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United want the ‘Old United’ back

If Van Gaal (left) were to be relieved of his duties, Ryan Giggs (right) could be appointed interim manager. Photo courtesy: The Guardian
If Van Gaal (left) were to be relieved of his duties, Ryan Giggs (right) could be appointed interim manager. Photo courtesy: The Guardian
If Van Gaal (left) were to be relieved of his duties, Ryan Giggs (right) could be appointed interim manager. Photo courtesy: The Guardian

As always, at United there is more than meets the eye.

If one were to describe the club’s season so far, they could do it in one sentence and that would be enough: Manchester United has lost its identity. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg that is threatening to sink a club so proud of its traditions and the “United Way”.

Who’s to blame? No one can say for sure. Was it the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson? The harshest critics will say Ferguson somehow managed a title in his final season in charge despite having an ageing and inconsistent squad to fiddle with. Ferguson’s Premier League-winning side three years ago consisted of the old guard (Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs), the fledglings (Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley) In Robin Van Persie, though, they had a prolific striker who pumped in 30 goals that season. And Rooney, too, chipped in with 16 of his own.

When Ferguson left, so did a chunk of United’s mainstays, leaving his successor David Moyes with a highly inexperienced team that did little to mount a serious title defence the following season. Moyes, who seemed overwhelmed at taking charge of such a big club, was sacked before the season could end. United limped to seventh on the table with Ryan Giggs donning his managerial hat until Louis Van Gaal was appointed as a permanent solution.

It seemed to work, too. Van Gaal, who had just taken Holland to the finals of the FIFA World Cup showing remarkable nous, tact and acumen, brought in Angel Di Maria for a British record transfer fee. He coaxed Radamel Falcao to head to Manchester, replaced the departing Patrice Evra with the likes of Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo, and bolstered his midfield with Ander Herrera.

A bright pre-season in the US seemed to wipe out the painful memories of David Moyes’ United. But the first game of the season brought the clouds back over Old Trafford. Swansea defeated United in the season opener, ad United would never really recover from that result. Old Trafford, once a mighty fortress where teams would come to only avoid defeat, became the hunting ground for all and sundry, with United the hapless prey. Team after team erased 30-, 40-year-old records of always losing at the home of United by registering shocking victories. And the manner of United’s defeat was appalling, too. These weren’t close games which United did everything to try and get back in; rather, these were games in which the team simply lost the will to fight.

The fans, though, incredulous at United’s failings and lack of desire, were willing to let it go thinking this was a period of rebuilding. There was a silver lining at the end of the season: United managed to qualify for a Champions League playoff by virtue of finishing fourth.

The next season – the current one – everything went downhill.

Louis Van Gaal’s dour “philosophy” of holding on to the ball, marking zones on the pitch, choosing the safe pass over the adventurous starting grating away at the old United identity of panache, verve and innovation. Gone were the overlapping runs of the full backs, gone was the kind of movement the strikers made that allowed the midfielders to get ahead and squeeze the game, gone were centrebacks who marauded through to midfield and beyond with the ball between their feet. United suddenly look like a team afraid of the ball. They are unimaginative, uni-directional and hopelessly ineffective.

Teams are now prepared to let United keep the ball and rack up possession figures of 65%, 70%, and hit them with pace on the counter-attack. It has worked, too. Teams like Swansea, Bournemouth, and now Norwich have found it easy to soak up the pressure, and then deliver the killer blows when United invariably made a mistake and lost the ball.

The result: United have not managed win in the last six games, dropping from 2nd on the table to fifth. The team management had expressed their confidence in Louis Van Gaal, but that was before the team was dumped from the Champions League, before the losses to Bournemouth and Norwich, and before the news of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola being on the market.

Team confidence is at an all-time low. With Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez, Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria, James Wilson all shipped off, United have only two strikers in the worn- and burnt-out Wayne Rooney, and the young, inexperienced, but undoubtedly talented Anthony Martial. Rooney looks too jaded to lead the front-line, while it would be unfair on Martial to take up that mantle at such a young age, at such a massive club.

The rest of the squad, too, is unsure of what they are doing. Ashley Young, good on the left wing, plies his trade at right-back these days. Ander Herrera, creative, quick-thinking, finds himself unable to escape the bench, while Marouane Fellaini seems to get starts just because of his height. Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger are at the ends of their careers, while Schneiderlin’s hasn’t taken off yet. Memphis, the much-vaunted arrival, hasn’t lived up to the hype, and Juan Mata, the creative engine of the team, has struggled to find space on the pitch.

The last two games of 2015 are going to be crucial for Van Gaal. Against Stoke, and then against Chelsea two days later, are two games that the Dutchman must win at all costs. If he doesn’t, 2016 could be the year he finds himself without a job.

As far as the players are concerned, they are desperate for a break. They need an injection of inspiration. They need someone who can tell them it is OK to play attractive football, to be adventurous, to be energetic – in short, to be Manchester United.

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