Comment: The problem for Van Gaal is most United disciples loathe his football with a passion
The most excruciatingly ponderous Manchester United team in living memory could yet sit top of the Premier League tomorrow night.
This, in itself, is a galling reflection upon the gulf between perception and reality. Leicester’s joyous gate-crashing of the big boys’ cabal masks a painful truth that the moneyed dynasties of English football have never looked like such faded relics in Europe.
Arsenal, who beat Louis van Gaal’s pitifully one-track United side 3-0 last month, were reduced to rag dolls in a subsequent 5-1 defeat at Bayern Munich, while Barcelona’s 10 goals in four days – against Real Madrid and Roma, no less – help recall a line Bobby Jones once used about the young Jack Nicklaus. “He played a game with which I am not familiar.”
Van Gaal likewise espouses a form of football with which United supporters are not best acquainted. Since the days of Sir Matt Busby they have prized creativity, élan and a buccaneering spirit. Now they watch in mounting incomprehension as a 64-year-old Dutchman, the ‘Iron Tulip’ in every sense, presides over four goalless draws in seven matches and decides that it would be a spiffing idea to play two holding midfielders against Tony Pulis’s West Bromwich Albion.
This week’s tribute at Old Trafford for George Best, which featured thousands of fans turning on their phone flashlights in remembrance of his death 10 years ago, felt like a torch was being shone into the club’s lost soul.
The cover line for next month’s United We Stand fanzine, in circulation on Wednesday night – “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” – spoke volumes. It would not be melodramatic to claim that the 0-0 draw with PSV Eindhoven was, in its blanket turgidity, a betrayal of United’s recent heritage.
A task that was once routine for Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams – sealing progress to the Champions League knockout stage with a game to spare – was flunked with such an anaemic, six-out-of-10 performance that fans showed admirable restraint in not massing outside the Stretford End with pitchforks.
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That most of them restricted themselves to a few mutters revealed much about United’s conundrum. Their problem is that they tend to regard Van Gaal, incorrigibly stubborn old cove though he might be, with affection. They love the fact that he seems connected to them, that he talks enthusiastically of his evenings out at Wings, his favourite Chinese restaurant in Manchester’s Lincoln Square. “I’m going to see Mr Wings tonight!” has become a popular line at his mischievous press conferences.
They love, too, how Van Gaal has tried to restore the essential sense of identification between player and fan. Before he arrived 18 months ago, Wayne Rooney only needed to snap his fingers for a security guard to come and deliver his Bentley Continental to the door after a home game. The manager took one look at this system and decided to wrench Rooney out of his £300,000-a-week bubble, forcing the striker and his team-mates to walk back to their supercars through a tunnel of supporters, signing autographs en route.
Perhaps the gesture that cemented his embrace by the fanbase, though, was the manner in which he marked this year’s anniversary of the Munich air disaster. It is a moving tradition that on February 6 each year, a group of supporters gather beneath the clock at the south-east corner of the stadium – permanently frozen at 3.04pm – to commemorate the 23 who perished at that fateful hour 57 years ago. The attendance of the United manager has never been mandatory, but Van Gaal turned up regardless, laying flowers and joining in the songs in his club suit.
Far more than David Moyes ever did, Van Gaal has mastered the weighty and august duties inherent in being United’s figurehead. Staff at the club confide that he exudes that quintessential Ferguson virtue of knowing what he wants, conveying a swagger and a charisma so conspicuously lacking in his downbeat predecessor Moyes.
Similarly, he appreciates that vital art of treating them with respect. When Moyes was in charge, one employee at the club’s Carrington training ground described the Scotsman and his assistant, Steve Round, as “two of the rudest people I have ever met”. The same accusation could never be levelled at Van Gaal, whose name-checking of unheralded backroom figures is so scrupulous that he often refers to “Mike the chef”, in tribute to Mike Donnelly, the man responsible for first-team meals.
Van Gaal has much, then, in his personal credit column. The problem is that his many qualities are devilishly difficult to square with the fact most United disciples loathe his football with a passion. One supporter, jaded by the dismal fare against PSV, likened the Van Gaal way to “watching an airport baggage carousel go round for 90 minutes”. That one remark, witheringly accurate, hinted at the depths of nostalgia for those occasions under Ferguson when United would eviscerate opponents with an attacking brilliance spearheaded by two strikers and two wingers. It is for this reason that Ander Herrera remains one of the team’s more popular players, if only because the midfielder is prepared to take a gamble or two.
At moments such as these, the views of legends past acquire a fresh resonance and urgency. It bodes ill for Van Gaal that Paul Scholes is, in his cool and phlegmatic way, questioning even the linchpins upon which this team is based, arguing that star signing Anthony Martial “does not look bothered” by his goal drought. This is to say nothing of Roy Keane’s view that Rooney, the captain, is on an “awful” run of form.
Rooney, indeed, is the elephant in the room as the inquest into United’s failings intensifies. Van Gaal has openly conceded that his leader is afforded certain privileges, and only Rooney’s most ardent apologists could say on present evidence that he deserves to be in the starting XI. It is tempting to conclude that one of United’s better performances of late, the 2-1 win at Watford, arose from the fact that he was not playing.
The impression is that Van Gaal keeps him in the starting XI through a typically pragmatic calculation: that if he loses the backing of Rooney, he loses the dressing room. That moment of reckoning could arrive sooner than the manager might imagine. So antithetical are his team’s displays to United ideals that Van Gaal risks exhausting even his plentiful reservoir of goodwill.
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