“Quality,” read the motto framed in Louis van Gaal’s office at Ajax, “is the exclusion of coincidence.” If anything it sums up the Dutchman’s philosophy: every eventuality is covered in the minutest detail; nothing is left to chance. If that’s the case then Van Gaal must be under few illusions that United’s current striking troubles are the result of bad luck, but of a system and ethos that doesn’t prioritise playing with pace.
Much has been said about the Reds’ performance against West Ham United at the weekend, where Van Gaal’s side enjoyed 21 shots in total, albeit with only one on target – in the 60th minute. True, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial spurned presentable chances in the latter stages of the game, but those opportunities were carved out as United became more frantic in search of an elusive goal. The total number of shots, in the context of the season, was probably a outlier.
In all likelihood had United scored the team would have sat on the lead rather than look for a second. After all, Van Gaal’s side was let off the hook more than once; had West Ham been more clinical the Dutchman would have been left to contemplate a painful and potentially damaging defeat.
Indeed, the frustration many supporters feel is precisely because Van Gaal possesses enough players for the side to play on the front foot all the time – and, on occasion, the team has demonstrated this ability when trying to rescue victory from the jaws of another mundane stalemate.
It doesn’t help Van Gaal’s case that Javier Hernández, James Wilson, Will Keane and Shinji Kagawa all conspired to score over the weekend. Even Angel di Maria weighed in with an assist for Paris Saint Germain.
Yet, the raw data doesn’t make for encouraging reading. Compared with United’s contemporaries in the Premier League Van Gaal’s side comes up short in key attacking metrics. Or, in other words, United’s league position is down to possessing the meanest defense in the division.
Responding to criticism after drawing another blank against West Ham, Van Gaal complained that the fans “want to score every minute of this game.”
“I don’t understand,” he continued, “why they are shouting ‘attack, attack, attack’ because we are the attacking team, not West Ham, and it’s the same in every game because we are dominating more.”
Of course, to use an Obi-Wan-ism, Van Gaal’s observation is true ‘from a certain point of view’. Once again United bossed possession at Old Trafford, out-passing West Ham by almost four passes to one. Once again United failed to turn this ‘domination’ into goals.
Even in taking 21 shots against the Hammers, the pace of United’s attack was too slow. It is an observation that strikes at the heart of Van Gaal’s challenge. On the occasions when his team has played with tempo, the side look dangerous, but it is as if a hand is holding United back from playing at full pace all of the time.
United’s conservatism is heaping pressure on the players as well. Michael Carrick looked to force the issue when he came on for the injured Morgan Schneiderlin on Saturday. Yet, Carrick was often forced into attempting difficult eye-of-the-needle passes. Behind each pass was a desperation to spark United into life.
Memphis Depay offered another instructive example when the Dutchman had to motion Matteo Darmian into making an overlapping run. The result: Darmian got into a decent area and fizzed a dangerous cross in front of the West Ham goal. It was a moment to summarise the clash between a ‘philosophy’ and the ‘practical realities’ of United’s situation.
The solution may not be easy. Van Gaal believes that if United acquired strikers of higher quality, such as Sergio Agüero or Luis Suárez, they would score in this current set-up. Maybe so, although it is not really the point. For all the major squad surgery that Van Gaal has overseen at Old Trafford his only real striking options are Wayne Rooney, who is on the wane, and a talented but raw Anthony Martial.
Once again the print media is full of stories linking United to the acquisition of stellar names, with a huge budget to go with it. It is an admission that the Dutchman cannot coach the players at his disposal to be more clinical or attack with greater fluency. That, if you will, the philosophy can only be fulfilled in the transfer market, with a player who can produce something out of nothing in an otherwise no-risk approach.
If that observation rings true then the brand of attacking football United supporters crave is likely to be in short supply for as long as the Dutchman is at the helm. After all, the Glazer family is reportedly happy with the progress that Van Gaal has made – outside opinions matter little as long as the Dutch coach is meeting his basic targets. No change of style is on the horizon.
This, of course, is the greatest danger of all. For all the club’s traditions and history it is owned by a family that cares little for much but the bottom line. There is little concern over style in the Old Trafford boardroom so long as the ‘brand’ remains strong and a minimum level of success is achieved. In that the club’s hierarchy has appointed the perfect coach – one that will bear the brunt of any criticism and steer attention away from the owners.
Of course, Van Gaal’s ego dictates that he must win a trophy at United. But he also is safe in the knowledge that his paymasters are content with his work. It leaves just one question: whether the Dutchman most seeks to please his employers or the fans? If it’s the former, then supporters should expect little change in the team’s style any time soon.