On last weekend’s podcast we discussed Manchester United’s narrow and largely boring victory over Watford, and debated pragmatism vs. flair. After last night’s woeful performance in the Champions League at home to PSV Eindhoven, United are feeling the pain. The Red Devils must go to Wolfsburg and win to ensure qualification to the knockout rounds. A tough ask for sure. The thing is, for a team of United’s stature it shouldn’t be that tough. However, It’s not all gloom and doom as a victory over league-leaders Leicester (can you believe it) will see United top by the beginning of December and then one can start to dream. So after a season and a half we ask our resident Man United fans Rishay and Bernie what they think. Ken from Calgary MUFC also chipped in with his thoughts and the jury is definitely split. Enjoy.
After a season and a half is LVG’s philosophy clear?
Rishay: Yes. LVG wants to dominate games and be in control of the ball as opposed to sitting back. The continental style of football he has brought to Manchester United is evident. The passing and movement especially in the first 2/3rds of the field is designed to keep the opposition at bay. In terms of tactics, teams that are more versatile will most likely play on the counter away from home while sitting back. If you observe both home and away games this season (with the exception of the Arsenal game), United have been in charge for the most part. The youth players have been given opportunities and some new leaders are emerging – Chris Smalling is one of them. In terms of clarity, I think we can see what Van Gaal is trying to do, and where most of us disagree is the final result (scoring). Despite this, with the best defensive record in the league and an attack that obviously needs reshuffling, I can see this United side going on a run once they figure it out.
Bernie: It’s neither here nor there. We all know what LVG says he wants to do, but what occurs on the pitch doesn’t reflect that in the slightest. He wants to have the ball at all times and break teams down methodically. Barcelona do this but they pass with speed and have flair at the end of it. The United players pass slowly because they don’t know what to do. They don’t have a plan of attack. For this to work you need speed on the wings which he’s been going on about. However, he resorts to sticking Juan Mata on the right. It’s illogical. Wayne Rooney has been a fantastic servant over ten years but his time is up. To ensure the philosophy is fulfilled Rooney must drop to the bench, Mata be put in the middle and Lingard must now own the right side. Depay and Young can fight for the left. To say one thing then do the complete opposite is nothing more than lip service. A philosophy is useless without backing it up.
Ken: No. Let’s remember that when Van Gaal first arrived he wanted us to play three at the back [after not replacing Rio and Vidic], then we switched to a midfield diamond before enjoying a fine run playing 4-1-4-1. He played Rooney in midfield and continued to deploy wingers like Valencia and Young in defensive roles to a varying degree of effectiveness. He then proceeded to coach the creativity and spontaneity out of our marquee signing and our captain in favour of bland possession football. But at least it seemed like he was trying to find a winning formula with the personnel at his disposal.
To his credit, he’s been more consistent tactically this season – but it’s also a downfall. Do we really need two holding midfielders at home in some of the matches we’ve played? Do we need to keep trotting Wayne Rooney out there when it’s simply not working? We have a plan ‘A’ with the wrong players and a plan ‘B’ that is predictable and generally ineffective.
If the philosophy is to stifle the players and have them all scared shitless to try anything for fear of losing possession, then I guess it’s clear.
Has Van Gaal failed with his transfer policy?
Ken: On the one hand, he had a lot of stiffs that needed to be moved on and he did so ruthlessly. That was a success. But, how did we get through the summer transfer window without identifying and moving for the types of players he now says he needs in attack?
At this point he should have the players he needs after shipping out a lot of dead wood and approaching his fourth window. And I’m sorry, we should not be fielding sides with three midfielders in defence. This is a dereliction of duty on the club’s behalf. We haven’t replaced Rio, Vida and Evra properly – let alone Rafael and Evans.
While we’ve had some bad luck with injuries our depth is generally worse than it’s been since the Djemba-Djemba and Miller days. I’m glad to see some of the youngsters get a chance, but not many of them look ready for prime time, do they?
C- grade in my opinion, and only because of the miracle Van Gaal has conjured with Mike Smalling as well as the potential of Martial.
