The 2-1 defeat at Swansea on Saturday was arguably Manchester United’s best away performance of the season. The fact that total domination of possession and territory was undermined by a lack of cutting edge and desperately poor defending rather tells its own story.
Three away wins all season, the same number as Aston Villa, and it is hard to argue that United deserved to end up victorious in more than one of those. It is a run of form and a season’s record which now looks likely to deny the club a return to the Champions League next campaign, unless a remarkable transformation occurs and a reasonable points tally is taken from games at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, St. James’ Park and Goodison Park.
Whilst results at home have been relatively good, wins will be required over the likes of Tottenham, City and Arsenal. If a top four finish is to be achieved, van Gaal’s side will have to do it the hard way. The run of games which ends with Sunderland at home next time out was supposed to allow United to build a points cushion over its rivals to take in to a forbidding looking March and April. Instead, the margin for error is tiny.
For the first time Louis van Gaal is under significant pressure and scrutiny, with a vocal minority of fans feeling that the abject football and mediocre results should result in the Dutchman leaving his post as soon as possible. They feel that having spent £150m in the summer on new players in the summer this United team should be doing far, far better.
And they’re right, it should. The club and the squad is a mess. David de Gea, by far the outstanding player at the club for a second consecutive year, looks increasingly likely to refuse to sign a new deal and jump ship for Real Madrid at the first available opportunity. And who could blame him? The defence remains an absolute farce, a hotch-potch of out of position wide-men and utterly inadequate centre-backs. Luke Shaw, signed at great expense last summer, looks promising but a work in progress and Marcos Rojo, committed but limited and slightly erratic, is the best performing defender at the club. Rafael, once so joyous to watch at right-back, is persona non grata. It is hard to remember the last time United competently defended a set-piece.
In midfield, Daley Blind is showing some useful qualities without suggesting that he can be a world-class holding player, whilst the continuing selection of Marouane Fellaini anywhere from no.10 to right midfielder is baffling. His preferred position is two rows behind Van Gaal and his coaching staff, ready to come on as a target man in a desperate bid to save an otherwise lost match.
With Michael Carrick often injured, the one plus is Ander Herrera, a bright, positive creative midfielder with an eye for a pass and a goal. Van Gaal should be building a side around him. Instead he has spent most of the season choosing Wayne Rooney in midfield instead. It is utterly perplexing. Further forward there is unquestionable talent in the likes of Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and record signing Angel Di Maria, but the manager appears to be unable to get the best out of any of them. All three suit a 4-3-3 system, the one set-up which Van Gaal is unwilling to even experiment with. There are murmurs that Di Maria, whose form has been better than many are suggesting, may wish to leave in the summer and complete the transfer to PSG which fell foul of FFP in August.
The malaise at the club is perhaps best illustrated by the strikers. In Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie United have talent which is being paid more than £500,000 per week. They look a shadow of their former selves, stationary, slow, technically inadequate, ineffective and profligate. Their decline from the rampaging, deadly forwards that they used to be is staggering. Ideally both will leave in the summer, although quite who would take on Van Persie’s huge wages is anyone’s guess.
It seems absolutely incredible to be saying that after an outlay of £150m this team has no spine and is as many as six players short of a title-winning side. It needs a right-back, two centre-backs, a midfielder, at least one pacey winger and a striker. Given that the majority of United’s business last summer was funded by credit, it is difficult to see the club agreeing to another net spend of that magnitude, particularly without Champions League football for the second year running.
Moyes was a disaster, Van Gaal has been a disappointment. For the Dutchman things can get better, for the Scot they could only have got worse.
Of course, the ills of the squad are not all the fault of the incumbent manager. His predecessors failed to address glaring issues, either through wilful blindness, lack of funds or sheer incompetence at all levels of the club. It is astonishing, however, that the weaknesses of the defensive players in the squad were not identified and rectified. It is this omission which will most likely cost United a place at Europe’s top table next season. Perhaps you could argue that responsibility for this oversight rests equally with Van Gaal and Ed Woodward.
The same cannot be said for the team’s tactical setup and on-field performances. Seven months into the season the manager appears to have no more idea what his favoured formation or line-ups are than he did in August. His famous ‘philosophy’ seems to amount to little more than sterile possession and team rigidity. Van Gaal himself has said that he wishes to remove player instinct from the pitch. He has certainly achieved that. The result has been tedious, ineffective football.
This United team are painful to watch and utterly joyless. Even when a goal is scored it feels like a trial, desperately hard work. Just watching them trying to score is hard work. Team selections continue to baffle, some players banished for the slightest dip in form whilst others retain their place in the side regardless of their performance levels. Substitutions are often very strange indeed and fans have become frustrated by the Dutchman’s refusal to leave his bench during games. Van Gaal is, at times, utterly infuriating.
And so it is easy to see why many are calling for his head. I empathise entirely, but sacking him now would be an exercise in futility. He joined, in July, a club in an almighty mess. At boardroom level a lack of a coherent strategy and sloppy execution contributed to the lop-sided summer transfer business. Van Gaal has identified many of the weakest members of the squad and swiftly moved them on. United fans will breathe a sigh of relief at not having to ever see the likes of Cleverley, Fletcher and Anderson in the shirt again. There are many more who need to follow the same path, something which the manager will no doubt undertake in the summer.
Whilst performances on the pitch have not come close to matching reasonable expectations, we have not plumbed the depths of the Moyes era just yet. Think back to the home defeats to Liverpool, Spurs, Newcastle, City, Everton and West Brom, the surrenders at the Etihad, in Greece and at Goodison Park. That was a team which often threw in the towel, made up of squabbling players who had little belief in their manager. Van Gaal, however, appears to have re-engaged the collective and has them all onside. Confidence may be low and performances laboured, but this looks to be a united bunch.
What sets this regime apart from the last at a similar stage last season is that van Gaal’s team remain within sight of their objectives. Whereas Moyes’ side had lost all hope of qualifying for the Champions League by February, this year’s squad still have it in their own hands. This may be more a reflection on the relative weakness of the league this year, but the United money-men won’t care and nor will the players who would join next summer knowing that they will be playing in the continent’s best club competition. The team have also continued to progress in the FA Cup and success this year is far from beyond them.
Just as importantly, van Gaal has his record of achievement to fall back on, something which Moyes never had. As he looked wide-eyed and terrified during defeatist interviews, it was clear that the Scot was way out of his depth. Van Gaal will have no such crisis of confidence and has the experience of coaching and winning in multiple leagues. Reputation does not excuse mistakes made in the here and now, but it inspires some confidence that the skills are there to correct them.
Manchester United are a mess right now, from top to bottom but sacking van Gaal will not solve issues at boardroom level or improve performances in the short-term on the pitch. Most likely he would be replaced this season by Ryan Giggs in a caretaker role and, as we saw last year, he is far from ready to fill those shoes. With no highly rated coaches available until the summer the club would simply drift aimlessly again. Perhaps at the season’s end the issue will need to be revisited, especially if results decline further and United slip two or three places but, after investing £150m in his vision, it is unlikely that United would abandon the project and start again after twelve months.
Moyes was a disaster, Van Gaal has been a disappointment. For the Dutchman things can get better, for the Scot they could only have got worse. Constructive criticism is healthy and fans will continue to find fault in Van Gaal’s choices. He is making mistakes and they should not be ignored. But redemption is within him in a way that it never was in his predecessor. He deserves at least until the summer, perhaps longer, to see if he can achieve it.