Manchester United Review
United are back at the top of the league for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure in the summer of 2013. The EPL fixture computer – yes, the same computer that irked David Moyes so much that he thought it had an agenda against him – offered a relatively easy set of early games for United. Perhaps the computer likes Van Gaal better. Yet, United stuttered through the initial games, barely giving anyone the hint they could legitimately be considered title contenders.
A few weeks back Van Gaal said he expects United to finish in second or third spot, but if everything goes in favour of the club, they could win the league. Even van Gaal wouldn’t have expected to hit the purple patch so soon, but as luck would have it, here they are, after seven rounds sitting at the top of the pile thanks to an indifferent start to the season by Chelsea and a Kompany-less City suddenly finding themselves in bad company.
Sterner tests are waiting around the corner and it will be interesting to see how long they can hang in there. The joke that is doing the rounds at the moment is that United is like an elephant sitting on top of a tree. Nobody knows how it got there, but everybody knows it will fall down. Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, the situation United are in now is a mini achievement in itself.
Ever since Louis van Gaal set his foot on English soil he has never missed a chance to speak about his philosophy but if you are still wondering what exactly is his philosophy, you cannot be blamed because no one knows, except maybe Van Gaal himself. Though he frequently uses the word ‘philosophy’ he has never cared to explain in detail, so I’m afraid you will have to make something out of it on your own.
What I think the philosophy is, it is round in shape because it involves things done repeatedly in the same way without any head or tail about it. The ball is send down one flank, moved across the midfield nonchalantly and to the other flank and then slowly worked back to the defense from where it started to complete the circle. We can laugh about it the whole day, but it’s Van Gaal who is having the last laugh. Whatever the philosophy is, it’s working.
You wouldn’t have believed van Gaal when he said he can actually transform water into wine, but in turning Smalling into Beckenbauer (rhetorical hyperbole, of course) he has performed a miracle even Jesus Christ would be proud of. In fact it’s not just about improving individual players in the team, but the whole group is beginning to play as a compact unit and the fact they have the best goal difference along with City in the league is testimonial.
But the recent string of positive results hasn’t won over all the fans though. Most of them still want to see the team playing the “United Way”. What is this United Way, by the way? There’s no fixed definition. It is as ambiguous as the philosophy, but based on common belief, it’s playing attacking football in a relentless looping wave in break-neck pace. But the word ‘caution’ is certainly not associated with it.
In contrast, ‘caution’ is the main word in Van Gaal’s philosophy. Jokes apart, Van Gaal’s basic philosophy is staying compact and controlling the game through possession. It’s a deliberate, measured and pragmatic approach in its every step and one that puts stopping goals at a higher priority than scoring.
Maybe this approach is actually helping United’s cause. If you compare the current side with any of the title winning side of Ferguson, there’s a marked difference in quality, especially in defense. Smalling and Blind are decent players, but they are still miles away from a Vidic or a Ferdinand kind of quality.
So when the quality of the individuals is a couple of grades down, a team needs to make a collective effort in defending and this means keeping the central midfielders close to the defenders. That’s the pragmatic solution to stop leaking goals which indeed should be the primary duty of any team.
The side effect is inevitable, especially with the one-paced central midfield that United has. When four or five of your players are stationed majorly in your own half or sitting at the tail end of the engine, the number of your attacking players will obviously be thin so when you launch an attack the forward players are going to find out they don’t have enough teammates to pass the ball to, resulting in slow, ponderous movement and ultimately checking back the ball into their own half.
However, with the arrival of Anthony Martial (what an inspired signing he’s proving to be), United have gained more penetration and speed in attack in recent games and suddenly the grass is looking lot greener at the other end of the pitch.
For a fan who has grown up watching Sir Alex’s gung-ho, devil-may-care football it’s great pain to sit through the slow, brooding game of van Gaal for 90 minutes but ultimately what matters is the result and United are getting it even though they simply fell over the line in certain games. In football, there’s no right or wrong way, if the results are right it got to be the right way.