“I do believe that a club’s ethos, the principles of how it plays, should outlive even the biggest individuals in its history. United are about attacking football, and everything else has to take its place behind that.” – Paul Scholes (The Independent)
“It is time for supporters and pundits like me to accept that Louis van Gaal is a different breed of coach and let go of the past.” – Gary Neville (Daily Telegraph)
Since their retirement as players both Gary Neville and Paul Scholes have been in high demand as pundits. Neville’s hard work and dedication to taking football analysis to a higher level on television has led to him being almost universally lauded amongst both fans and journalists. Meanwhile, Scholes’ near-imperceptible dry sense of humour twinned with his willingness to be straight on any given topic has managed to spark headlines even outside of the media outlets he is contracted to.
It’s a challenging task for either man to comment on post-Ferguson United. Anything they say is often then directed at the new manager by journalists who are only too keen to poke at him with someone else’s words. In turn, Louis van Gaal usually plays these questions with a straight bat. Nobody could seriously believe the Dutchman fears a PR crisis by beginning an argument with the ex-pros, but still, it is an uncomfortable situation for a successful leader’s generals to be publicly questioning the new regime.
Here we have United’s old guard; adored by fans and omnipresent representations of the way the club used to be. Both have been vocal about the team returning to the high-tempo attacking football fans had enjoyed during the Ferguson era. This is an unprecedented situation in English football. Of course the men succeeding managerial greats have always been questioned in the media, but never in this day and age of 24/7 coverage and instant online opinion. The words of Neville and Scholes bounce around the internet, gaining credence quicker than ever before. Anyone across the world can read their newspaper columns or television comments thanks to video-sharing sites. Ultimately, they have such gravitas as United legends that their influence on the opinions of the fans could be a real thorn in the side of van Gaal.
Despite the criticism, the Manchester Evening News announced last week that 81% of United fans polled said ‘Only results matter this season’. LVG was pleased with this figure and it appeared to correspond with a change in Neville’s thinking as well. In his weekly newspaper column he encouraged United fans to accept the method of the Ferguson days was a thing of the past and that van Gaal’s tactics must be respected for the club to move forward. However, Scholes was not swayed by this and threw his weight behind the idea that attacking with pace should always be the Manchester United way.
Of course, all these words were written before United’s defeat in Swansea. A result that means there are only four points between 3rd and 7th place in the Premiership. Suddenly the contest for Champions League places is extremely tight and the reds have some crunch matches still to come. It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that United’s attacking play was poor against the Swans. An approach of slow build-up play gave the home team plenty of time to organise their defensive positions before eventually repelling United’s crosses. Furthermore, watching that game would have given future opponents clear ideas on how to set up against United.
The key element to the MEN’s poll is the fact that the reds currently sit in a Champions League place. If United slip out of the top 4 at the season’s climax opinions will change. The relationship between results and performance would be analysed closer by fans and pundits alike. This will be when we find out what a feted and experienced manager knows that writers and supporters do not.
In the next month van Gaal’s team face Spurs and Liverpool in key matches for European qualification. The question now is; does the old pragmatist have something up his sleeve to keep the reds in the top 4, or will Neville and Scholes be leading Old Trafford’s pleas for ‘Attack attack attack!’?