What are Manchester United?
The Louis Van Gaal rebrand has not been a roaring success. While revisionism has certainly polished the memory of Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter years, the grey shades of Van Gaal’s relentless pragmatism have become a harrowing weekly watch.
But these aren’t the real concerns, they are merely temporary frustrations. Supporters attend or watch football matches for entertainment or to see their side win points and Manchester United are currently producing neither.
But Van Gaal represents the short-term. At the end of the next season - and in keeping with a promise made to his wife - he will leave Old Trafford and retire from football. The chances are that, in time, the grinding stasis within which they’ve become entrapped will be nothing but a bad memory.
Someone will take Van Gaal’s place, something different will inevitably follow.
Van Gaal was a stabiliser rather than a long-term solution and he has restored some of the respectability lost during the David Moyes malaise. United may have tumbled out of the Champions League a week ago, but that they were there at all was a minor victory - and that they appear on course to repeat the feat this year will be another one.
That, you suspect, was his directive. As unpalatable as it is to the club’s supporters, winning trophies and competing for titles was probably a secondary concern when he walked through the door and his priority was to restore a financial equilibrium facilitated by a top-four finish.
And isn’t that the real problem at Old Trafford? Sporting objectives seem to have been reprioritised. Not in the brazen Newcastle or Aston Villa sense, but just in relation to what they once where. While the team flounders on the pitch and the ennui burns through the fanbase, the club greedily guzzles commercial agreements and briefs the press about the theoretical recruitment of famous players.
Manchester United seem to exist in a state of believing that perception is more important than reality.
Outsiders do not have the luxury of being able to examine the inner machinations of football clubs, but maybe in this instance that isn’t a problem? Combine the frequently limited first-elevens which are available to Louis Van Gaal with the perma-bluster around Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Neymar, and it’s logical to conclude all is not working as it should at this club.
Manchester United are not one player away from being a good side. In the strange, unpredictable world of the current Premier League, maybe it appears as if they are just one superstar away from a championship, but the recent Champions League campaign surely exposed the chasm which exists between Europe’s elite and Manchester’s second-best.
Yet the misguided focus continues.
Angel Di Maria’s career in England was mercifully cut short, but it should have had a chastening legacy. Di Maria is an extravagant talent, but he was not the right player for United and neither did his acquisition solve any of the side’s more obvious needs.
But they did it anyway. Because they wanted to. Because they needed to prove that they could. And because Di Maria is the sort of player Manchester United should be signing. He didn’t fit the side and he didn’t really suit the manager’s intentions, but - before it went horribly wrong - it made everyone feel slightly better about the club’s place in the hierarchy.
“What problems, we’ve just signed a superstar?”
That’s what has to go. That’s the troubling attitude which must make post-Van Gaal life seem so terrifying. While not quite a galactico-culture, there does seem to have been an abandonment of well-established squad-building principles.
When United spend last Summer hunting for a centre-half to fill the gap in their defence, they did so with a troubling Sergio Ramos or nobody mindset. They were the shopper who needed a pair of trousers, but who would rather be naked than wear anything other than Versace.
The transfer-window ended and, to this day, the team’s entire style of play is being partly defined by that same defensive weakness. But, yet, the same flawed mentality loiters and, with another window soon to open, their re-shaping intentions seem again to be built around fame rather than suitability.
The European talent pool is very deep. In almost every top-tier league on the continent there are a batch of players - across all positions - who would both improve Manchester United and be available for less than a startling fee. Toby Alderweireld moved to Tottenham, Yevhen Konoplyanka was signed by Sevilla, and Andriy Yarmolenko was absolutely available throughout the Summer. Pedro, now at Chelsea of course, was another whose signing would have been very logical but who, for whatever reason, wasn’t quite attractive enough.
Manchester United have fallen quite a long way and maybe the first step to recovering the ground is to recognise how far behind they actually are. There is no quick fix, there is no superstar riding in on a white horse to solve all of the team’s problems, and the only way back is to plot a careful, considered course.
The lurching has to stop and it must be replaced with some actual method and, maybe, some humility.