I haven’t written a post about football before because it’s more contentious than religion or politics 🙂 The arguments are bitter, nasty and vindictive. I refrained from writing about Utd last season during the Moyes debacle because I honestly felt it was a blip and this seasons would be much better. In a sense, there has been improvement but there’s also been much frustration. The biggest frustration watching Utd now is the sense that the players are better than the performances suggest. A manager’s job involves maximises the performances from the talent at their disposal and as a long time Utd supporter (since the 80s) it has been many years since I’ve seen such disjointed performances and sloppiness. Indeed, Utd haven’t been so poor since the late 80s. The players deserve some blame, and some may have rode the coattails of the great players of the Fergie era, but the manager is not immune from criticism. Here’s what this fan thinks he could do better.
1) Improve passing accuracy
With all the complaining about defence, there’s not enough attention on how poor the attacking displays have been in many games this year. The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the quality of the passing and movement off the ball. Much of Utd’s passing is simply bad. It’s slow, ponderous, inaccurate and contains little of the feints, quick interchanges and incisive through-balls that characterised great Utd teams of the past. Sure, we’ve lost Scholes but that doesn’t excuse passing that is, at times, below the standard of a top half premiership team. Utd maintain possession based on safe passing with sideways and reverse passes. These are easy to play as the opposition are happy for you to do this all day long. It’s not a test of passing accuracy and produces misleading statistics which flatter Utd.
2) Improve movement off-the-ball.
This is the most astonishing aspect of the new-look Utd. The lack of incisive movement off the ball to creating good passing opportunities. Our players tend to move into positions where they can’t receive the ball rather than positions that make a good pass likely. The US tour was full of smart 1-2 passing and triangular passing which very few teams can cope with. At the least, it looks exciting and pleases the fans. At best, it helps dismantle opposition defences. This has been abandoned since the early days of this EPL campaign in favour of a physical long ball game which uses Fellaini as a target man.
3) Stop Panicking
I believe the reason why Utd have stopped playing attractive football is the uncertainty Van Gaal faced when he started to lose games he should have won at the start of this season. Blame the defence, blame the system, whatever… Utd changed their style to be more cautious and less fluid. Now it looks like the whole team is concentrating on defence and timid safe play. We saw Fergie’s sides lose surprising fixtures most years but it didn’t affect Ferguson’s belief in his attacking ethos or style of play. He knew he’d eventually get it right and he tended not to tinker with the team formation that much so players could become familiar with their new positions. Van Gaal has looked in a state of panic since Leicester. Yes, Utd have won many games since then but they have done so rather luckily and playing some very underwhelming football. The reaction to these has been to change players and formation. Far from being stubborn, LVG has proved far too willing to change most things in response to poor results.
4) Promote the technically-gifted attacking players
This is crucial. The players that can play football the Utd way need to be given the opportunity to do so. Falcao, Mata, Rafael, Januszaj and Herrera have the technique to do well for Utd. They have at various stages this season been relegated to the bench in a very public manner that must undermine their morale. For all the complaining about Falcao, he’s been left to sit on the bench while RVP struggled to do anything on the pitch, sending a clear message that RVP is favoured. Most Utd fans think the only reason for this is that he’s Dutch. RVP may have been one of the best strikers in the world 2 years ago but he looks a pale imitation of that since Ferguson left. Rafael is dropped for Valencia who is every bit as accident prone but who plays a less attractive and imaginative style of football. Mata is dropped so Rooney can play out of position and the same with Herrera who is dropped in favour of our Belgian battering ram – a player that would NEVER have swung an elbow for Utd in the Ferguson era.
5) Take control of transfers
This might seem obvious but it looks very unlikely that LVG scouted Luke Shaw or Ander Herrera before they were signed. These may go on to become fine players for Utd but it’s clear that the coach doesn’t think they fit into his style of play at the moment so we have £60M of players he doesn’t appear to want. It’s unclear he really wanted Falcao and is unwilling to back him in every game. So, given the coach has a well known penchant for benching players indefinitely when he doesn’t think they fit his “philosophy”, it seems wasteful to spend another Euro that he hasn’t expressly approved.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Louis Van Gaal is a fine coach and I enjoyed watching his Dutch side in last summer’s world cup. However, I think that he has to some extent lost his way with Utd and he’ll need to improve the performances if he’s not to get the sack this summer. Earlier in the year, I’d have thought that a tragedy but not any more.
I fully accept that Ferguson took several years to get the hang of managing Manchester United but the crucial difference is the finances at the disposal of LVG. He can afford to buy the very best and it’s reasonably expected that he’s challenging for the title by next season and that he qualifies for the Champions League this season. That’s not unrealistic. It’s also reasonable to expect that he does so by playing attractive attacking football. If he doesn’t take that on board, then he’s running a very real risk of a fan’s revolt similar to what Moyes faced last season. The mystery here is that LVG has coached sides to play very attractive football with more modest resources than Utd offer him. I notice the Independent have a more comprehensive list here. I’d take issue with some of these but the general thrust of the argument that the manager must do better is something no fan can ignore.