“Such a strange style to bring to England,” noted one observer at Old Trafford recently. Even stranger to bring it to Manchester United, he should have added. On Saturday, with United racking up a third successive scoreless draw, the Reds’ raucous away support spontaneously chanted Paul Scholes’ name. It was a none-too-subtle rebellion by 3,500 travelling United supporters, many of whom are now deeply frustrated at the side’s lack of expression – let alone the inconsistent results.
The triumvir of bore draws over the past week was the first time that United has achieved that particular feat in more than 10 years. Nothing to be proud of there. And while inconsistent performances are, perhaps, to be expected from Louis van Gaal’s post-Ferguson transformation, results over the past week are very much symptomatic of a greater ailment. The Dutchman’s tactical caution has eased little since his appointment in July 2014.
It is, says Van Gaal, “a process that takes three years,” although supporters are cognisant of the difference between winning trophies and playing with flair. The latter certainly doesn’t take three years to establish – and Van Gaal is seemingly blind to accumulation of terrace disgruntlement.
Van Gaal reacted aggressively to Scholes’ comments in the past week, with the former United player frank about the Reds’ creative deficit under Van Gaal. In the wake of yet another moribund performance this weekend, Scholes is entitled to feel a sense of vindication.
“There’s a lack of creativity and risk,” said Scholes last Wednesday. “It’s a team now you wouldn’t want to play against because they’re tightly organised, but it seems he doesn’t want players to beat men and it’s probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in. The hardest thing to coach is scoring goals and creativity. I played with some brilliant centre forwards and I don’t think they could play in this team.”
In turn, the Dutchman accused Scholes, who made 718 appearances for the club, of not being “responsible” and speaking out because he is “paid by the BBC or Sky.” It amounted to a low blow against a player who has earned the right to voice the opinion held by many supporters.
Notwithstanding this week’s spat, it says much that supporters camped in Selhurt Park’s Arthur Wait Stand should spend time in the second half urging the team to “attack, attack, attack.” Fans waiting to be released after the game declared that “we’re Man United, we want to attack.” It is a message falling on deaf ears.
Post-match, Van Gaal remained on the defensive, suggesting that fans have “the right” to protest, but that “maybe they shall sing at the next match another way.” Perhaps so, with the club facing a series of winnable games over the next month. Van Gaal’s side faces CSKA Moscow and West Bromwich Albion at home next week, followed by a trip to Watford. Games against Leicester City, West Ham United and PSV Eindhoven follow.
United should pick up points from many of those fixtures, although it is rare indeed that Van Gaal’s side wins with style. Indeed, there are perhaps less than half-a-dozen games in which the Dutchman’s side has achieved that goal: versus Liverpool and, perhaps, Everton this season, together with games against Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool last year.
The lack of attacking ambition is born out in some data. This season United ranks first for possession, but 16th for total number of shots taken. To put that in context, when it comes to shots taken, United’s total of 110 is more than 100 fewer than Arsenal’s. Inside the penalty area only West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland have taken fewer shots than United.
More damming still is the side’s inability to create chances, hampered it seems by the manager’s tactical straight-jacket. This season United ranks 11th for assists, last for key passes, and 15th in terms of dribbles. Van Gaal’s requirement for ball retention also means that his side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the Premier League, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chances created than United.
Perhaps, for all the Reds’ careful possession, the team’s ability to ‘walk the ball into the net’ is not aided by the manager’s insistence on deploying a largely ineffective and tactically ill-disciplined striker. Wayne Rooney, who has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, ranks 29th for shots taken. At Selhurst Park, Rooney’s penchant for wandering out of position, meant that the 30-year-old failed to touch the ball in Palace’s box even once.
Style is, of course, more than the numbers alone – although a team replete with players able to take on an opponent, or chance an arm at shooting once in a while, obviously quickens the pulse. Van Gaal’s terrace accusers can point to a lack of ambition that, at times, is far from ‘the United way’. On Saturday, with Crystal Palace pressing for the win, the home side was far the more ambitious of the two.
Here Rooney has become a significant inhibitor to United’s attacking evolution. The former Evertonian is by no means the only player to stand accused of poor-form this season, but is unable to provide the kind of pacey fulcrum required of a modern number nine. Nor does the Scouser hold up the ball with any quality. Worse still, Rooney’s seemingly sub-par conditioning means that he is no longer sharp over 10 yards – evidenced by the way the Scouser was unable to latch on to Anthony Martial’s fine first-half through ball against Palace.
In deeper roles Rooney is unable to affect the tempo of United’s attacking play at all, let alone put up the numbers that justify his selection. The Englishman has proffered no assists in 12 Champions and Premier League games this season, and made just 12 key passes. Deployed at 10, Rooney has scored once, taken just four shots, and made just three chances for his team-mates. Rooney’s first touch, long a barometer of the player’s form, continues to ensure his second is the proverbial tackle. He has become a significant barrier to United’s attacking ambitions.
The required change is seemingly obvious to all but Van Gaal, with Martial offering a range of skills and pace at number nine that completely changed United’s attacking outlook through September. With Memphis Depay having benefited from a spell out of the limelight, Ashley Young fit, and Ander Herrera a positive contributor at 10, there are fewer reasons than at any point to retain Rooney. Once unthinkable, few now doubt that dropping the captain will aid United’s attacking verve.
But if Van Gaal has fully retrenched into a conservative outlook, then neither is United’s manager able to affect a game from the dugout. When change comes, Van Gaal falls back to like-for-like substitutions, or those pre-determined through sports science. On Saturday, while Rooney struggled on for the full 90, Van Gaal once again withdrew United’s most creative midfielder – Juan Mata. It was followed by the now inevitable Marouane Fellaini-Bastian Schweinsteiger job share substitution. All too predictable; all too lacking in ambition.
It leaves Van Gaal under increasing pressure: to deliver not only the results that keeps his employers happy, but at least a modicum of entertainment for supporters expecting more.
“I know that if I lose and lose then I will be finished, I know that,” admitted Van Gaal. “But I shall do everything for this club and these fans, who are unbelievable.”
Starting, it must be said, with just a touch more attacking ambition. The fans demand it.