Defeat to Bournemouth at the weekend put the cap on a miserable week for Louis van Gaal.
Though he’s not the one most people feel sorry for. Strangely enough, it’s the Manchester United fans we feel sorry for. Odd, isn’t it? There are many football fans around the country whose football allegiances stretch only as far as whoever is playing Manchester United on a given day.
Now that they’re so boring to watch, they don’t seem to elicit the same level of hatred. Perhaps those same fans still want to see them beaten – I can’t deny that there’s a certain comedic feeling from United losing to Bournemouth – but lots of those fans do feel a little bit sorry for United fans at least.
Because the one thing you could never reproach United fans for was their desire to be entertained. That goes for the hardcore support of the Stretford end just as much as it goes for the ‘Prawn Sandwich Brigade’, plastic fans who come from far and wide not to support United because of any love of the team or the institution, but to support United because they’re likely to win.
It’s that hardcore support I feel sorry for, though. Because their reaction to Louis van Gaal initially was to give him time to sort the team out. He took almost a year, but brought them to fourth place, and that was deemed a decent start. So credit where it’s due, they gave him a chance early doors.
And about two weeks ago, United were only a couple of points off top spot, still in with a very good chance of progression in the Champions League and yet the fans weren’t happy. That’s not because they’re all of the glory-hunting sort, but because they’re all of the entertainment-junky sort. And I can get behind that.
Manchester United are boring. But they’re boring in a way that a thick book is boring. Because they’re so slow and considered, because they’re so risk-free, it’s quite easy to see how they’re going about the game. For the average spectator, it’s much easier to see Manchester United’s tactical approach than it is, for example, to see Manchester City’s.
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Because United are always at the same, slow level, it’s easy to see the off-the-ball runs and to see how they try to pull defenders out of position. So after watching United, I always feel like I’ve learned something.
United are boring in the same sort of way that Dostoevsky is boring.
You wade through the boredom, but by the end you feel like you’ve accomplished something, and in a way that’s worthwhile.
Except, if I wanted to do that, I’d go read Crime and Punishment. Only a select few tune into Premier League football to actually learn something….
But that isn’t United’s big problem. You can be boring and win the league, there’s nothing stopping you. Just look at PSG in France.
No, United’s problem is their manager.
I’m not suggesting that van Gaal should go. But when you look at the amount of money that he has spent and the team fielded at the weekend, you have to ask why that’s the case.
Van Gaal has spent over a quarter of a billions pounds as Manchester United manager, and fielded a back four of Varela, McNair, Blind and Borthwick-Jackson. When McNair got injured, a not-fit-enough-to-start Phil Jones took his place. For two minutes. With United trailing 2-1. Surely a manager who has spent that much money would at least have an attacking option to bring on in a situation like that. What does it matter if you only have three defenders? The worst that happens is you lose 3-1 instead of 2-1.
Injuries are clearly a problem, and an unfortunate one. But when you’ve spent so much money over the course of a year, you can’t hide behind that. Bournemouth had the heart ripped out of their squad with injuries, but they only spent about £20m in the summer. United paid that for Bastian Schweinsteiger, a 31-year-old whose leg speed no longer matches his mind speed. Yet Bournemouth still managed to beat Chelsea and Manchester United in successive weeks. Van Gaal has no excuses on that front.
What is van Gaal’s great strength is also his great weakness: his ego. He’s a confident guy, and his record speaks for itself – so he deserves to be confident. But his ego tells him that he has to bring young players through. At Barcelona, he gave chances to Xavi, Iniesta and Victor Valdes, among others. At Ajax, his young team of Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Edwin van der Sar, amongst other youngsters, won the Champions League in 1995 and lost on penalties in the final of 1996.
His ego is what brings him to the top, but it’s his ego that has left Manchester United lacking squad depth. United’s defence has been their strength all season, yet over the last two games they simply haven’t been good enough at the back: Wolfsburg cut them open too easily, and Bournemouth spurned at least two clear cut opportunities on top of the two goals they scored. And that’s because they’re relying on players who aren’t yet ready.
You don’t simply throw all of your youngsters in at once. Look at Van Gaal’s 1995 Ajax team. Even if they did have youngsters at the back, like Michael Reiziger and Winston Bogarde, they still had old heads in Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard to hold it together.
But when you’re trusting teenagers at the back, it’s only natural to favour a risk-free policy when you’re in attack. If you don’t have confidence in your defenders, then you won’t want to lose the ball. If you’re confident in their ability, then you won’t worry about that before you play that risky pass.
Louis van Gaal thinks he can win everything with kids. He believes in his coaching ability to much that he’s convinced that he can spot the youngsters who can make it and mould them into a winning team. He’s done it in the past, but this one looks like it’s a bridge too far.
The style of play isn’t what’s killing United this season, it’s just a consequence of a bigger problem: Van Gaal’s stubborn faith in his ability to turn teenagers into world beaters is why United aren’t top of the table and part of the last 16 draw in the Champions League. And that’s the reason for the boring football, too.