Sunday 22 April 2018

Dion Fanning: Lone striker role one step from ultimate sacrifice

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal

Dion Fanning

When Holland beat Chile at last summer's World Cup to top their group, Arjen Robben was asked to explain how Louis van Gaal did it. "Maybe Louis does have a golden dick," Robben said.

Kyle Walker managed to highlight Wayne Rooney's lack of sharpness at the expense of a goal for Manchester United last weekend and some people did think of Van Gaal's luck, although maybe they didn't spend too much time thinking about his golden dick.

Playing badly and winning is often advanced as the sign of a good team, as if mediocre teams never won playing poorly. Certainly it is hard to know what Manchester United are right now, except a team that has won two league games.

Perhaps Van Gaal's good fortune was simply to play Spurs on the opening day, a side that came to represent everything Alex Ferguson's Manchester United didn't stand for during his time at the club.

When Sunderland played Tottenham on the opening day of their return to the Premier League in 2007, Roy Keane told his players that if it was scoreless after 80 minutes, Tottenham would be thinking of getting back to London. The game was scoreless after 80 minutes and Michael Chopra got the winner in injury time for Sunderland.

For Van Gaal, the only question that matters is what his Manchester United will come to represent. It is still possible to believe that Manchester United's pursuit of the world's top players undermines all that the club should stand for while simultaneously believing that it is the only prudent course open to them.

Manchester United came to believe a lot of things about themselves during Ferguson's time but the nine months under David Moyes might have revealed some essential and less sentimental truths.

It turned out that United were as reluctant to put up with failure as anyone else. They had given Ferguson time back in 1990 but maybe they had recognised a force of nature, something profound and unusual that made them feel that they could be patient or, at least, less impatient.

The pressure is on Wayne Rooney to deliver for Manchester United on Friday at Villa Park
The pressure is on Wayne Rooney to deliver for Manchester United on Friday at Villa Park

If Van Gaal has been influenced by any history at Manchester United, it may be that David Moyes' season has had more bearing on his approach than the Ferguson era. He is an impatient man anyway. In a piece for ESPN last week, Miguel Delaney detailed how this manifests itself in United's pursuit of players which includes moving on if there is any hesitation from the player or his representatives.

They are also talking about their 'striker issue' at United and if they considered it an issue before Friday night, it's hard to know how to describe it this weekend.

Rooney had looked as if he was taken by surprise when Ashley Young's cross ended up at his feet last weekend but at Villa Park, he gave a complete performance in incompleteness. There were no shots on target for the second game in a row, no shots off target and a series of misplaced passes which underlined how badly things are going.

He managed to create two chances at least according to Opta but even allowing for the tactical rigidity of a Van Gaal side, Rooney is not how you would imagine the lone forward in a Van Gaal side to be.

Rooney will provide an interesting test for Van Gaal. In some ways, Rooney is the kind of player he has always liked, a player willing to sacrifice individualism so that the team can have a coherent tactical shape. "I can't stand the big-name players who only excel when the TV broadcasters are around or when the sun shines." Van Gaal said once.

Rooney has always been considered to be the antithesis of that kind of player but over the first two matches, he has taken it to a new level. He isn't turning it on for the cameras and he isn't turning it on when it's sunny or when it rains. Or any time at all.

The unfortunate thing for United is that the centre-forward who did look like the ideal striker for Van Gaal's Manchester United only looked like that ideal forward for one season and that was Alex Ferguson's last at the club.

Robin van Persie was 29 in 2012 when his goals helped United to the title. Van Persie left for Fenerbahce this summer talking about recapturing his childhood love for the game, sounding like the man who had said "the little boy inside" had guided him towards Manchester United.

Maybe there was something touching in this or maybe some would view it as part of the problem. Van Persie was training on his own by the end of last season as he was exiled by Van Gaal. Even for someone seemingly on an endless search for the comforting joys of his youth, Van Persie can't have enjoyed being treated like a child.

The idea of Rooney searching for the boy within would seem a little ridiculous. He was always a man-child, a prodigious talent whose gifts involved the marrying of his ability with a physical power unexpected in a teenager. He was, in Moyes' overused phrase, "a street footballer", which implied a certain nous and maybe a different kind of innocence.

Rooney will turn 30 in October and there may well be plenty of retrospective articles looking at his career and, with some justification, declaring it a success. By then, he may have overtaken Bobby Charlton and become England's record goalscorer but it is an achievement which says as much about modern international football as it does about Rooney.

Those gifts have faded and right now it is hard to see him having as big an impact on United this season as Van Persie did at more or less the same age three years ago.

More importantly, United seem unprepared for this, almost as if their determination to attempt to sign every high-profile footballer in Europe was masking the absence of a strategy.

Van Gaal, of course, has his philosophy and he has his good luck. They have been fortunate in their opening games but they have done better than last season, something Van Gaal wasn't prepared to talk up on Friday night.

Rooney may offer something else. If he continues to play as badly as he has done in the first two games, Van Gaal may be able to point to him as evidence that it is the team that matters, not one man. In the past, Rooney often sacrificed himself for the team. Now he may provide a final progressive example of how a team that is united can even absorb the decline of a once great talent.

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