Before watching the game against Newcastle, I took advantage of the game’s timing and watched the first half of an exciting second leg Copa del Rey match with Barcelona playing against Villarreal. All in all it was a rather interesting watch. Barcelona scored early and dominated possession, but they always seemed vulnerable to the counter attack. I had little doubt that the Messi-led side would win the night, but what struck me most were the thoughts of the commentators. Despite Barcelona toiling back and forth and up and down with their passes, sometimes seemingly to no final end, the commentators and everyone else seemed to know it was just a matter of time before the Catalan side scored. Barcelona was not criticised for being flat or for overpassing the ball, but rather they were praised for controlling the game. Then I switched the channel to the United game.
On this game, however, the view of passing the ball around for control of the game was quite different. From the start, the commentators attacked United’s style viciously. They criticised the Red Devils’ lack of directness and every five minutes or so a United player would get blasted for passing back when confronted, instead of flying forward to engage an opponent one-on-one. There seems to be some sort of consensus that patient, passing-focused football is not effective in England, and that the only reason United has had some success this season is pure luck. As for the games on Wednesday, Barcelona beat Villarreal and Manchester United, despite all of their criticism, beat Newcastle.
Before I get blasted for comparing a dominant Barcelona side with a Manchester United side in transition, I’ll step back and say this: the styles are similar, but Barcelona does it better. That’s an indisputable fact, and the reasons are quite simple. First of all, Barcelona’s squad is more complete and quite simply more talented than United’s squad overall. Certainly there’s a great deal of talent in Manchester, but it’s rarely clicking, and, to channel my inner Louis van Gaal, United is always looking for a balance that Barcelona seems to have found. Not to mention the speed which Barcelona possesses that, in comparison, makes Manchester United look old and slow.
Secondly, and I consider this most importantly, the fact of the matter is that Barcelona has been doing this for years and years now. The tiki-taka passing-focused game has been their brand for years, and no one knows it better. Certainly they’ve had their ups and downs in terms of ultimate success, but for nearly a decade now, this pass-heavy Barcelona team has been right up there at the pinnacle of world football. That’s what United wants again, and certainly it’s what Louis van Gaal is dreaming of.
Quite frankly, it’s time to start giving van Gaal some credit for his efforts and to stand behind the team and its new style. It takes time to change mentalities and it takes time to train players to think in a new mindset. The new United coach is trying to change a style that has stood at Old Trafford for decades, and his job is only harder if everyone criticizes the style that he is playing because it is not achieving immediate, visual dividends. The goal is a top-four finish, and right now United are up in the top four battling for a spot. Cut the Dutchman some slack.
The truth of sports is that winning is all that matters, and somehow United have found ways to win this season. All that is important is that Manchester United won away at Newcastle. It wasn’t very pretty, and it took a last minute goal to undo Tim Krul, but three points are three points. The style of Louis van Gaal won out. More than that, the game against Newcastle, for all the stress, was a better attacking effort than I’ve seen in a while. United had ten shots, half of which were on goal, and forced Krul to make some good saves in several spots during the game. Certainly the Red Devils weren’t clinical enough and looked weak on defense, but they didn’t give up, and that led to a win. Come to think of it, maybe some things don’t change. Certainly, as Ashley Young scored that late winner, somewhere Sir Alex Ferguson was sitting and chuckling to himself that even two coaches on from his retirement, his late goal magic is still interwoven into the fabric of the famous Diablo Red.