The LVG/United topic has been done to death, so it’s proving difficult to find the direction I want this article to take.
I’ll start by saying United are still a bit of a mess, they have been dull, lethargic and devoid of conviction and enthusiasm for the entire season give or take – but is that the manager’s fault or the players? Does the truth probably lie somewhere in between? (that fence does look really comfortable from here..)
United fans are once again being asked for patience, but how long should that patience last? Is there a set time frame or sentence? Patience for managers depends on the direction his team are taking. If there is a definite style and shape developing month by month, then the patience extends. It helps if you talk about football and philosophies with an accent for some reason, it sounds like you really know what you are talking about and it buys you time – just ask Shteve McClaren.
What about the players? How long should you persist with underperformers? At what stage do you say to yourself “this isn’t good enough, is it?”
United sit 4th in the table right now, but they look the least convincing of the Champions League place challengers. That has to be a massive worry. While Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs all look to be improving and building momentum, you could argue United are getting worse.
Before Saturday’s defeat to Swansea, United had just 1 defeat from the previous 19 games in all competitions. That’s an impressive statistic, but nobody harped on about it. They knew better. Looking at things on a match to match basis, it’s actually a miracle United sit as high as they do. Saying they have been gathering points by the skin of their teeth would be an understatement.
The list of under-performing United players is staggering. Only David De Gea and Daley Blind have played with any real consistency this season. Just like his doomed predecessor, Van Gaal is struggling to squeeze the best out of his squad. That’s two managers in a row who have faced similar problems, so on the face of it, you could reasonably argue that the common denominator seems to be the players.
Rafael, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Robin Van Persie through combinations of injury and inconsistency have been a bit crap for around two seasons now under 2 different managers. That just isn’t good enough. Excuses can be made, arguments thrown back and forth, but the fact remains – none of those players are reaching the levels required.
Angel Di Maria, Falcao and Wayne Rooney are more big names on big money who have provided a pretty dismal return for their reputations.
But don’t great managers inspire players to play above themselves? Van Gaal himself said: “I can make every player better. I’m sorry. That’s arrogant, but I can.”
So why isn’t he then? Is his system and philosophy choking the life out of United’s players or is he displaying what he sees as an essential pragmatism until he can complete a squad re-shuffle in the summer?
Enough with the hypotheticals, it’s time to strap yourself in for my theory.
When I look at United’s team right now, I am always drawn back to my amazing 5-a-side football analogy. We have all been in the situation in our midweek kick-arounds. We have a team made up of 3 good players and 2 completely useless f*ckers. No matter how well the 3 play, the other two shithouses always seem to ruin everything. They will be the free men at the back post shanking chances wide, the guys who mess up final ball of a 20 pass move and the last men defending opposition breakaways, comically failing to stop them. Even though it’s only a casual kickabout between friends, it really can be infuriating and draining of your enthusiasm.
I think that’s where United are right now. Van Gaal puts his pieces on the board and then watches his centre halves give the ball away time and time again under little pressure. He watches United’s better players work the ball around well to create space for Valencia out right, who under/over hits his cross or passes the ball backwards 50 yards.
He watches his midfielders break the lines and look up to see Van Persie and Falcao standing static around the edge of the box or worse sees them running back towards the ball in midfield, closing up all that lovely space. When they do get on the ball, it’s miss control, stumble and repeat ad nauseam for 90 minutes.
It’s not that Jones, Evans, Valencia etc are bad – it’s that they are SO bad, that they act as the perfect (albeit unwilling) saboteurs to everything United try. A badly hit 5 yard pass, played slightly behind its intended target can scupper a whole attack; these guys knock those passes out of play.
They are so poor in possession at the back that opposition teams don’t even press United that high anymore – they let United’s defenders have the ball, safe in the knowledge that a poor pass into midfield or an aimless punt down field is moments away.
United’s forwards are also so infuriatingly easy to play against, that opposition defenders barely break sweat anymore. They know that standing in a nice compact line at the edge of the box is usually enough to thwart the ponderous attacks. You can cry about lack of service and slow build up play, but the reality is that strikers and forwards at other clubs make things happen no matter where they receive the ball. Aguero, Sterling, Kane, Hazard etc aren’t rolling home 6 yard tap ins each week. They do what top forwards do – they create havoc. Get them on the ball and they provide the magic.
For the time being Van Gaal has no other option but to play these out of sorts misfits. Of course, he could have signed more players in the summer, but I’m sure he didn’t expect some of the current crop to be THIS bad. He can be forgiven for thinking that any footballer playing for United would have a pretty high basic standard. He and the rest of his Dutch coaching team must have a giggle or two behind closed doors about some of the stuff Jones, Smalling, Evans and Valencia do from week to week.
Van Gaal can’t address his squad’s problems immediately so now he must wait…and hope. United fans call for more adventure; to attack with reckless and relentless ambition. But how can they do that with the players at his disposal?
I know some of you are reading this aghast, listing the names of stellar players in your head – but it’s time to stop judging United’s big names on reputation alone and instead start judging them on merit. The majority of them are simply not doing enough. At what stage do you cut the cord? When do you say “enough is enough?”
The Dutchman constantly talks about finding “balance” which to me sounds like a kinder way of saying: “It’s tough to find a way to win with that shower of shite”.
United are going have to ride this out until the end of the season. Whether they will finish in the top four is touch and go. Either way, there is a monumental summer transfer window on the horizon and Van Gaal will have to be ruthless. United could be unrecognizable come August and I don’t think that would be such a bad thing.