OF BORO, PALACE, LVG & A LOOK AHEAD TO CSKA MOSCOW


Manchester United have not scored a goal since I last visited this column. It's fair to say that there's not much to debrief about what has happened since.

This self-proclaimed cleansing blog seeks to 'qualify' the media narrative about the plight of the club, affording events what yours truly thinks would be a more 'balanced' yet red tinted perspective. So what has happened since?


Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup
Perhaps the club's biggest opportunity to win their first post-Sir Alex trophy went begging when United failed to score against a Championship club and lost out on penalties. So how much were the usual suspects responsible for the result?

In the third round fixture against Ipswich Town, Louis van Gaal came under considerable criticism for playing virtually the entire first team in what was eventually a comfortable 3-0 home win. For this tie, the manager did what was, on a scale of reasonability, reasonable. There was a healthy blend of our brightest Academy prospects as well as seasoned regulars of the first team. Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard and James Wilson will certainly not weaken a United side against Championship opposition. 

Indeed, United were as fluid as they could possibly be under the straight jackets of the Louis van Gaal system. In football however, there are occasionally 'one of those nights' games. United could have played that game for five hours with chance after chance without scoring. Admittedly, Boro did have many chances to score themselves but it adds to the narrative of the evening that even they couldn't score despite probably having the better chances.

For that particular result, it would be harsh to come down too hard on the usual below par suspects even though it's damning that players of that level cannot score even from 12 yards. A determined Boro side would have definitely been brushed aside if van Gaal had started his strongest side. We need, though, to examine ourselves on how we would have felt if the manager had named an unchanged line-up from the team that drew with City for this game. 

Hindsight is such a wonderful thing. We can now convince ourselves that we wouldn't mind an unchanged team now.


Crystal Palace in the League
I did mention in the last blog post that the point against City will be a great one if we could go on to win at Crystal Palace. The 0-0 drub draw effectively marked the City game as a poor result. United have now failed to win two fixtures that they won last season. So how do we apportion the blame for that one?

The buck stops with the manager and so he shall be evaluated. His methods and decisions invariably bring back the captain, Wayne Rooney into unwanted spotlight. This is not to suggest that no other player was poor on the day (Matteo Darmian for instance had another stinker), but if we are to believe that the captain is a representation of the manager's philosophy on the pitch then its hard to fault other players when their leader is consistently the worst player on the pitch.

Wayne Rooney's troubles have already been well documented this season. There is little need going over them again. Because of his position both on and off the pitch, United's success is intertwined with his form. In a way both he and club can rightly claim that they've imprisoned each other and swallowed their respective keys.

Louis van Gaal
However, it is the Louis van Gaal side that I feel has not yet been understood by many United fans. There are managers in world football who you can employ and expect that they abide by the existing structure and ethos of a club. There are those however, who feel that they can only get the job done if everything is done their way, to their taste and modus operandi. Louis van Gaal falls in the latter category.

Almost 18 months into his regime, fans still yearn for the day Manchester United will turn out and play like a Sir Alex Ferguson team in the 1990s. I think it's time fans made their peace with the new man's idea of football. In fact, when it is ripe, Louis van Gaal's style tops the thrill of Fergie's style, for both results and entertainment. Whether he can achieve it in the philistine environment that is the premier league is another debate.

However, just like an unfinished building, the build up to that style is quite the ugly. The modest United fan is increasingly growing frustrated with a building project that looks like will never be complete whilst also sporadically showing signs of the beauty that it could become when it is done. Baby steps, albeit in the right direction. Frustrating considering the investment.

It has led to calls, especially from the away end at Selhurst Park to rip it apart and just go for the jugular (Chants like ''We don't often score, but we seldom score none'' were audible). To force the issue if you like if only for the entertainment value that would come with it. 

There is no harm in yearning for that but if that is the genuine feeling among most fans then they are probably backing the wrong manager. I feel there is a disconnect between van Gaal's methods and what the fans thought he will bring. And while we're at it, it might serve a couple of fans to pause and rethink their choice of manager after LVG because of all the names thrown about regarding potential replacements, only Ryan Giggs would set up the side to play the way fans want the club to play. 

I digress.

 Louis van Gaal's methods seek to eliminate risk by upholding positional play and carefully working your way down to a certain conclusion. Just like a composed mathematician would go about solving a complex equation. The 'luck' van Gaal refers to is the same luck the mathematician would need to carry down the 'x' and 'y' and correctly compute his digits so as not to make the error along the way that will render the whole equation a failure. 

It's the Louis van Gaal way. 0-0 is the default result, especially when the opposition work out that you need to sit back against United and hit hard on the counter-attack. For van Gaal, in his cosy little world, that is a small victory.

Manchester City under Pellegrini, for instance, never change their game for anyone. This is a side that feels that they can play 4-4-2 against Barcelona and get away with it. Stupid, but slightly admirable and yet they came to Old Trafford in a shape that fully adjusted with the sole aim of not losing the game. Pellegrini, like any manager should against this United side, opted to hit United on the break. 

Louis van Gaal probably privately feels that he is being let down by the players he has shown faith in and none is bigger than his captain who he has backed strongly since the start of the season. He felt that Ander Herrera should have stabbed that first half chance in and approached him at full time to ask what had happened. The Dutchman's style is rarely comprises a chance after chance game. The three half chances created are expected to be put away by the player the chance falls to with no margin for error because the elaborate process used to arrive at that chance has been free of error. 

The point is, it might be slow, boring, energy sapping, difficult to watch, but that has been the man in charge's way of ding things for over 20 years. That it has worked elsewhere makes it all the more difficult to change it for Manchester United. It has cost him his job at clubs of similar stature and so there is but one option the fans are calling for if they have failed to buy into the manager's style of football. At the moment, it feels like there is a lot of love for LVG and his idiosyncratic press conferences but little for it on the pitch. 

If fans would have their way, they would like to keep van Gaal and change the way the team plays. The best of both worlds if you like. A Chelsea mate of mine recently told me he would prefer to keep a Jose Mourinho that had the personality of Manuel Pellegrini.  Unfortunately, it never plays out that way with managers that big. It is, usually, what it is.

Since the powers that be made their decision regarding choice of manager ahead of other available options, United fans need to get themselves accustomed to the possibility that the club's style of play could be subject of change as often as they change their managers. Louis van Gaal, however, and rather unselfishly is attempting to build a style of play that would out-last the reign of any domestic or continental manager after him in a way that the English helter-skelter style wouldn't survive if say United appointed a Pep Guardiola or a Diego Simeone in future after Ryan Giggs. 

This, mind you, is not an official backing of the manager, but an explanation of a disconnect that i felt was prevailing. As usual, you can express your opinion in the comments section below.


CSKA Moscow
Which brings us to this evening's entertainment, or lack of it, against the Russian Champions at Old Trafford. I guess it helps that our last goal was against them. We should be a shoe in for another goal, right?

CSKA manager, Leonid Viktorovich Slutsky, has in his pre-match presser let loose his approach to the game. They will play as compact as they did in Moscow and hit United on the counter-attack. Hmmm... I wonder where he worked out those brilliant tactics from?

The onus is squarely on Louis van Gaal to, A) Set his team up to score on the night, B) Nullify CSKA on the break and perhaps more crucially C) Find a way to win the match to stay on course for qualification.

The Bottom-Line
Group B is shaping up to be a fine case for the calculators come Matchday 6. However, two straight home games before the difficult trip to VfL Wolfsburg should see United qualify before then. Win today and the result in Russia is a good point. Fail to do so and United will have left themselves a 'rat race' to get out of what was not the most difficult group when the draw was made.


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