‘Attack, attack, attack,’ and ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ have been heard ringing around Old Trafford this season.
Manchester United fans seem to harp back to a time when football was simpler – at least, for them. A time when football was so simple that the Premier League was a competition between 20 teams, over 38 games, and where in the end, United would win.
But there’s a difference between the game in the 90s and early 2000s and the game today. It doesn’t make it better or worse, of course, just different. In an age of gegenpressing and counter-attacking, football has become a different game. And one in which the ideas of ‘attack’ and ‘defence’ have changed. Indeed, the difference has blurred.
[ffc-gal cat=”manchester-united” no=”5″]
When you look at Manchester United this season, you can see that clearly. Van Gaal’s team have failed to score so often, they’ve failed to create so often, and they’ve failed to convince so often.
His side are usually bereft of ideas despite the money spent on the team.
Whilst many are perhaps sympathetic of the situation, the fans are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of flair seen from their side.
In fact, it may have hit peak frustration and moved into a pacified acceptance already. The sight of a United side patiently passing in a semi-circle around an organised back four has become so commonplace that fans are no longer impatient, it just is what it is.
But the modern game is in such a strange shape. The evolution of football has forced the mindset to change. When football started it was a simple game, about the joy of scoring goals and the glory of winning, but somewhere along the line those two things came into conflict.
Nowadays, everyone knows that a good defence – keeping the opposition from scoring – is a necessary basis for winning games. The defence is the worry for most managers, because you might be able to score three goals, but if you concede four then the ability to score doesn’t matter so much.
And it looks like the defence is the worry for Louis van Gaal, too. Despite United’s defence being one of the best in the league, he seems worried about it. It looks like United’s good defensive record is a false one. Van Gaal’s team are risk averse because they’re worried about what losing the ball will mean. If the attackers push forward and don’t keep hold of the ball, they risk being hit on the counter, and if they’re hit on the counter, maybe the defence is weaker than it looks. Last season’s early-season frailties have perhaps hit home.
But the solution last season seemed a better one. Playing Michael Carrick in order to have a creative player slot into the defence just gave United a better balance. This season, Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin haven’t been able to fill that void. Both have played, but neither has the ability to sit in between centre backs while United attack.
This season, van Gaal seems to be less confident in his defence’s ability without that added solidity of another player to stop counter attacks. And now that he doesn’t have that, United are much more risk-averse. A player who can link defence and attack so easily is exactly what van Gaal needs, but Carrick’s injury seems to have left him with no recourse.
Modern football has become so clearly about the counter attack. Teams live on it, but that only means that teams try to learn how to counter the counter. Fewer goals are scored on the counter attack now than were scored ten-plus years ago as teams have also had to learn how to deal with it. Van Gaal’s only way of dealing with it without Michael Carrick seems to be to take no risks whatsoever.
Van Gaal’s team, however, is perfect for those teams who try to hit them on the counter. No matter how risk-averse United are, they are always at the mercy of a misplaced pass, a slip or some other mistake. And all it takes is one counter attack to change everything.
Van Gaal should be focusing on how to defend the counter rather than trying to avoid them happening at all. Football has changed to revolve around the counter. Some teams, like Leicester, draw you on to them in order to attack you.
No matter how deep they sit, you know they’re planning their next attack and always thinking forwards. United, on the other hand, are so risk-averse that even when they have all of that possession and chances to attack the opposition, they’re always thinking about their defence. No matter how much United might be in an attacking position, you always know they’re planning their defence. That’s the difference.
For modern football, defending has become a way of attacking. For van Gaal, attacking is a way of defending. He may be a professor of football, but he seems stuck in the past in this regard. His inability to accept counter attacks as a game-changer in football has led to United’s dull displays, the game has been turned on its head, and van Gaal has failed to react.