James Lawton: Louis van Gaal may have steadied the ship, but to where has he steered it?
Leicester to test United's crisis of style as Van Gaal's methods fail to locate old cutting edge
Published 27/11/2015 | 02:30
When the candles flickered at Old Trafford for George Best 10 years ago no-one needed telling that it was the start of a mourning period which would last for the lifetimes of all who had seen the best of him.
Ten years? This week it could have been a hundred when Manchester United produced a performance so lame, so devoid of wit and devilry the incandescent Irishman's legacy might have been locked away in some distant vault.
Ten years ago Old Trafford acknowledged the passing of a troubled, often self-destructive life but one redeemed by a capacity to reach out with a sorcerer's touch each time he went on to a football field.
This week, as United laboured to a scoreless and Champions League-imperiling draw with PSV Eindhoven, the night was starless.
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Not only was Best's anniversary a rebuke, it was also another reason to make a searching inquiry into the current regime's understanding of the meaning of the club it serves.
Louis van Gaal, a football man of formidable credentials, may have steadied the ship but to where has he steered it?
To some bracing seaway filled with the promise of adventure and pillage? No, on Wednesday a tide of booing said that he had taken United slap bang into the middle of the doldrums.
When he withdrew the fine but visibly slowing warhorse Bastian Schweinsteiger and the self-indulgent Memphis Depay, their replacements were Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young.
It was not so much an initiative as a glum signal of resignation. United, at this point of their transition from the buccaneering days of Alex Ferguson, simply lack the means of sure-fire inspiration.
Wayne Rooney continues to display moments of technical mastery - some of his sweeping passes would have been happily claimed by the great Bobby Charlton - but a vital cutting edge is almost wholly absent
Anthony Martial, the French teenager who provoked so many raised eyebrows when he arrived with a vast price tag hanging from his neck, continues to display flashes of the most superior powers of cool penetration.
But for now, and never more than so than against Eindhoven, he is a jewel obscured by a second-rate setting.
For Van Gaal, it seems that, for all his vast experience and impressive record, he is not so much struggling in his central challenge as failing to identify it.
This, of course, is to grasp something that was implicit in everything Ferguson did when he arrived after years of success in the far north of Aberdeen.
Ferguson understood that Manchester United were less a football club and more a state of mind. He had to win - and he managed to start doing so only in the nick of time - but first he had to show that he understood that he had a deeper-running imperative.
It was to re-assure Manchester United that they were still, well, Manchester United; that they harboured not only the highest ambition but the most beguiling of dreams.
If Ferguson couldn't give United Best, Law and Charlton, he could supply Giggs and Cantona, Keane and Beckham. It wasn't quite the same thing, not at all, but there was skill and spectacle and a ferocious determination to regain the game's highest ground.
Van Gaal's contribution to the great tradition has been a passingly efficient stab at the functional. It hasn't lifted hearts but it has prevented the roof falling in.
This week, though, even that modest ambition was thrown into jeopardy by the failure to score against the modestly equipped Dutch team.
United did glean a few chances - squandered most notably by Jesse Lingaard - but none of them came from the kind of creative, rhythmic force which for so long was United's trademark. If United were painters, they would have been doing it by numbers.
Such a crisis of style and purpose could hardly be carried to a more dangerous place of exposure than Leicester City tomorrow evening.
Leicester City, Premier League leaders, is maybe a temporary illusion, but before it passes Van Gaal has something, even at this late hour, to learn from it. It is in the means by which Claudio Ranieri has brought such a late but vivid flowering of his long and frequently embattled career.
The 64-year-old Italian had never been harder against the ropes than last year when his stewardship of Greece brought some killing defeats, most disastrously to the Faroe Islands.
But now the former Tinkerman of Chelsea rejoices over a regained ability to inspire his players.
Ten years ago he presided over Gabriel Batistuta's run of scoring in 11 consecutive games for Fiorentina. Now Ranieri nurses the sensation of the season, Jamie Vardy, towards the equalling of Batistuta's feat in tomorrow's game.
Vardy will also be helped by the memory of his first Premier League impact against United just over a year ago when he scored one and helped create three others in a 5-3 win over the United supposedly stiffened by the arrival of Van Gaal.
Van Gaal may also be disconcerted by the memory of an earlier surge of Ranieri success. It came in La Liga in 1999 when Van Gaal's Barcelona were beaten three times by Ranieri's Valencia.
Back home in Italy, Ranieri is being likened to a second Julius Caesar conquering the misty island of Britain.
"Yes," he says, "they are writing nice stories about me but really in one way I feel I'm returning home. And I'm enjoying every minute of it.
"I seem to be re-living my good times at Cagliari, Fiorentina and Valencia.
"In Leicester we are working on a project. The club have asked me to build foundations for the future. And I like to think I'm showing I'm not 'boiled' after those defeats with Greece. It appears to me that the situation did not improve there after my departure.
"But then I do not think it will be easy against United. They are a giant of world football and Louis van Gaal is one of the best coaches around."
Such, anyway, is the enduring reputation of the team and the coach who seemed to be stricken with something close to paralysis in one of their most important games of the season. Ranieri nods his deference but there is another reality he will no doubt seek to further establish tomorrow.
It is that Manchester United are in desperate need of a little of their old identity. This week the candles lit for George Best on a cold, wet night 10 years ago, still illuminated the extent of his club's plight.