Manchester United have been a strange beast under Louis Van Gaal. They were a strange beast under David Moyes too, dangerous away from home (in the league at least) but totally naff at Old Trafford. But Van Gaal’s strange beast is different. His side rarely ever looks great or totally shambolic (as Moyes perfected), but increasingly it seems to get the job done. Of the 9 games that his United team have played in all competitions this season 8 have been in the balance, the team’s separated by no more than a goal, going into the last four minutes. It’s coronary inducing stuff. They have never really convinced, and yet here we are, second in the league, two points behind City.
One of Louis’ side’s tricks is to make the game look like it’s safe and they’re in control, then drift off into the land of nod and suddenly realise that they’re at a football match, not a pyjama party. At home to Spurs and Liverpool and away at Swansea, PSV and yesterday, at Southampton, all looked to be going smoothly, the tempo dropped, the whole unit went all Sleeping Beauty and suddenly it was game on. It’s a strange curiosity that a team which bases its entire game-plan around control of the ball, control of the tempo, control of the match, can show total control when seeking a goal but become so allergic to a football when protecting a lead. Surely that is when control is most desperately needed. But what do I know?
That loss of composure cost United dearly in Eindhoven and a game against an average side was allowed to drift away. We will have to wait and see how costly that defeat, against arguably the weakest side in the group, will end up being. The result was overshadowed by the sickening injury to Luke Shaw, a double leg fracture probably ending his season. How cruel that it should happen at all, but particularly to a young man who had overcome his fitness and form issues of last season and was possibly United’s best player in the opening month and a half of the campaign. The hope is that he can fully recover and regain those performance levels. The fear is that he cannot. Perhaps that played on his teammates minds, although their best spell came after the incident. Ultimately, poor finishing and sloppy defending turned victory into defeat and suddenly a win at home to Wolfsburg and then in Moscow become imperative. Both will be tough tests.
It’s another curiosity of Van Gaal’s tenure, this season at least, that he never seems to be more than a game away from losing the trust of many of the fans. Before the Liverpool game the pressure was on, as it was at St.Mary’s at a goal down after an abject first half an hour. Southampton should have been out of sight, but largely due to profligacy they weren’t. Then, with the game drifting, Lady Luck intervened, the linesman failing to spot everyone’s favourite real-life teddy bear, Juan Mata, in an offside position. The ball broke to United’s first professional cyborg, Anthony Martial, and a sweet turn and deft finish later his side were level. I’d be interested to know whether the FA and Premier League know he’s a cyborg. His programmer clearly knew that people would question his humanity on account of no nineteen year old anywhere being as ice cool as he, so (by remote control, no doubt) he made his creation smile with ‘joy’ for approximately half a second after his second goal, another ludicrously composed finish after Yoshida’s under-hit back pass. I was beginning to wonder if he had no teeth. With a wonderful touch, pace, invention, technique and finishing it’s become clear that many of us, myself included, underestimated his ability to make an instant impact. More fool us because, whatever his price, the kid is ready. More ready than most of his teammates, to be honest. In my defence, I didn’t know he was a cyborg.
Whatever, he’s everything that Wayne Rooney no longer is. United’s captain must see his footballing life flashing before his eyes every time Martial does something deftly, or fast, or with incredible composure. That, Wazza, is the lad who is going to retire you. If Rooney keeps playing as he has all season it may only be a matter of months. ‘Captain’s privileges’ or not, Van Gaal can recognise sh*t on a stick when he sees it. The strength in depth that the midfield has means there’s no space for him to odd-job in there, leaving him with the number ten spot, the only one of his positions he hasn’t stunk the joint up in for long enough to get moved. The end, it would appear, may be nigh. Martial’s £36-58m would be worth it just for that. It’s double dice that Van Gaal got a Football Manager wunderkind for that money as well. Go Louis. Now if you could just exile Rooney to the under-21s then that would be peachy.
