John Stuart Mill, the father of Utilitarianism, once said that, “there seems to be something singularly captivating in the word ‘balance’, as if, because anything is called a balance, it must, for that reason, be necessarily good.”
We might note that there has been something decidedly ‘utilitarian’ about United’s performances as of late. And it appears Van Gaal has been singularly captivated by that word, ‘balance’. Time and again the term has been invoked to explain and gloss what to others has seemed a lack of incision and flair in our performances. The manager cautioned of the need for balance after the QPR game, and again as a way of explaining his preference for some permutation of 3-5-2/5-3-2 over a more easily parsed 4-4-2. It was clearly on his mind again last Friday, even against the minnows of Cambridge. Balance, above all else, is at the heart of the manager’s much-vaunted ‘philosophy’.
And on the one hand this makes a good deal of sense. Van Gaal inherited a defence devoid of experience and lacking of leaders. Many a supporter has questioned the wisdom of allowing Evra, Vidic and Ferdinand to leave at the same time, and one may wonder how United’s summer recruitment plans did not have a larger section marked, ‘Defenders’. A propensity for injury and calamity has meant that the likes of Evans, Smalling, Jones, Shaw and Rafael have looked far from commanding, whilst youngsters Blackett and McNair would have been better served bedding in beside a veteran like Rio or Nemanja, rather than one another. Given this inheritance, along with what to many has appeared a ‘surplus’ of attacking players, the call for balance appears sensible.
But football, one way or another, is rarely sensible. And it is rarely ‘balanced’, in any sense of the word. Wherever one cares to look, the world of football is a world marked by excess. Players’ wages are excessive, the cost of a ticket and a shirt is excessive, the scrutiny of managers is excessive. And our love of the game is excessive; it exceeds any rationalisation, and it exceeds any balanced appraisal. Our partisanship is excessive, our affection and loathing of players is excessive. MUFC is, after all, a religion, and there is nothing more excessive than the ardent zeal of the religious. And of course this is the club defined by ‘extra’ time.
In his quest for balance, then, Van Gaal might be missing something fundamental about the excessive nature of the club and the game. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written, commenting on the Mill quote above, “the idea of balance can unbalance us”. What Mill alerts us to is the idea that balance in and of itself may not automatically be a good thing. Of course, football is always a kind of balancing act between attack and defence, but at a club like United there is only one way those scales should tip. The cry from the Stretford End is not, “Balance! Balance! Balance!” The idea is a kind of absurdity – almost an affront. Van Gaal was in fairness never excessive in his claims for what he would do in his first campaign: he wants a season that, on balance, looks like a success. And, all things considered, he may well achieve that. But Van Gaal’s quest for balance might also overlook the fact that a little excess can go a long way.