The ‘Manchester United Way’, consigned to history by pessimists, is really the only way.
Both men who have run this team since Alex Ferguson retired have tried to rewrite its software – and Louis van Gaal can now see how dangerous it is to mess with great traditions.
If the pressure is off Van Gaal for now it is because United met the minimum requirement of Old Trafford regulars, and their followers around the world. No, they did not magic-up another striker to help Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
No, they were not suddenly dazzling, or even precise in front of goal. The difference (painfully simple, though it sounds) is that they passed the ball forward, attacked, treated the opposition as an enemy to be run through rather than a block to be moved around with sideways and backwards passing.
David Moyes thought he could make United more direct, more like Everton. Van Gaal appeared to think he could turn them into a version of Ajax, or Holland. But there is no such thing as a loved United side without pizzazz. Van Gaal’s unwillingness to sign up to that ancient charter has put his job in jeopardy. Plenty of other things have pushed him to the edge, such as poor recruitment, but the biggest single cause of disaffection has been his dismissal of the principles laid down by Ferguson.
Those were: never be passive, never stop advancing, never give up. There were times when even the best United sides were forced to “defend for their lives”, to use Ferguson’s phrase, but you had to be Barcelona or Bayern Munich to trap them in their own half, and even then they would snarl at you and try to fight their way out.
Van Gaal, though, packed the cavalry horn away and imposed a slow, academic style of play ill-suited not only to United but the Premier League.All this changed – a bit – in this 0-0 draw with a team in much bigger trouble. Seldom has so much ridden on a battle between sides who now stand sixth (United) and 14th (Chelsea) in the Premier League table.
There was clearly no strong urge here to sack Van Gaal. But a defeat to Chelsea, which would have been their fifth in a row in all competitions, would have rendered his position untenable, certainly in the eyes of supporters. It would have pointed, too, to mass disengagement by the United players, who had only to look across to the blue half of the pitch to remind themselves how easy it is to get rid of an annoying boss.
One more limp display by Wayne Rooney and co would have placed Van Gaal in the Mourinho cell for condemned men. Instead, United came out blazing. Passes were fired forward from deep midfield instead of sideways.
Wide players darted past their markers. The feet moved quicker; the red shirts conveyed urgency and intent instead of the usual dubious urge to obey the tactical ‘philosophy’ of the manager.
In the first 15 minutes Juan Mata struck the crossbar and Martial smashed a shot against a Chelsea post. Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose mind moves faster than his legs these days, threw in a stepover and Ashley Young made a classic saving tackle on the edge of United’s box. Hallelujah: the Old Trafford crowd were enjoying themselves for once.
Reports of United’s ‘dominance’ are over-stated. After the interval David de Gea was forced into a brilliant double save from Pedro and Cesar Azpilicueta, and Nemanja Matic almost put his shot in the river when through one-on-one with United’s keeper. Overall though United were true to the imperative that visitors to this stadium must expect a torrid time. To see United dance harmlessly across opposing teams has been painful. The audience can only hope they witnessed the start of a change that will see their heroes impale those who dare to invade this turf.
A United fan, maybe 14 years old, raised his new red and black scarf to taunt Chelsea’s supporters. But this was no ordinary neck warmer. Stitched into the fabric of the boy’s Christmas purchase was the name: “Jose Mourinho”.
If you need an image of how strange the last match of 2015 was for Van Gaal and the 20-time champions of England, it was surely the trade in mufflers calling for the United board to appoint the man Chelsea have just sacked for a crime many accuse Van Gaal of also committing: that of alienating the players, of losing the dressing room.
The point of no return is not just a nautical concept these days. In football it is the moment when: 1, Players; or 2, Supporters have given up on a manager; when ‘if’ turns to ‘when,’ and each game becomes an exercise in delaying the inevitable. The young United fan with the pro-Mourinho scarf voted with his Christmas money. But the United players, it should be said, voted with their feet, returning to something like the ‘Manchester United way,’ with passes that travelled forward instead of across the pitch.
“I have seen a good performance. We were the dominant team. We have attacked,” said Van Gaal in his military manner. And in the frenetic world of modern football management, a 0-0 draw can indeed feel like redemption.
But Van Gaal’s truculent mood in the post-match press conference was another example of him over-playing his hand. Suggesting he might resign, after the Stoke defeat, was another.
“When the players can give a performance like this, there is no reason to resign,” he told BT Sport. Equally, when the players can “give a performance like this”, it tends to suggest that slow, possession-based play was the wrong tree to bark up. Quick, incisive possession-based play is United’s traditional repertoire.
To complete the Mourinho circle, Chelsea’s followers also sang his name, before kick-off, at any rate, after apparently ‘moving on’ during the Boxing Day game against Watford, when they suspended their anger. Confusion clouds the picture for both these clubs. Chelsea are in a state of drift.
United were seized by panic. Van Gaal bought himself a little wriggle room by reaching for something that was always there: a distinguished past. For his sake, it had better not be a one-off.