It was, at times, thrilling. Manchester United’s 4-0 victory over Club Brugge on Wednesday will raise few eyebrows across the continent, but in scoring four, with three from the erstwhile predator Wayne Rooney, United’s performance recalled more exciting times at the club. There have been too few moments like this in the past two years; almost none under the ultra-pragmatic Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman’s progress will be measured in stiffer tests than the one United passed in Belgium this week. After all, the Bruge’s quality might be found wanting in the Championship, while rivals, domestic and continental, remain a distance ahead of United. For now, however, sterner judgment is passed by some on the Dutchman’s integration into the club than on the binary nature of results alone. Van Gaal may just have a cultural problem on his hands.
Indeed, there is little wonder the beginning of some frustration is brewing among United’s massed support. Results have been erratic, tactics and formations hard to predict, transfer activity scattergun. Above all, the style of United’s football is distinctly unimaginative. It is not, some might say, the ‘United way’.
And as nebulous as that concept might well be, there is a truism in the myth often being more powerful than reality. At Old Trafford the nostalgic expectation of attacking football outweighs the pragmatic search for results.
Last weekend is a case in point. With United enjoying more than 70 per cent possession against a Newcastle United side that owed a draw to luck more than quality, the cries of “attack, attack, attack” echoed round Old Trafford. To little avail.
Old Trafford’s regulars are savvy enough to understand that Van Gaal’s fare remains a strange brand of football in England, let alone Manchester. Where the obsession with possession and structure once bought a feeling of renewal, after David Moyes’ chaotic long-ball drudgery, it has now become a millstone – dogmatic slavery to the suffocation of entertainment.
There is little expectation of a change in approach though, even if Van Gaal’s history suggests that success will certainly come. Where silverware is guaranteed, Van Gaal’s is a history that also provides much evidence that function will be prioritised over form.
“At Manchester United individually they are great but they have to play like a team,” mused Van Gaal’s nemesis, Johan Cruyff, last year. “Van Gaal has a good vision of football but it is not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I want individuals to think for themselves. I’ve always been an individual who likes to create something within a team performance.”
Cruyff’s assessment holds true and Van Gaal’s use of his most creative players says much. Angel di Maria, now excised to Paris Saint-Germain, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera have, to differing degrees, suffered under Van Gaal’s structure.
While Di Maria failed to adapt to the English game, or perhaps never wanted to, Van Gaal’s mistrust of the Argentinian ran deep. Too flighty in possession, too risky in defence, Di Maria’s game bore few of the hallmarks that Van Gaal demands. Januzaj, meanwhile, has spent much of the past 15 months ostracised to the bench before the recent integration into the team as an unlikely shadow support to Rooney. It is a role that smacks of the Dilbert Principle: in the stark absence of attacking pace, the Belgian has been moved to a role where he will cause least defensive damage.
Mata, too, is now permanently sacrificed to the gods of structure – a role on the wing that affords United’s most creative player the freedom to roam only intermittently. There is, perhaps, more frustration still with Herrera’s absence through pre-season and United’s opening four matches. All the more for the Basque midfielder’s goalscoring turn in Brugge. Herrera’s spark did much to liberate United, even if it took the Spaniard some time to get into the rhythm of the game.
Tactically, caution remains Van Gaal’s priority. Last year’s regression to a three-man defence has morphed, in the new campaign, to the deployment of two holding midfielders. Both are systemic responses to a defensive unit that Van Gaal still does not trust, in a system built to stave off defeat.
More worrying still, Van Gaal sees no concern in United’s tally of just two goals in three Premier League games – one an own goal, the other a sharply deflected shot.
“We were three times the better team,” he said after United’s draw with Newcastle. “So my worry is that we have to dominate the opponent and we did it today, we did it against Aston Villa and we did it against Tottenham Hotspur. Against Brugge we dominate the game, and in preparation we dominated against Barcelona, against San Jose Earthquakes, against Club America. I am satisfied.”
It is an assessment that resonates with fewer United supporters today than a year ago despite the Reds’ 7-1 aggregate victory over last season’s Belgian league runners-up. And while Van Gaal can be pleased with a favourable group stage draw that matches United with PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow, and VfL Wolfsburg, the Dutchman needs more results in keeping with the play-off stage than the Premier League.
It is not just for the lack of attacking flair that Van Gaal draws some scepticism. The other significant cultural mismatch comes in the 64-year-old’s recruitment and retention policy, albeit one that has brought a significant upgrade in the quality of players in at Old Trafford. Jonny Evans’ pending departure to West Bromwich Albion will break one more link between United’s first team and the club’s academy, even if the Northern Irishman has long been absent from his manager’s plans. Nor, in truth, of the requisite quality.
Yet, Evans follows fellow academy graduates Darren Fletcher, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley out of Old Trafford over the past year. In the trio’s wake greater quality has been acquired. The cost to United’s heritage is as yet unknown.
Meanwhile, Tyler Blackett’s mooted loan to Celtic removes another connection to a storied past, leaving Patrick McNair, Sam Johnstone and James Wilson the remaining youth to hold a realistic hope of first team action. None has featured for the team since United’s pre-season tour of the USA.
With David de Gea’s future to be resolved, and Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones due to return, none of the trio is likely to spend much time on the pitch over the coming months. It is even possible that Van Gaal will break a club tradition of at least one academy player featuring in every match-day squad for the past 3,749 games – one that stretches back to October 1937.
That moment is unlikely to come at the weekend, where United faces a much more difficult task against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, than in Europe this week. But nor is United likely to score four in south Wales. It will, after all, be a match where Van Gaal emphasises control over craft.
“We played very well against Bruges in ball possession,” he said pointedly on Wednesday. “Much better than matches before, but it was because they had to attack so they gave more space. Swansea have a good team so it be very difficult to beat them”