Van Gaal and the fans.
The relationship has been turbulent for some time now and the lack of spark has supporters pining for their ex-manager and the happiness they enjoyed together. But Sir Alex Ferguson is gone and so have the glory days he inspired. After two and a half years of grieving for what they once had, many United fans have yet to reach the final of the five stages – acceptance.
Embarking upon the long journey back to the top without Ferguson in the driving seat was never going to be a smooth ride. The fluster and fury that greets every bump in the road is symptomatic of the modern game and not just limited to Old Trafford or the #MUFC twitfam, but it serves no one at this stage of United’s rebuilding job.
If it is not the boos and the constant cries of ‘attack, attack, attack’ coming from the stands – often when the team is trying to do just that – then it is pundits and ex-players longing for days that have passed.
Paul Scholes has had a Van Gaal-shaped bee in his bonnet for months. In his latest dig at the manager, which bizarrely was served with criticism of Anthony Martial (Wayne Rooney escaped his ire again), the former midfielder contrasted United’s lack of potency in attack to “your Bayern Munichs and your Barcelonas”, which is in no way a fair comparison. Thanks to a lack of investment in the squad, the Red Devils were trailing behind other European big-hitters before Scholes and Ferguson departed so it is unreasonable to measure Van Gaal’s work in progress with the finely-tuned machines of Bayern and Barca.
Also on BT Sport, ex-red reserve Robbie Savage bemoaned the fact that PSV were not subjected to a traditional late bombardment, while Michael Owen complained that “Manchester United of old would blow that group away.”
Indeed they might have. But again, this is not 1999 or 2008 and complaining that time hasn’t stood still serves no purpose other than to fill the silence that many might prefer to Owen’s oratory.
The game has moved on but for many reasons that precede Van Gaal’s reign, United did not. It is the current manager’s task to drag them back up towards the level of their European rivals and it is not out of the question that he could achieve that by the end of his three-year contract. In the meantime, though his methods might not suit the Old Trafford purists, he has achieved many of the objectives he was set along the way.
Van Gaal took over the Premier League’s seventh-placed side and an unbalanced squad with plenty of fat to trim. In his first year, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss took United back into the Champions League – an absolute necessity – while a third of the way into his sophomore season, they sit nestled in second place, above all their traditional rivals. If proof of progress were needed, those facts surely provide it.
The scale of the Van Gaal’s original mission should not be forgotten nor underestimated. The priority for almost any new manager tasked with rebuilding a failing team would be to make his side hard to beat and a strong defence is obviously necessary for that. But by the time Van Gaal arrived, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic had all made for the exit. That’s three-quarters of one of the finest defensive units the Premier League has seen.
So, somewhat understandably, for much of the Dutchman’s first season, the defence was a mess and United were lucky to have the brilliant David De Gea behind it.
Now, less than a year on, United look as strong as ever at the back. Chris Smalling has been transformed into one of the country’s most accomplished centre-halves; Luke Shaw was flying before his injury and few could have foreseen the success Daley Blind has enjoyed this season in the back four. One third of the way into the season, United remain the only Premier League team whose goals conceded number remains in the single digits. Even Scholes recognises that Van Gaal deserves credit for that.
In front of the back four, Van Gaal has addressed an area no United boss has for a decade: the gaping chasm in the holding midfield position.
The manager recruited not one but two first-rate midfielders in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. Both have settled and they, along with Michael Carrick on the rare occasions he’s been able to stay fit, must take some of the credit for United’s solid foundation.
It certainly feels like there is more to come from Schweinsteiger, though. And this is where it starts to get prickly among supporters towards Van Gaal.
Many observers would like to see at least one of United’s base midfielders let off the leash, certainly against less threatening opposition. Schneiderlin, though, said in September that, in the short-term at least, their role is a defensive one:
“We’re more there for support, to feed them, and leaving them to do their magic.
“With time, I’ll start shooting from distance again, but the most important for us is to not concede any goals, meaning that we only need to score one to get the three points.”
It is that philosophy that grinds the gears of the Old Trafford faithful. Such a supposedly negative approach goes against the ‘United Way’, however that may be defined.
Under Ferguson, United’s trademark was winning football. Often it was free flowing, fast-paced, swashbuckling stuff. But that style came with the quality of the individuals and units at Ferguson’s disposal. Van Gaal has not had similar depths of talent at his disposal. At the times Ferguson’s resources were thin and the process of building his next great side was in motion, the football was not always that sexy. As Ferdinand has admitted:
“It wasn’t always exciting in my day at Old Trafford, either. Certainly during the final three seasons under Sir Alex it was more a case of us getting over the line than anything cavalier.”
Van Gaal has certainly improved the squad he inherited. Gone is the dead wood, while promising young talent has been promoted alongside a recruitment programme which has enjoyed varying degrees of success.
Van Gaal, as usual, is forthcoming in admitting that his squad still lacks balance, and perhaps some of the issues should have been addressed by now after two full transfer windows. But the club’s haphazard approach to transfer targets requires refinement at boardroom level as much as by those in the coaching department.
The frontline lacks pace, admits the boss, though others might go further.
Rooney’s form is surely Van Gaal’s greatest worry. Roy Keane broke ranks with his former United team-mates in the media on Wednesday night, describing the captain as “awful” and saying the captain “needs to have a look at himself”. Around the under-performing skipper, though, there is great promise.
Martial and Memphis Depay are brimming with potential but both are still feeling their way into the Premier League, as most young imports tend to in their first season. Jesse Lingard has been a late bloomer, but he is also showing signs of being able to consistently mix it in the first XI.
One legitimate area of concern for United fans is Van Gaal’s present Plan B. Too often and too early, he turns to Marouane Fellaini is his first change, when more crafty options remain perched on the bench. If Route One to the burly Belgian worked, then fair dos. But it so rarely does.
So, of course, there is work to be done in attack. But now the defensive elements are fixed, Van Gaal can focus on linking them to those in front. With almost every other area of the squad in good shape, United can go all out to recruit the couple of players Van Gaal believes will make the difference – partly to results but also to the manner they are achieved.
That recruitment phase is not likely to come until the summer, though, and in the meantime, the constant whining around United will probably continue.
But if some patience can be found at Old Trafford, next season – the last of Van Gaal’s contract and probably his illustrious managerial career – might just be a season worth waiting for. If in the meantime the manager can keep United above their biggest rivals in the Premier League, then is a temporary lack of swagger not a price worth paying?