There is in historiographic thinking a concept, an idea if you will, that advances in science, technology and society produce an improvement in the human condition. That, indeed, this “progress” is innately desirable. This idea is deeply ingrained in modern culture; that progress is the sum of these advances and, according to sociologist Robert Nisbet, that “no single idea has been more important” over recent millennia.
Yet, as a sociological construct the idea of progress is relatively new. It is not all that long since metaphilosophists disputed the notion of problem solving in philosophy at all. That, essentially, philosophical progress could never be made in absolute terms. Further, in an historical context, one need only study the economic regression of the dark ages, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, to dispute the notion that economic and social progress is inevitable at all. There was little for around one thousand years. Indeed, not until the rise of the scientific method was the notion of progress, as we understand it today, truly ingrained.
This is an idea that regular visitors to Old Trafford have discussed frequently this season – that, somehow, progress is essential for the betterment of Manchester United. It is a goal millions seek after more than two decades of success, followed by one of the most dramatic declines in the modern game.
There is something in this of course. That United’s status as one of the game’s financial, cultural and historic powerhouses means that the club’s now relatively lowly position – and a second season without silverware – is not the natural order of things. That progress is a right and the lack of it a disturbance in the fabric of the sport.
This new order is also one that fans must now accept. Louis van Gaal’s side is, as former Arsenal player Martin Keown put it on Monday night, “just not very good.”
Defeat to the Londoners in the FA Cup was devastating in its own right. It ended any realistic hope of silverware this season, leaving the Reds in a five-way battle for European football, with little guarantee of a positive outcome. The result was even more damaging to the psyche.
No longer is United among the domestic game’s elite, let alone at the top table of European football. There is no longer a guarantee of success, nor even entertainment. Teams with little history, let alone United’s riches, now compete on even terms. The club may well be on the precipice of entering its own dark age. There is no longer a promise of automatic gain.
Much of this assessment now falls at Van Gaal’s door, just as David Moyes took the blame for United’s fall from grace last season. The Scot’s was a failure both of his own making and that of the club’s too. His limited talent was ill-suited to an institution of United’s stature – the fans, players and probably even Moyes himself understood this quickly. United’s hierarchy should have worked it out in the hiring process.
The Dutchman is different though. His status as one of the game’s premier coaches came with a genuine promise: of progress and betterment, of a rapid turnaround, and an immediate return to the decades of success enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson. It is a mystique now smashed in the reality of Van Gaal’s regime.
In this there is a crushing realisation: that Van Gaal is no rapid solvent for a broken dream. The veteran coach has produced a functionally limited, stylistically barren side that is now less than the sum of its considerable parts. Quite a feat after more than £150 million was spent last summer. Moreover, while the obsessive switching of approach between cautious possession and desperate long balls baffles, the peripatetic shifting in tactics has now come to irritate.
On Monday night Van Gaal set up in what looked to be a reasonable formation, with all but Antonio Valencia in a seemingly natural position. At least for the few predisposed to believe that Marouane Fellaini has a place in a United side in any role, let alone an attacking one. Yet, by the close of the night the Reds were desperately launching long-balls at a front two comprising Chris Smalling together with the giant Belgian. Pretty it wasn’t.
If the initial set-up promised an attacking display the Dutchman ruined United’s shape and confidence at half-time, substituting the quietly effective Ander Herrera for the more defensively minded Michael Carrick. It was an understandable reaction to Daley Blind’s limited performance, but one that robbed United of all attacking verve. The shift in inertia to Arsenal was permanent.
Monday’s game is one proxy for a pattern that has become depressingly familiar to United’s legion fans. The manager’s consistent inconsistency and frustrating use, or misuse, of players has robbed supporters of confidence, if not yet all faith. So much so that gallows humour and a reluctant acceptance has now sunk in.
If motivation on the terraces is low then it has also filtered into the dressing room. By the end United’s was a performance without confidence or verve. Strange from a side that had boasted a record of just two defeats in 22 matches.
Yet, another way of looking at that series is that the Reds have now suffered three defeats in the past 12 fixtures – and a trio of those games came against Cambridge United and Preston North End. It is middling form that United will take into fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea before April is out. Four fixtures, plus the May game against Arsenal, that could make Van Gaal’s season. Or otherwise.
In all of this there is, of course, a hint at the change once promised. Van Gaal’s record of vibrant attacking teams, built on youthful energy and a sharp tactical brain, seems some distance from the reality of eight months in Manchester. That aura is now broken.
Change will come one way or another of course. Personnel will come and go in the summer and United may well spend lavishly once again. The club can just about afford it. Yet, it still remains unclear to what end. While Van Gaal holds dear his philosophy, it seemingly comes without hint of a strategy. This is not a good place to be.
Van Gaal’s tendency to dismiss his more obvious failings has come to fore in recent weeks. It is a certain sense of stubbornness, at least in some minutiae if not the bigger picture, that hints at a manager who is reluctant to embrace change. Van Gaal is a man who is yet to accept that much of his experimentation this season has failed.
Or, as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once noted, “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” It is a concept to ponder as United fans look towards the progress the club can make from here.