Cleat Geeks

A New Year & Perhaps a New ‘Manchester United Way’

In a rather strange assessment of 2015, Louis Van Gaal expressed delight at the progress Manchester United had made in the later half of one season and the beginning of another. Firstly he cited the second half of season 2014-2015 which finished in May 2015. Manchester United had claimed 4th place in the premier league table and had therefore achieved his primary goal, a place in the Champions League in 2015-2016.RedArmyLouisVanGaal

To be far this was the lest that was expected from Van Gaal in his first season, however he achieved it. In so doing he righted the wrong of the previous season under David Moyes, 2013-2014, when United came 7th and even missed out on the unpopular Europa League.

In assessing the season 2015/2016 so far, Van Gaal expressed cautious optimism about how the team had played, “except for December” he said,” “but a year is 12 months and so you have to count it”. Unfortunately for Van Gaal that is very true and the recognition that United had a bad October and a disastrous December cannot be sweep away like the collected wrapping from December’s Christmas presents.

The first premiership match of 2016, a 2-1 win over Swansea City at Old Trafford on January 2nd ended an eight game running streak of draws and losses. The victory over Swansea was just about deserved, however, had the Swansea goalkeeper, Lukasz Fabianski practised his heading ability before the game, the last minute chance he was presented with might well have seen the ‘no wins’ run stretch to nine.

In premiership title terms the win over Swansea kept United in 5th place after 20 matches 9 points behind the present leaders Arsenal. If Manchester United are to win the title this year 9 points is not insurmountable, however they cannot afford to lose any more ground on the leaders otherwise it will be a missed opportunity and United once again will be left chasing a top four position in the race for next seasons Champions League.

Entering the New Year United have what should be a winnable home match against Sheffield United in the F A Cup Third Round on January 9th. It is of particular interest to note that the last time a United team won the F A Cup trophy was back in 2004. This will not be lost on Van Gaal as he tries desperately to win some silverware, any silverware, in his second season at the club. Failure to win a trophy after two years in charge at United will not look good either for Van Gaal, the CEO Ed Woodward, the Glazer family and perhaps more importantly the supporters.

The supporters this season have endured a certain amount of mediocrity under the present manager with his atypical philosophy on how the game should be played. Many supporters have known only the ‘United Way’ as it is called of playing football most recently under Sir Alex Ferguson, stretching back nearly thirty years. However it is no stranger to older supporters who have memories of Best, Law and Charlton and before them the Busby Babes, all managed by the late Sir Matt Busby.sirmattbusby

But what is this mystical “Manchester United Way, which has the power to make or break managers? Speaking to Bobby Charlton upon the player’s arrival at Old Trafford as a raw 15-year-old in the 1950’s, United manager Sir Matt Busby encapsulated the essence of an attitude that pervades around Old Trafford to this day. “All those lads you see going to the factory in Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday,” Busby told Charlton. “They have boring jobs, so you have to give them something they will enjoy.”

If you want to pigeon-hole it, in essence it is two wingers, overlapping full-backs and attacking midfielders but really there is far more to it than that. It is almost a state of mind. “The ‘United way’ is something fans have got used to,” said former United skipper Bryan Robson. “It is really attacking, good to watch. For the fans, that is the way the club has to play. I would argue United have those players now: Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, and Adnan Januzaj are all really good players. The key is getting the best out of them.”

The United Way calls for wingers to play like wingers and cross the ball from wide onto the heads or feet of the forwards. With a basic shape of 4-4-2 that is adaptable and able to change given the situation the team finds itself in.

What has become a Van Gaal mantra of late, repeated in his press conference before the Sheffield United match is the fact that to win a game you have to score goals, or at least one more that the opposition. Van Gaal has bemoaned the fact that his team are not scoring at the right time and therefore are not winning enough games to challenge for the Premiership Title. To many observers they are not playing the United Way and this is anathema for a club with the history of Manchester United.

will-keaneIt seems odd that Van Gaal is using this truism in this way because it was he who allowed strikers of the quality of Robin Van Percy, Radamel Falcao and Javier Hernández to leave the club permanently. It was Van Gaal who also allowed strikers Januzaj, Will Keane and James Wilson to go out on loan for the season.

Perhaps having seen the error of his ways he recently brought back to the club Januzi and Keane and perhaps Wilson will not be far behind. Admitting publicly that they need to score goals and perhaps not being able to get their striker targets in the January window ‘needs must’ so for Van Gaal bringing back these youngsters is a viable option.

By his own admission Van Gaal does like not competition for places but prefers rather to put faith in his squad players and in so doing build up their confidence. Whilst this in some ways is a noble and humanistic thing to do at a club of United’s stature people might argue the competitive edge is needed within the squad to ‘keep them on their toes’.

An example of Van Gaal’s methodology is seen in the plight of Wayne Rooney who has had an atrocious season so far. Van Gaal has only publicly ‘dropped’ him once, for the first half of the match Stoke City, then reinstating him for the second half, without much improvement.

Van Gaal’s philosophy and his patience is about to tested as he enters 2016 with league and cup matches that will in the end determine his own fate at the Theatre of Dreams. If an old dog can learn new tricks perhaps playing the United Way whilst not guaranteeing success will go some of the way to appeasing a growing number of dissatisfied supporters.

jim@1211plussubs

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