Rishay: In terms of a transfer policy, I think that this is a double edged sword. In his first season, Ed Woodward sealed a number of high profile deals including Di Maria and Falcao (and we all saw how those turned out). I don’t think that LVG has a problem with his transfer policy, I think that players who have big names have a problem with LVG’s very rigid approach to the game. His system is black and white and he hopes to see players express themselves within that system. In that sense, a controlled approach to expression on the field can be challenging for new signings – evident with Memphis. With Di Maria, I think there was a night and day difference before and after his house was burgled, which is a shame, because he was on absolute fire until that point.
Bernie: LVG needs to know the types of players who will fit into the rigid approach that we’ve mentioned. That goes back to having a clear philosophy and seeing it through. Di Maria was a bust for a plethora of reasons. Depay who is used to a free role can’t adjust to a restricted role on the left. Schweinsteiger’s transfer shows me how underrated Michael Carrick has actually been his whole career more than how good the German really is or was. Add to that the likes of Falcao and Victor Valdes and you have a scatter gun policy. Of the players who are successes we have Schneiderlein, Herrera and Blind, the Spaniard a result of David Moyes’ work. Luke Shaw another Moyes target will develop into a world class left back. Rojo, Romero are in the “meh” category for me. Anthony Martial was a panic buy but will be a world beater in a few years. Yes, Van Gaal cleared out the deadwood like Van Persie and Nani but Chicharito is showing that he made a mistake there. Louis just hasn’t gotten the hang of this aspect yet.
Is this team capable of winning anything under LVG this season?
Bernie: They say offense wins games but defense wins championships. However, to win the Premier League you have to beat the best teams and to do that you have to score goals. Losing 3-0 to Arsenal, drawing 0-0 to City, beating Tottenham 1-0 at home without a shot on target is not a recipe for success. We’re out of the Capital One Cup as is and I don’t think we’ll win the FA Cup. The Premier League can be won if we finally get scoring but it’s been too long since we looked potent for me to see Wayne Rooney lifting a trophy over his head.
Ken: Yes. If we can reinforce with tw or three Premier League-ready players in January the league is there to be won. No, really. But it won’t happen unless we also loosen the reins of football by attrition. We need to let the attack-minded players do their thing. You don’t get three points for another bloody 0-0, Louis!
And who knows with Cup football. Hell, based on tonight’s result we could win the Europa League.
Rishay: Despite all the flaws that fans seem to be seeing with this Manchester United team, I think that being just off the pace at this point of the season is indicative of how the season has been. There have been some crazy results and already a couple of sackings. If you look at how strong Arsenal were looking a few weeks ago, even they dropped points to West Brom, a team that United had just shaded a very “boring victory” against. Basically, for all the “boring” football that United have played, the stability in their style is evident and the platform is there to build on. Grinding out results for a team that has a relatively fresh chemistry cycle is a good backbone to build on. This team in its current state will be there or thereabouts, and if they manage to optimize their attack, could very well go on a goal-scoring run that will have critics looking very silly. Anything can happen this season so BELIEVE.
Are the fans right to chant ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK?
Rishay: Yes and no. The problem is that they are so used to the cavalier approach to football under Ferguson (mostly during the 90s and early 00s). Even though there were times under Ferguson where there was a “funeral like atmosphere”. I understand that it can be frustrating to see a lack of clear-cut goal-scoring chances, but at the same time, we are building on so many clean sheets. This surely gives the team a boost to know that they will dominate games. Once the attack gets ironed out (i.e. Rooney issue dealt with), I’m sure there will be a more potent identity up front. Overall, I will be realistic and say that after 1.25 seasons, LVG is painting a beautiful “long-term” picture at United and it is possible that fans will only realize this once he is gone.
Bernie: Absolutely, this club was built on attacking football! Van Gaal came in here advertising an attacking philosophy and when fans don’t get the product they were promised, they should complain. Defending is important and Chris Smalling has grown into one of the best out there but United fans showed their appreciation for George Best by lighting up Old Trafford. It would be nice if the players were allowed to do so as well. Hopefully Ryan Giggs comes in, listens to his mate Paul Scholes and changes all this (knock on wood).
Ken: You bet they are. This is Manchester United. Our teams have youth, flair, courage and never quit. It’s the job of the supporters to keep that legacy alive and speak truth to power. Support the team, always – but not by making excuses for them. The minute we compromise on this greater philosophy, it could change for good.