Listening to Radio Manchester’s Red Wednesday programme on the way to Old Trafford this week, it was disappointing to hear the number of views they reported from United fans who wanted Van Gaal out. Admittedly this was balanced by the opinions of a more supportive contingent, but a consistently heard view, from them and from areas of the media this week, was that Van Gaal has betrayed the United way, that the cavalier and attacking play associated with the club has been sacrificed in favour of an unrelenting dullness, a betrayal, no less, of the club and its ideals.
There were differences of opinion as to what constituted this dullness. Some expressed the preposterous view that, following the comments of Sam Allardyce and Van Gaal’s admittedly embarrassing reaction to it, United were now a long ball team. While it’s hard to imagine that anyone who actually watches United could hold such an opinion, the other view, that United’s style has lost its purpose in the pursuit of sterile possession, appears on the face of it to carry more credibility.
Indeed, Paul Scholes, not for the first team this season, weighed in with much the same criticism. I found this surprising, not because his views were wrong – there certainly is a lack of adventure about United’s play at the moment – but that the source from which the criticism came must know that this is not something that has only happened under Van Gaal. Because not only is the style of the team an improvement in terms of sophistication compared to what we saw last season, it’s not that different from what we saw from United in the later years under Ferguson.
Let’s be clear: United have not been played consistently attractive, positive football for several years. Since 2009, a lack of investment in the club coincided with an increasing pragmatism that saw Alex Ferguson continue his successful reign but with an emphasis on organisation and getting the best out of the players he had. His final season confirmed his brilliance as a manager in taking a team who rarely looked convincing over an entire season to the championship.
It’s not that Van Gaal, or Moyes for that matter, inherited a fantastically talented team and took it backwards by tampering with it: rather, they inherited a club that was much like the one Ferguson himself inherited in the eighties, one that required revitalising and reinventing in a new manager’s image. And those old enough to remember those early Ferguson years are kidding themselves if they genuinely believe they were playing attractive football from day one.
Although it took Fergie four years to win a trophy, it took even longer than that for him to get his side playing in a manner that resembled anything like the United ideal.
The truth is that Van Gaal faces the same kind of challenge now and changing the manager at this point will not alter the nature of the task we face. I don’t agree with all that he does – I’m as mystified as the next United fan as to what Herrera has to do to get a regular game – but what I do know is that at the moment we need a manager with the courage of his convictions. I also know that someone who tries to fit Di Maria, Januzaj and Rooney into the same midfield, however questionable some of those selections might be, does not possess a cautious mindset. Van Gaal – a man who won a Champions League trophy by throwing a teenage striker onto the pitch and who had the brass neck to change his keeper before a World Cup penalty shoot out – is not a man averse to taking risks when the time is right for them. But, like Fergie before him, he also knows when the time is right for pragmatism and currently that pragmatism is, however awkwardly and however unconvincingly, getting results.
I don’t know many United fans who, after the ignominious defeat at Leicester earlier in the season, wouldn’t have accepted a run of one defeat in eighteen games however that came about. And there are very few who, at the start of the season, wouldn’t have taken us being third in the league and still in the FA Cup in the middle of February. While there remains much to criticise in the way those objectives have been achieved, the truth is that under Van Gaal we’ve developed a very useful habit of nicking the points even when playing very poorly. That, to me, is part one of the job done. To call for the head of the manager who’s done shows nothing more than a combination of rashness and impatience. To do so would simply take us back to square one for the third season running.
Admittedly, part two of the job – getting back to the breathtaking style of play we saw from United in the mid to late nineties and during the Ronaldo period – still needs to be done. But there’s no quick fix. And for me Van Gaal – a man who was no stranger to criticism in the early years of his tenures at Barcelona and Bayern Munich – has the credentials and the strength of character to know how it’s done.