More pain as United's philosophy hits a wall
Bournemouth defeat exposes lack of ideas and leadership in Van Gaal's £250m vanity project
Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30
The Great Wall of China remains one of the most breathtaking architectural accomplishments in history.
It was a colossal project, constructed at almost inconceivable expense: a 5,500-mile monument to autocratic leadership, cultural vanity and diplomatic hauteur.
In fact, there was not one wall but several, built in pieces over centuries. Some eroded easily, disappearing within a few decades. Large sections were completely unmanned.
Invading armies could simply go over it, around it or - if you had means of persuading the low-paid gatekeepers - straight through it.
So the more intriguing question, really, is this: for all the hubris, what was the Great Wall actually for?
You may have spotted where we are heading here.
Manchester United's £250m project under Louis van Gaal has certainly been an awe-inspiring feat of engineering, reversing the parsimony and neglect of the mid-Glazer years in the space of barely a season.
But the wider issue remains: what does it do, exactly? What is its essential function? What, in short, is the point of 2015-16 Manchester United?
At no point in the Van Gaal era have these questions been more difficult to answer.
Last season, United's purpose was clear: they were a ruthless top-four machine, bludgeoning down the door to the Champions League at any cost.
For much of this season, they looked like bloodless killers: snuffing out opponents through ruthless domination of possession.
But now, after five games without victory, after European elimination, after this meek defeat to Bournemouth, United look bereft: a team without a blueprint, without a basic idea.
It says a good deal about the quality of this season's Premier League that this United are still in with a chance of winning it.
And yet, even though they may rally and recover and perhaps even challenge, the feeling of exceptionalism that has underpinned United sides for a generation - "not arrogant, just better", as the Old Trafford banner put it - has gone, perhaps for good.
"To be honest, I don't think they have that aura any more," said Bournemouth defender Simon Francis. "We knew we could catch them cold. We looked at their team, especially their back four, and knew we could exploit that."
What happens to a winning philosophy when you take away the winning?
Perhaps the Bournemouth game offered us a clue.
Tentative and gauche, United went behind in the second minute via a Junior Stanislas corner - not a header from a corner, an actual corner - and never looked in control thereafter.
Marouane Fellaini clumsily equalised, but Josh King restored Bournemouth's lead after a neat set-piece routine in the second half, and as United pressed for an equaliser their flaws were sorely evident. Juan Mata was a ghost. An inexperienced defence was inexpertly marshalled by Daley Blind.
Once again, United resorted to the familiar tactic of hitting long balls to Fellaini, the only man-made object besides the Great Wall that is visible from space.
United played 59 long passes in total - their most in a league game since a safety-first Manchester derby in October.
They so rarely force defences to turn and run. They can still hurt you, but you will almost certainly see it coming.
Where has United's fear factor gone? "That comes with winning games," said Michael Carrick. "The only thing to do now is stick together, get back to the training ground, work hard and perform next week."
Failure to beat Norwich City at home next Saturday will see the pressure on Van Gaal increase significantly, although Gary Neville yesterday ruled himself out as a possible replacement.
"I don't see myself managing Manchester United at all," said new Valencia boss Neville, who has been critical of Van Gaal's tactics in the past.
If United are looking for a coherent plan, they could do worse than study Bournemouth. They, too, have suffered gravely from injuries this season, but by trusting their methods and redoubling their efforts are finally reaping the rewards, with consecutive wins over Chelsea and now United.
It has been a strange and emotional week at Bournemouth.
In between those two wins, midfielder Harry Arter and his partner lost their child at birth - a tragedy that has brought the entire squad together.
"The support of everyone at the club is why I wanted to play," Arter said. "While people grieve in their own way, I found it easier to come in and try to do everyone proud."
Remarkably, Arter was one of the best players on the pitch on Saturday.
Six years to the day after they lost 5-0 to Morecambe in League Two, Bournemouth are now bloodying the noses of the very finest.
It is a testament to their ambition, their belief, and the philosophy of manager Eddie Howe.United's philosophy, meanwhile, has hit a wall.