What does Manchester United stand for? The United way. The Arsenal way. The Liverpool way. It is one of the most recognisable clichés in the colourful vocabulary of the football fan. Bandied around in equal measure both in times of prosperity and hardship; supporters will either revel joyously in witnessing the game being played “our way”, or pine for its return amid periods of despair.
Its usage often extends no further than being an attempt to distinguish ones club from another, to establish a stylistic superiority over a perceived inferior rival. Yet, despite becoming a somewhat platitudinous statement, it remains vitally important to fans. And rightly so.
The sheer longevity and success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 year reign at Old Trafford has allowed United to establish this identity in a way seldom witnessed elsewhere. It is not uncommon for the words “empire” or “dynasty” to be used liberally when describing Ferguson’s tenure, and it is because of that unrivalled sense of self that he developed within the club that its sudden disintegration has been all the more pronounced.
It is telling that the biggest critics of Louis van Gaal’s increasingly vague philosophy are those who formed the backbone of the Ferguson era. Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand – these were the players who brought their manager’s vision to life on the pitch, and as much as their negativity has become repetitive, it clearly pains the quartet to watch the club’s ethos fade away.
However, the identity crisis that has now enveloped the club had taken root before Van Gaal, or even David Moyes, arrived. In his twilight years, Ferguson infamously allowed United’s midfield to fall into alarming disrepair, overseeing the departure of Paul Pogba, whilst the likes of Anderson continued to command a considerable wage.
It is also easy to forget that in the final few seasons under the legendary Scot that, despite reaching a Champions League final in 2011, the quality of football on display bore little resemblance to his two truly great sides that won the competition in 1999 and 2008. The euphoria of a 20th league title in 2013 papered over cracks that had been visible for some time. Crucially, though, the drop in the overall calibre of play never precipitated an abandonment of United’s attacking principles.
But Ferguson did choose Moyes as his successor. It was a decision that will be analysed, dissected and analysed again for years to come – forever remembered as the moment that catalysed a chain of events leading United into this period of depressing uncertainty. Perhaps Ferguson saw something of himself in Moyes, a Glaswegian who had paid his dues at Everton over an extended period. It was a romantic notion, but ultimately a misguided one.
Moyes proved woefully inadequate in carrying on the traditions laid down by his illustrious predecessor. Sacked within a year, the idea that he should have been afforded time to grow into the role holds little credibility. Had the former Everton boss maintained even a mildly acceptable standard during his disastrous nine months at the helm then perhaps he would have been deserving of some patience – a seventh place finish fell way below that particular threshold.
It is arguable that achieving the minimum standard is perhaps the only area that currently distinguishes Van Gaal from Moyes. The Dutchman has, to use the phrase of the moment, “steadied the ship”. The issue with that particular analogy is that the majority of United fans have never known their side to be a steady ship, nor do they want it to be. The terraces are used to accompanying their team on swashbuckling adventures, not meandering listlessly from match to match.
Yes, it is undeniable that United needed a period of stabilisation post-Moyes, but a manager of Van Gaal’s pedigree should be providing so much more than is currently on offer. For a man so obsessed with the idea of philosophy, he has shown little regard for the identity of the club that entrusted him with the task of self-rediscovery.
Some have argued that Van Gaal is simply making do with the inadequate tools at his disposal, deploying a conservative system to compensate for the deficiencies in the squad. But is that really an acceptable defence considering the money that has been spent on new players since the Dutchman’s arrival? Despite that eye-watering financial outlay, Van Gaal’s United continues to play a woefully uninspiring brand of football.
Blooding youngsters, such as Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, is spoilt by the bizarre treatment of others – Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson. United have lacked a player of Januzaj’s directness, and although he would likely be no more than a backup, the lack of goals being scored makes Wilson’s loan move to Brighton & Hove Albion seem more than a little odd.
By all accounts, Van Gaal’s methods encourage a rigid, mechanical style of play – completely at odds with everything that is held traditional at Old Trafford. It is futile to continue longing for the halcyon days under Fergie, as his like will never be seen again, but it is not unreasonable to expect continuity of attacking traditions that he established.
Instead, Van Gaal has become so fixated with dominating possession that scoring a goal has almost become an afterthought. The result has been an exasperating volume of goalless draws, a somewhat alien concept to United fans. The style of play appears the very antithesis of supporters’ perception of the “United way”, and there is a distinct impression that the fluctuating results would be less exasperating if there was simply some modicum of entertainment.
Furthermore, many players simply do not seem suited to Van Gaal’s formulaic approach. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay will likely never adapt fully to the robotic style of play. It is obviously not in that quartet’s nature and together they possess enough talent that it seems folly to ask them to play in such a fashion.
Whether these players are truly capable of re-establishing United as an attacking force remains to be seen, yet they deserve to at least to have their shackles removed and be permitted to follow more natural attacking instincts once more.
Van Gaal brought United back from the brink of meltdown last season, and for that he should be commended, but for a club of this stature that alone is not enough. There has been a smouldering dissatisfaction among the support this season, tempered only by the club’s promising league position.
However, the disastrous Champions League exit in Wolfsburg has fanned flames of frustration – at just how unrecognisable United has become. Defeat at Bournemouth on Saturday has exacerbated this sentiment. Ironically, the fire that Van Gaal must now surely notice rising steadily beneath him may only be extinguished by throwing his safety first approach out of the window.
In a relatively short space of time United have become a club that has lost sight of itself. The longer the identity crisis continues the harder from which it will be to recover. The “United way” risks becoming nothing more than a memory.