It’s been a fortnight which has answered our questions about the direction in which Manchester United and Louis Van Gaal’s ‘process’ is headed. The conclusion: The club is on the road to absolutely nowhere. A fifth 0-0 draw in nine games, against West Ham at Old Trafford, was the final straw for many. The midweek goalless draw in the must-win home Champions League tie against an average PSV team, in which Van Gaal set his side up with two holding midfielders again, provoked a torrent of boos from an Old Trafford crowd which did not descend into such vocal dissent even during the darkest days of David Moyes’ brief reign. The atmosphere at full time against the Hammers was even more vicious. Regardless of results, such anaemic, joyless football was simply unacceptable. Chances that were created were squandered by attackers devoid of confidence and quality. It has been nearly a season and a half of soul-sapping bilge, conservative dross served up by a manager who has spent over £250m on players in his three transfer windows. Statistics for shots, shots on target and forward passes showed United languishing near the foot of the Premier League. It was totally unacceptable.
Then came Wolfsburg. Ten months of functional football had been justified and accepted as a means to an end, a return to the Champions League. And yet, once there, United’s European campaign was an utterly pitiful one. Defensive, inhibited and downright dull, five goals and eight points from five games in an average group left Van Gaal’s team needing to win in Germany. Few believed we could, particularly given the totally predictable injury crisis enveloping the club, as it has every season for eons. The Dutchman knew his defenders in particular often succumbed to injury. He also knew, surely, that many of them are not up to the task. And yet he chose not to strengthen, to keep a small squad. Whose fault is it then, that United had to give a debut to unused Uruguayan Varela, with appearances also for Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and a return, quite incredibly, for Nick Powell as a late substitute for Juan Mata. It was a change that defied logic. Again, the goal scoring onus would fall on the shoulders of a twenty year old with prodigious talent but not remotely ready for such a burden. United scored twice, but conceded immediately after both and ultimately lost 3-2. The Europa League beckoned. The damage was done not on the night, but in a summer in which unobtainable names were chased and key areas of weakness not addressed. Players were sold and not replaced. This was then compounded by a truly cowardly approach to the competition, and that PSV game in particular, which had been painted as the Holy Grail, the justification for months of functional grind.
With the club already out of the Carling Cup after that embarrassing night against Middlesborough, Van Gaal had the temerity to suggest that progressing one extra round and being three points off the top of a truly awful Premier League were signs of progress. With that statement it became clear that the manager thinks that we, the fans, are all f**king idiots.
So too does Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward, the arch briefer. In times of strife step forward Ed, to fire off calls to the Manc Hack Pack. In the last fortnight we have had briefs claiming the existence of a vast transfer kitty for the summer and concrete interest in Bale, Ronaldo and Neymar. It’s transparent, bad, bad bell-endery. Then came the leak that United were so happy with Van Gaal, described by a senior *cough* club source as a ‘genius’, that they had no interest in acquiring the services of Pep Guardiola. This, the press-pack assumed, was typical Woodward. When a target is missed and heading elsewhere, we are rarely not treated to a ‘never wanted him anyway’ whisper. We never wanted Toni Kroos, nor Cesc Fabregas, nor Pedro. Cretins taking the fans for cretins.
But the best was still to come. At the end of last week came the clearly briefed line that United did not consider the Champions League as a priority and that the Premier League was far more important and would ultimately maintain and develop the global standing of the club. Peak United. We never wanted the European Cup anyway. Absolutely unbelievable. Quite what Sir Alex made of that will probably never be known, but one can quite imagine him launching whatever device he was reading or hearing the line on through the window. There it is, confirmation that United, under the Glazers and their incompetent bum-puppet have completely lost all sense of what this great club is about. In truth, they probably never had a clue. But there it is in black and white. Read it and f**king weep.
But it’s all about the league, so no doubt ambitions there were high? Not according to LVG, who suggested in his Friday press-conference that expectations had to be lowered as this was no longer the United of ten years ago. Well hello David William Moyes. True to his word, Van Gaal’s injury-hit rabble crawled down to Bournemouth. One look at the available players was enough to give us cataracts. One look at the list of players missing, and the lack of genuine class it contained, nearly sent me blind. For a club of United’s size and resources, the squad is absolutely abysmal. Yes, a lack of investment in Fergie’s final years had left a big job to be taken on, but the club have spent in the region of £330m since the great man’s retirement. The result: A squad with one world class player (who possibly still wants to leave), 3/4 rough diamonds with great potential, a rapidly improving but not yet top class Chris Smalling and a sea of squad players. Now there’s nothing wrong with squad players, if you have 6/7 top class performers to win you games. Without these stars aiming for the top is futile. These players don’t have to come from the world’s elite clubs. Sir Alex demonstrated that. Yet Woodward seems obsessed with relieving clubs of an equivalent size of their biggest names. LVG, on the other hand, is perpetually seeking ‘balance’ to his selection. The sort of balance which cannot be achieved with a solid midfield which lacks in creativity, without a threat from both wings, a strong central defensive partnership and an experienced goalscorer.
