It has become the pattern this season. There were more than 20 minutes remaining at the King Power Stadium when Louis van Gaal’s side slowed the game to walking pace; point seemingly gained, control established, ambition withered away. The limp final quarter, in what was supposed to be a top-of-the-table clash, was symptomatic of far too many United games this season. The intensity of attacking aspiration was almost entirely absent. The visitors failed to register a single shot on target in the second period, despite enjoying almost 70 per cent possession. Van Gaal called it a “dominant” performance. It was nothing of the sort – and 18 months into the Dutchman’s reign the vision for the club is far from clear.
It shouldn’t be this hard to establish a pattern of play in keeping with the club’s stature. Whisper it quietly, but Jurgen Klopp’s immediate impact some 45 miles to the west shines an uncomfortable light on United’s elder statesman. Not only has Klopp enjoyed six wins from 10 games in charge at Anfield, but established a distinct – and attacking – pattern to the club’s play. More pointed still, Klopp’s team is now just five points behind United in the Premier League. The momentum is with the Anfield side.
By contrast Van Gaal’s team may be third in the table, just one point off the summit, but the quality of football remains dire. Entertainment is almost non-existent and week-to-week, as at Leicester City on Saturday evening, Van Gaal changes personnel and formation with reason, but very little rhyme. On Saturday the Dutchman switched United back to an historically ineffective three-man defence, although he was not willing to abandon the use of two defensive midfielders.
The impact, whatever United’s shape, is now depressingly familiar – so few chances created, but with a possession obsession pushed to ever more unfathomable levels. Such is the team’s unwillingness to seek a creative or progressive option that it took until the 38th minute of United’s game at Leicester City for one of the visitors to take on a risky forward ball. Daley Blind’s long pass found Antony Martial in the channel and the visitors earned a corner for their efforts
In the East Midlands United garnered just six shots on goal, with two on target, one of which was Bastian Schweinsteiger’s 45th minute header. It was so little to show for such significant focus on ball retention, with Van Gaal’s team completing 478 passes during the 90 minutes. It was some 300 more than the hosts, but Leicester enjoyed more shots on target. That stat should surprise nobody.
For all United’s possession it was also Leicester, not the Reds, who often carried the greater threat. Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and Ryiad Mahrez combined effectively on the counter-attack to stretch United’s awkward back-three. The Foxes were happy to soak up United’s passive ball retention and then break at speed. There was no better example than for Vardy’s opening goal, which followed United’s corner, and was set up by Christian Fuch’s sublime left-footed through ball from the right side of midfield. It was Leicester, not the visitors, that created the best chances on the night.
After two prosaic performances during the past week criticism of the Dutchman’s side is reaching a fresh apex. Rightly so. It should surprise few, with so much of United’s passing unpenetrative and Van Gaal’s understanding of supporters’ frustration wholly inadequate.
Yet, Van Gaal is having none of the criticism aimed in his direction. Once again the 64-year-old blamed the opposition’s tactics for United’s lack of penetration – as if it is not clear to all that a deep and narrow set-up is the most effective way of neutralising what threat the Reds’ possess. That United also started the game in a particularly narrow formation simply played into Leicester’s hands.
“In the third and fourth phase we have to create more, but it is more difficult because you have seen where Leicester City stand on the pitch,” claimed Van Gaal in the aftermath.
“That is a lot of bodies in front of you, but we have created the chances to beat them. We could have scored in the second half. We have to wait for the moment that we do that. I have the feeling that we could have won this game. I’ve said to my players – this kind of match you have to win if you want to be champions at the end of the season.”
Van Gaal singled out Schweinstiger’s headed effort after the break and Memphis Depay’s loose control followed by a shot over the bar as the chances that United had “waited for” to win the game.
It may be romanticism, but there was a time when United did not have to wait for a single clear-cut chance per game; when a dominant team could turn possession into chances created, and chances into goals scored. It is an era long gone, although Van Gaal’s crass misreading of United’s history has improved very little since the veteran coach joined the club in summer 2014.
Van Gaal’s is a strange mode of football to bring to England, let alone a club with a history built on vibrant attack. It is a mistake that Sir Alex Ferguson never made, no matter the restraint put on the Scot’s tactical outlook in his latter years.
“Sir Alex was very clear on this one,” former United assistant manager Rene Meulensteen told the BBC recently. “We want to be successful, we want to win games, we want to win trophies, but we have an obligation to entertain the fans. The word is maybe rigid at times. There’s a lack of freedom now.”
Van Gaal’s team has taken just 143 shots on goal this season, compared to 198 at the same point last year, and 229 in the first 14 games of Ferguson’s last campaign as manager. It is a symptom of the Dutchman’s apparent determination to structure his team’s attacking play.
On Saturday Van Gaal changed the shape of United’s front-three, with Juan Mata deployed at 10, behind Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial. It had little impact, with Martial running into the channels to create space, Rooney dropping deep into Mata’s zone, and the Spaniard struggling to pick up the ball in attacking areas. With no width of note, Leicester’s defensive shape was rarely breached and it was no surprise that United’s only goal came from a set-piece.
Former Livepool defender Jamie Carragher defines United’s attacking impotence as “over organisation” leaving no room for “off-the-cuff” creativity. Peter Schmeichel, whose son appeared in goal for Leicester at the weekend, accuses Van Gaal’s team of “irrelevant passing,” with the ball distributed from side-to-side, but at such ponderous pace that it has little impact on the opposition’s shape. “This is Manchester United and United don’t wait for one chance,” quipped the former goalkeeper.
“I keep saying it’s boring, I know,” added Paul Scholes after United’s goalless draw with PSV Eindhoven last week. “Attacking-wise they don’t look a threat, they don’t look good enough, they don’t look like they’re going to go and score goals.”
He’s not wrong and after 18 months in which Van Gaal has acquired so many new players it shouldn’t be this way. More to the point, with talent that includes Depay, Martial, and Mata, to mention little of the fading force that is Rooney, Van Gaal has more tools than most with which to fashion a more effective attacking unit. Little wonder supporters and, it seems, players are now looking to the coach for a change.
“I spoke to one player at United who told me he is half the player he can be here at the moment because of the way they are playing,” said The Telegraph’s Jason Burt this week.
Some might interpret the off-the-record memo as a turning point. There are few excuses left. This is, after all, very much Van Gaal’s squad – a team living in fear of a mistake and a prisoner of its own fashion. After 531 days in charge, with just 549 to go before Van Gaal’s contract ends at United, the Dutchman’s time is slowly running down.
Slow, like his team and the pace of change, being the appropriate word.