Depending on perspective, Louis Van Gaal is either a fascinating topic or an excruciatingly dull one.
Manchester United are over-covered. From van Gaal’s first days at Old Trafford, when even his changes in expression were back-page news, there’s been a fascination with his work. In those initial few months, the team’s every movement was faithfully charted - whether any existed or not - and even the neutrals were kept fully abreast of every tactical variation that the Dutchman went through.
That’s the dull part of the topic; surface-deep analysis is excusable given the level of privacy preferred by modern clubs, but the end result is always that the same, glaringly obvious observations are made game-to-game.
United have just moved into a 3-5-2. Now they’ve switched to a 4-2-3-1. Look, Wayne Rooney’s in midfield - what does that mean? etc.
The watching world seems to have oscillated between assessment and reassessment: The side are in the process of getting better or they’re not. They either need a new player or they’ve just signed one who will instantly cure all the existing issues.
The last two days have provided a very good example of just that. Yesterday, United collapsed meekly in on themselves at the Liberty Stadium and lost for the third successive time to Garry Monk’s Swansea City. Today, they have agreed an eye-wateringly large fee with Monaco for the transfer of Anthony Martial, a teenage forward with fifteen professional goals on his CV.
The game was interesting because of what it wasn’t. For all the talk of organisation and philosophy, Manchester United are really no better than they were twelve months ago. They have made incremental improvements in different positions and their recent sequence of results may imply that some kind of progress has been made, but really - in relative terms and with the club’s exorbitant transfer spending factored into the judgement - forward movement has been very minimal.
That’s a difficult accusation to qualify, because it’s one largely based on intangibles. Search deep enough and use the right data metrics and van Gaal’s influence presumably becomes visible. Superficially, though, he is yet to move the dial.
There have been games over the past thirteen months in which the light has glinted brightly from the end of the tunnel. The performance at Anfield in March, the 2-1 victory at The Emirates and derby win over Manchester City at the end of last season all, to different degrees, hinted at a better tomorrow.
The reaction to those kind of performances has typically been the same, too. There’s usually an admiration for how the side played and a general assertion that, with more investment and with a deepening of the relationship between managers and players, this is a team that will go somewhere.
Maybe that’s the case and maybe, with no warning, United will just suddenly lurch into fifth gear.
But it doesn’t seem like it. This is an era of false dawns.
Manchester United are an aura-less team who, even when passing the ball neatly and defending rigidly, manage to radiate vulnerability. Against Swansea, the supporters may have hoped that Juan Mata’s goal early in the second-half would be enough to take all the points, but they surely didn’t expect that it would be.
Part of that related to Swansea and to how well they played not only in the first-half of that game, but also through their first three matches. But another, much larger part was due to United and the negative associations which now exist around them.
You assume that they are going to fail. Neither van Gaal’s presence on the touchline, the massive transfer-spend, nor the individual reputations of the players on the pitch provide any kind of reassurance. Similarly, despite the knowledge that this group spends its weekdays being drilled by one of the most celebrated tacticians in the game’s modern history, that never really translates to any more cohesion or any greater security.
It’s bizarre and very difficult to explain - but also oddly fascinating at the same time.
Anthony Martial’s transfer fits within that picture. The young Frenchman is a talented player but even the most ardent apologists for Ed Woodward would concede that Monaco have clearly had their way with United during the negotiation. Martial will bring pace and a theoretical goal-threat, but concluding a deal of that size this close to the end of the window suggests panic. In time, that may prove to be unfair, but for the moment it’s symptomatic of the club’s growing trend for trying to problem-solve with impulse rather than method.
“What if we do…this. Maybe that will help?”
Manchester United hasn’t always been a logical club and beware the revisionism of viewing Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter days as an exemplary utopia, but between Woodward, van Gaal and whoever exists in between, there seems to be a chasm of confusion.
It’s worrying. The club’s financial strength may provide a degree of reassurance to those concerned by this mini-decline, but - irrespective of the enormous kit deal, the vast commercial revenue, and the extremely lucrative television contract - Manchester United appear be far too convinced that they can correct this underlying fault, whatever it may be, with a cosmetic remedy.
There’s something badly wrong and something horribly knee-jerk about these processes. They’re like the gambler who believes he can cover his losses with one last punt and who thinks he can leap out of the hole he’s dug for himself rather than climb.
That’s not a prediction of a footballing apocalypse or of the club falling into sporting ruin, but United are giving off a very unhealthy odour.
The money is pouring out. The transfers are becoming ever more desperate. The rhetoric is thickening.
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