Anyway, United were 2-1 up on Sunday and decided to play some ‘olé!’ football, which was nice. Imagine our surprise when, at the end of two minutes and forty-nine seconds of pretty triangles, Memphis did a ludicrous turn thingy, hit the post and the teddy bear caressed in the rebound. Forty five passes. PEAK VAN GAAL. If I were being picky, it would have been better if Memphis had scored, but beggars can’t be choosers. It was everything Louis has been trying to get his team to do for over a year. It’s only downhill from here….
By this time Bastian Schweinsteiger was on, pointing and cajoling and moving and passing, a joy to behold. What a great signing he has been and, touch wood, will go on to be for Van Gaal. In a team made up of many players who have never won a major trophy and, in some cases, never competed at the top end of a top league, his guidance and calm is absolutely imperative. With Michael Carrick starting to look his age, Schweinsteiger’s experience could be vital this campaign. £6m. Remarkable business. What’s more, Schweini and his family seem to be inordinately nice types. His use of social media leaves the masses cooing. What a player, what a guy.
So there we were, 3-1 to the good, getting all cocky and gloating. The game looked safe. Just to mess with our heads the manager had subbed Matteo Darmian at half time, bringing on no-ones favourite right back, Antonio Valencia. A torrent of invective was forthcoming from across the globe. But in truth, the Ecuadorian had a very solid half, for once, looking more stable and dependable than the Italian. Go Louis. Unfortunately Van Gaal very nearly destroyed his own masterpiece, throwing on Paddy McNair late in the game, when protecting the lead. United fell apart, conceded and flailed around like a particularly flappy fish on land. In the end the win was achieved, even though the fans were once again water-boarded at the death. Van Gaal and the rest of us are indebted to David De Gea and his Go Go Gadget Arms (look it up kids). Whether he remains at the club by luck or judgement, his presence will be worth 10-15 points this season. Indeed, had he been in goal at Swansea, United could be unbeaten and top of the table now. The Spaniard’s save from Fonte’s header, with the game locked at 2-1, was utterly fecking stupendous. Four or five more times he would rescue his all-at-sea defence, most impressively when tipping away a fine shot from Victor Wanyama, the Kenyan’s check-back on the edge of the box having sent Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger back to kindergarten.
And the job was done, and those of us who hadn’t perished from asphyxiation could breathe again and yearn for a nice, easy, routine victory. Two of those would be quite pleasant in the home games against Ipswich and a truly appalling Sunderland side. If not then, then Christ knows when, because October brings the most ludicrous set of consecutive fixtures I can ever remember seeing. After taking on Arsenal and Everton away, United face City at home and Palace away, with a trip to Moscow to face CSKA sandwiched in the middle. Harsh. Two wins in the next two will give Van Gaal some more breathing space going into that tough month. It would be breathing space which would be well deserved but narrowly achieved.
Regardless, by hook or by crook this side seems to be getting on the right end of some (alas, not all) tight games, the sort of matches that they more often than not would have lost or drawn last campaign. For that he can thank a striker/cyborg, who gives us hope that watching United might be potentially quite fun again, and a goalkeeper who doesn’t particularly want to be at the club but who is the consummate professional and a world class ball repeller. A star is born, another retained. Both allowed us to temporarily take our minds off the loss of Luke Shaw to that sickening injury. Whilst there are still alarming gaps in a lop-sided squad (the bench at St Mary’s consisted of a keeper, a centre back and five midfielders), which will probably preclude a genuine title challenge, there is real potential in this side. If Van Gaal can successfully address the jittery way that his team react to hard-pressing when leading and if Memphis Depay can consistently harness his outrageous talent then watching United could become really good fun again. For the moment we will have to make do with intermittent brilliance and cardiac arrest inducing finales. But that’s ok, because it’s a damned sight better than we’ve seen for a long time. We’ll take it, and thank our lucky stars for that new cyborg of ours. He looks quite handy.