Is the footballing world expecting too much of Manchester United?
The Theatre of Dreams, it is called. The name did not originate from the club, but rather from the people, for the club. People who began to witness their dreams manifest onto the field. Manchester United, for 26 years, had been living a dream.
uncountable noun [UK]
- the concept that one man’s team could regularly affect, change and/or dazzle football matches at a particular period of time repeatedly, that it entails a portion of minutes in every Manchester United match standing testament to his legacy.
Many of us would agree that for all our lives, what we have known and identified as the ethos of Manchester United, or what it represents, is in actuality a football club moulded in the image of one man, Sir Alex Ferguson.
The grit and determination displayed by his team, apologies for type-casting, were characteristic of a Scot. What appears in its outer manifestation as the “never say die” attitude displayed by his team, was internally motivated by Ferguson’s keen acumen for man-management. It was either his way or the highway. David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Pogba can attest to that. Players who were good, solid footballers to say the least, yet felt the sting of Ferguson’s mantra. “No one person is as big as the club”. Only, he WAS the club.
So great was his impact on Manchester United, that it could only be rivaled by his own success with the club.
“Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United,” – David Gill, former Chief Executive of Manchester United once proclaimed.
Even in the squad that United has today, the majority of players are acquisitions of the Ferguson era, or home grown players who were developed under Ferguson. He often spoke about how it is important for players to be aware and responsible for their conduct at all times, as each action of theirs reflected on the club. They reflected on him.
In a sense, he was their life coach. He encouraged his players to get married, he had them maintain strict diets and he curtailed their party hours. Whatever he felt had to be done, in order to be successful. It was truly his way or the highway.
As if the trophies accumulated season after season was not evidential enough, Harvard Business School published a case study titled “Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United”, to better analyze and understand his method for sustained success.
Apart from the inherent glorification that lends itself to any description of Sir Alex Ferguson, what I am trying to get at here, is the fact that Manchester United no longer have him at the helm anymore. That, is what they are dealing with.
Van Gaal’s risk-free football
Louis Van Gaal comes across as a tactically astute man. He often cites his philosophy on football, and how he wants to develop players to play with their brains, and not with their feet. He has an impressive CV to back up his claims. He exudes supreme self-confidence and a practiced calm.
He often, in his matter-of-fact tone, calls for better ball possession in his press conferences. However the lack of zip and tempo in the team’s play this season has left many fans frustrated and many pundits exasperated. But is there a bigger picture we’re missing here?
Was it fair in the first place, to continue expecting Manchester United to have the same devastating counter attacking style of wing play as they did under Ferguson? Was it fair to expect them to be challenging for the title again straight away?
For if we attest to, and accept the magnitude of influence and bearing that Sir Alex Ferguson’s presence had on the fortunes of Manchester United on the pitch, we have to equally understand and empathize with their troubles on it now, devoid of it. Truly, this is a club now in transition. Even Ferguson took 3 years to win his first trophy. I am not talking about affording Louis van Gaal time for the sake of it, but rather pointing to the fact that even Ferguson, whose philosophy of football is now tried and tested beyond doubt, took three full years to show results.
Louis van Gaal’s current style of playing with united sees them shift from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond, while focusing on ball possession with minimal risk in passing. Most of the passes go sidewards or backwards. He seems to have set his team up to patiently keep the ball till the opponent breaks rank to try and take it from them. Any attacking penetration which ensues then is a result of a tactical mistake from the opponent – a safety-first approach.
It is this approach that irritates fans, and perplexes pundits. With a star cast filling up their attacking ranks, everyone expect United to be playing much better. Everyone is so used to seeing United play a certain way, that the nuances and delicateness of the current situation of the club often slips the mind. The safety-first approach taken by Louis van Gaal has its advantages, I feel. For if he had set this Manchester United team up in an expansive 4-3-3 with a more dynamic play style, and they had leaked goals in high scoring encounters, the criticism would have been far worse from both fans and the media.
Is it not so often the case of “the grass is greener on the other side”, in football? The fact to consider here is that United’s defence has looked rather shaky and unsure, not because of Louis van Gaal’s approach, but rather despite it. Had van Gaal thrown caution to the wind and tried to set his team up in a more fluid and attacking setup, I shudder to think how much worse off the defence would have been.
Lack of midfield authority
Another problem that faces LVG is the absence of an all-action midfield general in the team. The teams hoping to be serious title contenders, or challenge realistically for any trophy, need to have a player in midfield who can defend, attack, break up play and create chances for his team mates.
In Yaya Toure’s case, suffice to say that he is a goal scorer on top of being all of the above, and it is no surprise that City are direly missing him. Players like Nemanja Matic, Sergio Busquets and Alex Song, in a slightly lesser capacity, are the players who make their teams tick.
In English football today, the most important phases in the game have become the transitions from attack to defence and vice versa. The directness, physicality and pace that Premier League matches are associated with have dictated and demanded this. Games are won and lost in a moment. A team could have 65% ball possession in a game and still end up as the losing team – as LVG has no doubt found out.
That being said, to be successful, every team requires central midfield players who can operate in those transitory phases and win those key battles in midfield. These are the key moments where many matches are won or lost. Great central midfield players do not necessarily need to be the players who pick out the final pass or make the last ditch tackle to stop a goal. They do however need to be the players capable of making the pass that leads to the killer pass.
They need to be marvelous game readers who make the right interceptions in the centre of the park, so that the ball does not even get into a dangerous position from where the opposition could set up a goal. In a nutshell, they need to have enough attacking and defensive nous, in order to control the game for their team from the centre of the pitch. Largely understated, yet highly important.
Manchester United, currently does not have a player like that. Michael Carrick and Daley Blind are deep-lying ball collectors. They sit deep in pockets of space and dictate the flow of the attack with their passing range. They are the type of player who would be a perfect foil for the box to box type of central midfield player that United sorely need. They are players who operate in the space afforded to them by the industry of a box to box midfielder.
Though Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, and lately, Ander Herrera have been tried in that role, it is clear that all of them are much too attack minded to do the job of a box to box midfielder with the tactical appropriateness required. It has become apparent that United need to invest in the upcoming transfer market to obtain exactly this type of player. It is imperative to the “balance of the team” that LVG has so famously sought for ever since arriving in England.
Van Gaal needs time to adapt
Apart from the lack of key personnel, LVG also faces the task of acclimatizing to English conditions himself, apart from facilitating the same for the plethora of talent that have signed on this season. We are talking about as many as 6 players who have been in the first team picture this season. Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Herrera, Di Maria and Falcao. All of these players need to be eased into the team and given time to adapt to the demands of the Premier League, and to the possession based safety-first approach LVG wants them to play.
For many of them, adapting to the English weather is as big a challenge as any. It is of prime importance for a player to feel settled and at home in a city. No player in the history of football, no matter how good a player he was, has ever been a success on the field had he not been comfortable off it.
Manchester United is not the force today, as it once was in English Football. Very realistically speaking, there is a chance it may never again reach those dizzying heights of success that Ferguson made into the norm and not the exception
In keeping with the club’s beliefs, LVG has continued the tradition of investing faith in youth, and players like James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair are being slowly integrated into the first team. However, considering all the different levels of changes that the club is having to undergo at the same time, this is an opportunity for Manchester United to re-invent itself.
Sir Alex Ferguson believed that no one person was bigger than the club. In proving him right, ironically, United have to move on from the Ferguson era. That also implies that we, as fans, have to understand the gravity of the change that is occurring at Old Trafford, and give Manchester United a chance to completely re-acquaint itself with us.