Monday 23 April 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Man United entitled to expect a little entertainment from Van Gaal

Louis van Gaal and Manchester United endured a frustrating afternoon in their goalless draw against Newcastle
Louis van Gaal and Manchester United endured a frustrating afternoon in their goalless draw against Newcastle
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's not something that he would aim for or that would bother him too much but Louis van Gaal has already increased one thing for Manchester United this season compared to the whole of last season.

As the clock ticked past 11.30 on Saturday night, Match of the Day viewers had to wait until the final game of the programme to see how United had fared at Old Trafford - the third time this season out of three games that, traditionally, one of the league's most exciting teams have been on the bottom rung of the running order.

In mitigation, the game against Aston Villa came on a Friday night while both the home games against Newcastle and the opener against Tottenham kicked off at 12.45pm. Away from the mitigation, all three were stunningly dull.

Match of the Day's running order attracts a peculiar fascination and irritation from many of the Premier League's smaller clubs with Stoke City underlining the point in the final game of last season - a 6-1 thumping of Liverpool - with a chorus of "Still going to be last on Match of the Day".

Last season, Swansea and Sunderland were the final game a total of 10 times each as producers, presumably, weigh up the relevance of the game to the league table, its quality, and how their support base is for viewing purposes.

Last season, United were last up only once meaning this season's tally has already comfortably surpassed it. Although they were early Saturday kick-offs, United's games against fellow big-hitters Tottenham and Newcastle were deemed less interesting than Norwich City v Stoke City on Saturday and Bournemouth v Aston Villa in the first week.

Had Alex Ferguson still been in charge he would probably have used it as conspiratorial motivation for his team, given the fraught relationship he had with the BBC. Or, more likely, he would have been mortified that a team and club famed for their attacking style of play were helping people take the first step towards sleep on a Saturday night.

After snidely and sarcastically praising the linesman for his borderline decision to disallow Wayne Rooney's goal - "If you see that and you are sure, you are the greatest linesman in the world"- Van Gaal insisted that United's performance had been "fantastic" against Newcastle.

Maybe it's Van Gaal's heightened level of understanding of the game but his description of United's performance brought to mind the Jorge Valdano line: "Put a s*** hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it's a work of art. It's not: it's s*** hanging from a stick."

Seven points from nine available isn't something to be dismissed but those who argue that results are all that matters after a poor performance are only on safe ground for as long as the team escapes with a victory. And, eventually, poor performances will catch up with a team.


When asked about Wayne Rooney's recent form, Van Gaal, as is his default, attempted to bounce the question back at the reporter by pointing out that, for most of last season, he was being criticised for not playing Rooney up front and, now that he is doing that, he is being criticised again.

On the surface it's a fair response but it's a bizarre situation that last year Rooney found himself lower in the pecking order than players who were deemed surplus to requirements at the end of the season, while this year he is expected to be United's main goal threat. Meanwhile, Javier Hernandez, unwanted last season, now finds himself as United's second-choice striker.

Van Gaal consistently carries the air of a man so sure of himself that if he turned up for a board meeting one hour early, he'd be convinced everyone else had got the wrong time and it's this self-assurance that allows him to seem perplexed at why he is being asked about United's entertainment value, even after spending nearly a quarter of a billion pounds on players in two seasons.

Van Gaal's footballing philosophy is based around possession but, in much the same way as Arsene Wenger's Arsenal teams became predictable against the best opposition (and United under Ferguson in particular), opponents know what they are going to get these days when they face United.

The mantra of Attack, Attack, Attack has been replaced with Pass, Pass, Pass. And Pass again. They also find themselves with a peculiar mix of players in their squad who are either powerful, quick but technically poor like Marouane Fellaini or Antonio Valencia; or, technically excellent but slow like Michael Carrick, Juan Mata and, increasingly, Rooney.

Having spent a month going through the transfer rumour spectrum of "being linked with", "closing in on" and "set to seal a deal for" Pedro, the club ended up like a man in a nightclub chatting up a woman all night then watching her leave with someone else and pretending they weren't interested anyway.

It was little surprise, then, to see a big name pop up days later with Neymar reportedly interested in a move to United either this summer or the one after before his contract, not coincidentally, runs out a year later.

In many ways, it suits United and Van Gaal to be linked with players like Neymar, Gareth Bale or Thomas Muller because it produces the sort of excitement for what might be coming to distract from what is currently in front of them.

Yesterday, albeit against West Brom, Chelsea new-boy Pedro produced a performance of verve, pace and technical excellence that United have scarcely shown glimpses of in their opening three games. It was the sort of thing that people would enjoy watching ahead of the graveyard slot on Match of the Day.

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