Manchester United are second in the table and their new striker is scoring goals ahead of even the most optimistic of schedules. Things are as bright for United as they have been at any other point over the past two years, yet doubts persist about Louis van Gaal and his methods. Why do feelings of trepidation linger beneath the light of another victory?
The most consistent answer I hear to this question is that the football is dull and precautionary. There is a feeling that players are being taught to pass the ball sideways and wait for mistakes from the opposition, rather than use imagination and flair to bamboozle the opponent.
An interview with Chris Smalling last week confirmed some of these suspicions. Smalling spoke of constant “repetition and drills” in training. These were designed to give the players an instinct for where their colleagues will be at any time in the match.
United’s impressive possession stats would appear to confirm this is working. However, there is a feeling that United’s opponents know what they are going to do too. Swansea and PSV Eindhoven were able to score against United through lightening-quick breaks, thereby making the possession redundant.
The stupendous start of Anthony Martial, and indeed those of Memphis Depay and Bastian Fussball Meister, has taken the edge of this lack of thrust and guile from United. But the fans still feel that things were more exciting during the Ferguson years.
I invite anybody to trawl through the archives to read some match reports from December 1989. That month United lost to Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Aston Villa and at home to Tottenham. The most positive result was a 0-0 draw with Liverpool. It was a grim month and performances were far from glorious.
To Louis van Gaal’s credit, he has made the team tough to beat and got points on the board. At the end of December 1989, United were 15th. Perhaps there is an argument to say United were still more cavalier back then, but they weren’t winning.
As fans, we need to decide what we want. Do we want a team that wins at all costs, or a side who go down in a blaze of glory every time the chips are down? Clearly, it would be favourable to win with panache in every fixture. To see this in practice though is a fantasy.
In many ways, football fans are like aging addicts, constantly chasing a high that can never be re-lived. It would be impossible to recreate the 93rd minute of ’99 again, or Beckham’s goal from the halfway line, or Georgie’s dribble and shimmy at Wembey in ’68.
To expect such heights every week would be fallacy. Perhaps the fans aren’t asking for this though. People would rather see a bit more adventure than has been on offer so far.
Key stats that are used to brickbat Van Gaal lately have included the shots on target matrix. There is fair game for criticism here. Under Ferguson, United regularly posted more than 20 goal attempts per match. Prior to this weekend, United had fortuitously scored with their previous 3 on target.
That statistic alone should condemn United’s lack of attacking verve, as should the paltry number of strikers on the payroll at the moment. Martial has started brilliantly, but there is only one of him. United fans are used to having a striking department with four men in it. Not a 19-year-old and a Scouser.
At present, United are on course to score around 57 goals, which would be sufficient to earn redundancies for the entire coaching staff. It certainly wouldn’t win the league. One presumes Rooney will start scoring soon, but where will the rest of the goals come from?
An optimist would say that Mata might get 10, perhaps 15 for Wayne and Martial each and another 7 for Herrera if he plays; Memphis another 7 perhaps. There are not enough strikes there.
The manager may have thought it was churlish of the crowd to indulge in some light booing at the end of the Newcastle game, those chants for “attack, attack” must ring in his ears though.
The philosophy is without question drummed into the players now, but the fans aren’t convinced yet. Victory against Liverpool is welcome, second in the table is progress, but until United start tearing teams apart, the jury will remain out.
Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne