A(nother) Crisis of Faith

This time last year, as David Moyes’ term as Manchester United manager was tumbling towards its inevitable end, I was still keeping the faith. In a working environment where nearly every other United fan had long since started demanding he go, and the Liverpool fans were enjoying themselves and urging him to stay, I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt, still committed to the idea that he had to be given time. But that ended with the game away to Everton.
It was too late to announce my conversion: by the time my shift started on Monday, Moyes had been sacked.
This year, it’s been Louis van Gaal, a massively successful manager with a proven track record, exactly the kind of manager United need to rebuild a team that, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s later years, had declined in quality, no matter that we were a whisper of time away from three successive League titles for the third time! And a pre-season American tour of uninterrupted success and some great, truly United attacking football, gave cause for optimism.
But it’s not been like that. Yes, United are in a better position than last season, still fourth, still with the points in the bag to make the Champions League. Yes, we have brought in big, exciting names, like Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Daley Blind, strengthening the team. And we’ve even managed to get rid of Anderson which, with all due respect, can only serve to improve the average level of quality throughout the squad.
And we’re in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, backed with a commitment to take the competition seriously for a change. It looks so much better than it did this time twelve months ago.
So why have I already lost faith in Louis van Gaal as the man to restore Manchester United to a decent semblance of the club that has enthralled me for the last twenty plus years?
On paper, he’s everything that David Moyes wasn’t. But football isn’t played on paper, and points and statistics are not the only thing that counts, especially not when it comes to following Manchester United.
We may be more successful than we were this time a year ago under David Moyes, though the difference isn’t so great. We may have been in and around 3rd and 4th places for several months by now. But it has been an unsatisfying rise to such heights, and a very unconvincing one.
Some weeks ago, Paul Scholes – as accurate with a comment as he was with a pass – described United’s football as ‘miserable’. Indeed it is. The game at Newcastle is a perfect example. United enjoyed overwhelming possession without ever once seriously looking likely to score. Ashley Young’s winner was in the great United tradition of late goals, but it was the product of an egregious mistake, and when he put the ball away, the only thing I could think was ‘You lucky bastards’, and it’s never good when you think that about your own team scoring an 89th minute winner.
Some of the problem is the same as it’s been for over half a decade: United lack speed. That alone is a heresy. United has always been about speed, about pace, about fast, counter-attacking football. That is far from so under van Gaal, where the emphasis is now upon a slow, patient, passing game, forever building up from the back.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself: the old United played with patience, continually probing for gaps. But the eye for possibility has gone. Speed was a thing of advantage in itself, not merely speed of movement, but speed of thought. United sprang forward against a suddenly-thin defence, intent on exploiting gaps. That’s gone: players who dash forward with the ball – Luis Antonio Valencia is the primest of prime examples – now go only so far and no further, before pulling up, pulling back. There are spaces ahead, space to exploit: let it fill: let defenders get back, resume formations, set up to frustrate as the ball is played sideways and back.
We’re having a lot of possession these days, but it’s harmless possession, neutral possession. Hold and pass, and always play back. The days of pin-point passing, threading the ball through spaces too narrow for a needle to lead, are gone. Now, the pass between two players fifteen yards apart is too risky: to reach the space behind them the ball must go back, then round.
And all the time time passes. A second here, a half dozen there. The opposition settle into their lines denying space that United are no longer able to create, to carve out. There is no longer any invention, no pace, to willingness to shoot when a half-chance presents itself: only when it is a full chance, a chance and a half, is there licence to shoot, and such chances no longer present themselves when defences have built their ramparts.
And those big names, the Falcaos, the di Marias, are not performing, not giving of their plentiful abilities. It’s not just Falcao’s injuries that look to have robbed him of his strength for good: he’s not playing the game he knows how to play, not getting in there, not going for chances. He’s turning back, always back, denying himself space and chance. And di Maria, what have we done to someone of his outrageous skill? Will he ever kick a ball straight again?
A couple of weeks ago, Louis van Gaal announced, proudly, that the team now understood him, understood his philosophy, shared his beliefs. My first, indeed only thought in response to that was, you mean we’re playing this shite deliberately? Because it’s shite. It may be winning shite, and there are those for whom that is enough: after all, there’s more of it than under Moyesy last year.
But not for me. I want to be proud of my team. I want to stand up after a win and say we played well, we deserved it, we looked awesome. I don’t want to admit, over and again, that yes, we were crap, we got lucky. We beat Newcastle 1-0, but if we play like that against Arsenal tomorrow night, we’ll get kaylied.
Because I don’t have any faith in Louis van Gaal. Mine drained away, like it did with poor David Moyes, in a game, whether I wanted it to or not. The FA Cup Fourth Round replay, at home to Cambridge United. Who, let’s face it, are a Fourth Division team, and one who were Conference last year. And Manchester United, in that first twenty-five minutes, had no idea how to beat them. No idea what to do to get behind, or between a Fourth Division defence. Hadn’t a clue.
My fear this year is that we’ll win the FA Cup. My oldest, favourite trophy. The big live day out at Wembley. Re-establish ourselves as the out-in-front most wins ever team. Our dozenth Cup, more than anyone else, no share with Arsenal. And we’ll have played miserable and I can’t take any joy out of it. Unless it’s Liverpool we’ve beaten, because that rivalry overrides everything.
I don’t know what the answer is. Clone Alex Ferguson, produce another forty-year old version and stick him back in charge? Clone Scholesy whilst you’re at it, maybe Eric too. Or just get someone who’s prepared to establish an attacking philosophy based on a composed defence and not dropping someone the moment they’ve had a good game?
Because all the big words I came out with, about accepting a period in the doldrums, about having had the Ferguson era and being content with it, well, they are proving to be so much bullshit on my part. Give me a choice between a team that succeeds and one of which I can be proud, and it’s clear which one I’ll go for, and it’s the one I haven’t got right now, and the one Louis van Gaal shows precious little sign of giving me.


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