Van Gaal needs time to restore lost attacking verve to Old Trafford
United manager wary of over-praising Martial
Manchester United arrive at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon after an unexpected week at the top of the Premier League. Largely thanks to the self-destructive inconsistency of those who finished ahead of them last season, Louis van Gaal's team found themselves at the summit despite being not much more than efficient.
Careful, stolid, often pedestrian, few would suggest that pulses are being stirred when his team are playing; the edge of the seat is rarely visited territory during their matches and compared to previous sides from the glorious annals of United history this is not one whose play lingers long in the memory. Not that the manager is concerned about the uninspiring image his team are presenting.
"No, it doesn't bother me," Van Gaal said. "Because I think we are in transition. I have asked for three years. We communicated that when I presented myself."
Transition may not be the most eye-catching benefit from a spending spree currently in excess of £250m, but Van Gaal is convinced that things are getting better all the time. "Everybody sees the progression we have developed already," he said. "At all of my clubs, I have had bad matches and fantastic matches, so it's a part of football."
While the wider public has yet to be gripped, there is no denying progress has been made. Under Van Gaal's tutelage, Chris Smalling, for instance, is developing into one of the most consistent centre-backs in the division.
This is, in part, thanks to those now playing in front of him. He has flourished behind Morgan Schneiderlin, who offers a defensive shield from midfield of a kind absent in United colours since Owen Hargreaves succumbed to long-term injury. You only need to look at the decline in effectiveness of Dejan Lovren to recognise the influence of Schneiderlin; since the defender has moved to Liverpool he has looked far less comfortable than he did when playing behind the Frenchman at Southampton.
But while shrewd defence is a vital component of any title-winning side, and Van Gaal's obsession with ball retention may ultimately help to secure points, it is swift, decisive counter-attack that United followers most crave. What they want is a return to the sort of momentum absent since Cristiano Ronaldo.
True, the arrival of 19-year-old Antony Martial has encouraged thoughts that he might lead them into a new era of pace and attacking intent. Though Van Gaal cautioned against the rapidly rising expectation surrounding the forward. "You cannot judge a player after four or five matches," he said. "You have to wait and see this season if he can give this contribution in every match. It is not for many players of that age to give such a high level of effectiveness.
"Now he has a high average in assists and goals. But to do it all season long is very difficult. When he does that, I shall say: 'Yes, it's fantastic'."
Van Gaal suggested that, whatever Martial's input, the return of the sort of verve and zest cherished by supporters had been temporarily stalled by serious injury to one of his quickest players. "We lost Luke Shaw, and that is a big blow. I said that this season shall be the season of Luke Shaw. His was the only position which we don't have a double option. So the circumstances are not so good. I have to look for solutions. Four people have played in that position after Shaw. And we have won every game, but in my opinion, we don't have a good substitute for Luke Shaw with the same qualities."
Without Shaw, United's pedestrian style will face its most significant challenge of the season in the shape of an Arsenal side full of pace and counter-attacking potential. A side, moreover, whose style Van Gaal much admires. "It depends on a lot of aspects in football, but most of all it depends on the individual quality of the players," Van Gaal said when asked how he might inject some oomph into his team's play. "And I think Arsenal have a lot of players who can play that way. That's why I think Arsenal are one of the best teams - maybe the best team - in the league. Nevertheless, until now, they haven't won so much."
Not least against United. The Gunners' recent record against their visitors is wretched: they have beaten them just twice in 17 meetings since 2008, with United unbeaten in the last eight league matches between the clubs. Though Van Gaal was not anxious to speculate as to why Arsenal had failed to turn the pace and intricacy he so admires into victory. "I don't know. You'll have to ask Arsene Wenger. Not me."
As for United's own urgent need for speed, Van Gaal insisted fans need not worry: it was coming. The club's romantic heritage of attacking football was safe in his hands. "When you see my career, it is not only the result that counts. The way you play is also very important," he suggested.
The confidence of United's followers in their manager's certainty will be given stringent examination this afternoon. Their performance at the Emirates will give the most telling hint yet this season as to how far the Van Gaal transition has advanced.
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