To Dean Court, and a back four containing a utility player, a teenager with heart but suspect talent at this level, an almost totally untested right back and another teenager at left back who had mostly played at centre back in junior football. As in Germany, all were game, diligent and gave everything, but they are fourth or fifth choice for a reason. In midfield Carrick and Fellaini formed the slowest partnership in history, whilst the hard-working, always game Lingard grafted to their right, the cuddly but increasingly invisible Juan Mata in front and the gifted but struggling Memphis to their left. Up front the weight of goals again fell on Martial. United conceded early, from a set piece, again, but to the youngsters’ credit they gave as good as they got and Fellaini’s equaliser was deserved reward. Bournemouth began the second half with the same vigour as they approached the first. United switched off, conceded from a fourth set-piece in two games and checked out of the building. Defending corners is not a matter of talent, it is one of organisation and concentration. There has been little of either in the last week. There was no response, from Van Gaal or his players, although Nick Powell replaced Fellaini, a curious swap as the Belgian had given as much effort as any, scored a goal and was a potential late Plan B. United appeared not to have a Plan A either. In injury time Van Gaal swapped a centre back for a centre back. It ended. Three wins in twelve.
Failure has become expected, watching United a chore, an exercise in frustration, futility and boredom. This is straying deep into Moyes territory. There has been no progress. In reality the team is regressing, floating adrift in the mid-Atlantic, with no direction, confidence or belief. Much of the fanbase has turned, affronted by football which betrays the club’s traditions and by a manager and Vice President who appear to take them for idiots. The club has no direction and has forgotten how to be what it should be, one of the four or five biggest footballing institutions in the world. It is an erosion of the values and standards put in place by Sir Alex, but which he was ultimately complicit (wittingly or not) in diluting. Regardless, the club which the great man left was one that strived to be the very best that it could be. With him gone that ambition was finally lost and the evolution from a football club to a cash-cow was complete. The appointment of a banker at the top of the pile was, with hindsight, the end of that metamorphosis.
So where do we go from here? I have no idea. I can see no future for LVG’s United. He appears to have lost (if not their loyalty) the players’ belief in what he is doing. So little is being milked from so many. They may not be world beaters, but many of these players are better than we have seen. They appear inhibited and drained. At this point it is hard to know how to solve the myriad problems the club faces. LVG could go, but the limitations of the squad will still remain and the man seemingly incapable of acquiring better will still oversee operations with comical incompetence. But the manager is suffocating his players. The likes of Martial and Depay can become stars, but surely not under this man and in these circumstances. Were he to go Van Gaal would leave an improved squad. There are the bones of a successful side, but would the best or up-and-coming attacking players want to join a club where spontaneity and expression is restricted and where the likes of Ander Herrera is under-appreciated and under-used. Laughably, the ‘club’ this week briefed the papers that they fear the best will not come to the Premier League because it is so demanding that the forty goals they could score in La Liga would be reduced to twenty in England. Continental readers must have spat their coffee out at that one. This is a league in which a fit Sergio Aguero shines, where Torres and Alonso excelled, in which Cristiano Ronaldo first became a prolific machine, where Giggs and Scholes and David Silva have delighted with their technique and where Gareth Bale fired 26 goals in a season, a total he has yet to match at Real Madrid. Certainly there are demands peculiar to English football, but to use its rigour as an excuse for failure to land targets perfectly happy at already hugely successful clubs is an insult to our intelligence. United is a club which wants to be one of the European greats again but behaves in a way which will perpetually inhibit its ability to achieve that. And so I am torn, for under Van Gaal, as in the darkest days of Moyes, watching United has become a chore, an exercise in futility, offering little to enjoy or marvel at. No one is expecting miracles. But Van Gaal’s team is one which when it defends cannot attack and when it attacks cannot defend. This is a squad of his creation and yet it is wholly inadequate. But who replaces him for now? I have no idea. And it is an entirely pointless debate regardless, because the banker in the suit thinks that the coach he appointed (and cannot personally afford to have got the biggest decision wrong twice) is a ‘genius’. Some genius. He has steadied the ship, but a new Captain may be required to guide us to shore.