Mark Ogden once compared Manchester United in their present state to Britain after WWII. And yes, I know, 20th century politics has no real business in an article about football, but the analogy makes sense.
Man United, after all, do represent a heavily diminished empire, a dynasty that used to imperiously dominate its field, reluctantly coming to terms with stronger emerging powers.
Allow me to dabble further into the narrative: Clement Attlee, Britain’s Prime Minister after WWII, undertook an unenviable task of trying to introduce stability whilst feeding through different policies, nervously taking his men into a fresh dawn – one bound to be less desirable than a glorious past that teemed with imperial glory.
Nonetheless, the transition was necessary, and Attlee was just doing what he could.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
But, having witnessed five goalless draws in the past 10 games (games that desperately lacked any individual expression and teemed with collective struggle, even misery at times), perhaps an even gloomier historical parallel is necessary when discussing United under Louis van Gaal.
United’s current stagnant condition, something unavoidably enforced by the Dutchman, could be seen as somewhat similar to the Soviet Union in 1922.
And no, I’m not likening van Gaal to a bloodthirsty dictator who imposes a misguided ideology onto his underlings through a brutal method of organised state repression. That’s a bit much.
What I am saying, however, is that, following the collapse of an empire (the decades of unprecedented success under Sir Alex Ferguson) and a short period of miserable struggle (the David Moyes era), van Gaal is a man hell-bent on imposing stability and control over something that doesn’t even know what to call itself anymore.
The United job, still a miserably poisoned chalice in this murky post-Fergie era, is about control to van Gaal. After the turbulent Moyes era, as well as the galling early stages of the Dutchman’s reign, high risk attacking bravado is to be avoided in the interest of indemnity.
In what seems like an almost impossible job (namely leading United towards success in their post-Fergie trauma), the only platform for achievement is, in van Gaal’s eyes, to abandon everything United as a club stands for.
The ‘United way’, and indeed the style of football fans yearn to see, is epitomised by individualism on the ball, swashbuckling wing play, bodies rampantly surging forward, positive passing, and, in general, performances that don’t cease in their attacking savagery.
But, much to widespread frustration, the ‘van Gaal way’ negates all of that. Rather, it is the antithesis of what we as supporters believe in and hope for.
And this, I suppose, is where Soviet Russia comes in; there is one stolid ideology, one patient, emotionless style, no ‘star-men’, no hierarchy within the squad, but instead a collective and equal subordination to ‘the process’, working as a fixed whole within the confined limits of a set ‘philosophy’.
If you step out of line, well, you won’t last very long.
To me, football unearths what is beautiful in man. It allows for a comprising of individuals to act as collective, determined to work together as a means of giving joy and entertainment to themselves and others. Football goes beyond results and points. It strives for the sublime, for the ultimate permutation of man in his truest form, discovered in a communal chase for triumph. And in this sense, football is an art.
But, to van Gaal, football is not an art; nor is it a tool for self-expression and autonomy. It is a practice – a code of fixed maxims, if you will, a kind of mechanical science.
He acts as football’s proverbial Victor Frankenstein; a coveted yet somewhat unhinged scientist whose methodology needs to be precise to the minutest detail. Every facet of his design is plotted with meticulous care and pathological concentration. And the end product is a grotesque, abnormal, and downright unlikeable monstrosity, but one van Gaal sees as the right modus operandi to drive forward.
Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial (amongst many others) all thrive off the ability to express themselves as footballers, to have the license move out of their position and try something different, to act on impulse instead of game-plan.
But in van Gaal’s fiefdom, where individuality and autonomy is strictly prohibited, these players can’t impose themselves on United’s long-standing expected aura of attacking grandiloquence.
The product of van Gaal’s philosophy, then, is a grim void; at a time where United as a club desperately needs to rediscover its character, the Dutchman is stripping away any morsel of identity it had left.
For a club that used to thrive on its identity and sheer force of character, this current neurotic, naïve, and onerous outfit is bereft of any charisma and joie de vivre. And, as a result, it comes across as a blunt object.
Van Gaal has, to his credit, introduced stability and strength into this United side. The defence, so heavily maligned in the past for its flimsy nature, is now watertight.
The Dutchman’s philosophy revolves around having a strong core, one capable of acting as an inpenetrable springboard for his possession based, turning-the-screw style of football. And with an expertly well-drilled defensive shape – which has taken work, but looks to be pretty much there – he has just that.
In fact, the cantankerous Dutchman deserves praise for the stability he’s brought to a side that, prior to his arrival, looked constantly on the verge of collapse. He presided over a much needed overhaul with a calm ruthlessness, efficiently disposing of several deadwood players, and, to his everlasting credit, introduced a multitude of sprightly young talents – Martial, Lingard, Paddy McNair, Memphis, amongst others – into a highly promising squad.
United fans should, in many ways, be grateful for the way a potentially precarious transition has gone and hopeful for the future.
But they’re not.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. From top to bottom, from managerial staff and players to the fans and employed staff, there’s an unshakeable gloom.
Van Gaal is stripping United of its preordained values, sacrificing individuality on the ball and flamboyancy in order to keep a lid on the boiling pot of being United manager, introducing an opaque, bland rhetoric to a club that thrives on colour and romance.
Time will dictate whether this style will benefit this club in the long run. Perhaps this current wretchedness is necessary for United if they are to encounter success once again in the future. That will come clear one day.
But one thing is for certain. At present, van Gaal’s enforced style is uninspiring, anti-football, and, most importantly, not putting smiles on the faces of supporters, which is, I suppose, what the beautiful game should be about.