Paul Scholes said this week that watching Manchester United has been “miserable” at times this season, and he gets paid to do it as a pundit. Pity the poor punters who are paying for the privilege.
Manchester United’s style of play has come under increased scrutiny since Sam Allardyce labelled them a “long-ball” side after their late equaliser against West Ham. Louis van Gaal’s reaction was as surprising as it was revealing: he turned up at a press conference clutching a dossier of stats from the game in a bid to prove big Sam mistaken. The Louis doth protest too much, methinks.
For a man who always appears so supremely self-confident it was a gesture of remarkable insecurity and weakness. Could you ever imagine Sir Alex responding in such a way? He never did because he never felt the need to publicly justify himself.
Manchester United’s players still don’t seem very comfortable with the manager’s tactics. For the first three months or so that could be understood and forgiven, not least because the Dutchman was implementing quite significant changes in playing style, including moving away from the reliance on 4-4-2. By now, with the quality of players he has at his disposal, there should be much more fluency and coherence in his side’s play.
I wonder if Van Gaal’s slightly hysterical reaction to Allardyce’s claims is a sign that he has begun to doubt himself just a little. There’s no doubt that he’s frustrated with the way his side is performing. The midweek win over Burnley didn’t provide much comfort.
Chris Smalling revealed that Van Gaal had been “shocked” at half-time by how poor the first half display was. I’m not sure that too many others were though, including the Old Trafford faithful who have got used to generous helpings of mediocrity to accompany their prawn sandwiches this season.
The Van Gaal stat attack had a touch of the Rafa Benitez ‘facts’ fiasco about it. It is not a flattering comparison for the Dutchman. Instead of handing out tactical diagrams to the media, the Manchester United boss would find his time better served going over them for longer with his players. His players frequently look as bemused as the journalists that attended the educational press conference.
Despite United’s dodgy defence most of the recent questions have focused on the misfiring strike force. Falcao’s loan is looking decidedly subprime while Van Persie’s prime looks to be some way behind him. Rooney has been shunted to midfield in order for Falcao and Van Persie to be paired together up front but it doesn’t seem to be working.
The Colombian and the Dutchman are too similar. Either would benefit from playing alongside Rooney but neither appears to enjoy the current set-up. Both are penalty box predators; they don’t get too involved in build up play. In the absence of Rooney dropping off the front to link with the midfield it is inevitable that the ball will hit the strikers from deeper. Whether most of those constitute long balls or long passes (the statisticians make a clear distinction) is not really the point.
Is Rooney wasted in midfield? By and large I think he is although it’s certainly not his fault. He’s shown himself to be willing to play there and has more than enough quality to do so. Some of Rooney’s natural dynamism is curtailed in midfield though and he’s not experienced enough in the position to control games in the way that you would expect a player of his quality to.
Every time that Rooney lines up in midfield it’s a reminder that Manchester United have never replaced Scholes. They should have signed someone such as Modric when he left Spurs. Fabregas would also have fitted the bill perfectly. Fellaini, alas, does not.
The summer spending spree did bring the creativity of Di Maria to Manchester and after a spectacular start his recent struggles have been a bit of a surprise. He was one of the best players at the World Cup in Brazil and he’s most suited to roaming quite freely in a role similar to the one that Bale plays now at Real Madrid and used to play at Tottenham. Di Maria’s stuttering form seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the side.
For all the dark clouds supposedly gathering over Old Trafford, Van Gaal can still point to the fact that his team are in third place in the table and on course for a return to the Champions League. The fact that they are tells you a lot about inadequacies elsewhere.
West Ham probably won’t be playing in Europe next season but that hasn’t stopped Allardyce claiming that there is no coach in the Premier League as sophisticated as him these days. It’s a bold claim but it’s perhaps not as outlandish as it first sounds. He has been around at the top level for a long time and has always been known as a keen student of the game not least on the sports science side of it.
With his tie loosened, his extensive frame, and his furious gum chewing, Big Sam doesn’t look quite as sophisticated as Mourinho, Wenger or even Van Gaal and that may be one reason he’s not credited with the level of sophistication that he feels he’s due.
When Van Gaal used more direct tactics at certain stages of games at the World Cup, he was hailed for his tactical flexibility. When Big Sam does the same, it tends to be dismissed as unreconstructed directness of the old school. Let’s not forget that Manchester United’s directness at Upton Park brought an equaliser.
Van Gaal’s team remains a work in progress with more emphasis so far on work than progress. Under Moyes, Old Trafford lost its fear factor for visiting sides; Van Gaal’s tactical tinkering hasn’t yet brought it back. That’s the long and the short of it.