Throughout November and December you could forgive many United fans for being at least slightly optimistic of seeing the reds finish in the top four this season. Despite not putting in the kind of performances that you would expect from a team with such a wealth of attacking talent, United were grinding out results and gaining points while top four rivals struggled to keep pace. Since the new year however, United’s already inconsistent performances have taken another dive. Meanwhile Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, Tottenham striker Harry Kane and Arsenal Striker Olivier Giroud have been in sparkling form for their respective clubs.
An incredibly meek performance (and eventual loss) against Southampton at Old Trafford was the first time in a long time that United’s Twitter fan base widely criticised the display they had been forced to endure for 90 minutes. More recently a loss away to Swansea was met with a similar damning response on social media. If these kind of displays were to occur in the early weeks of the season (which coincidentally they did) then maybe there would be less need for concern and fans would still be forgiven for showing a little optimism. Worryingly though, United only have 11 more games to play in this campaign and are no closer to answering questions that should really have been ironed out in pre-season. Questions such as “What is our best formation?” Or “What is Wayne Rooney’s best position?” and the one that will no doubt continue all the way to the end of the season “Are results more important than performances?” That third question will be the main topic of the following passive aggressive rant.
Fans, journalists, pundits and even the manager have alluded to the fact that United may be playing like relegation battlers but are still sitting in the top four with only 11 more games to play. However it has long seemed strange to me that anyone associated with a club like Manchester United would be happy to brag about what is essentially good luck. When asked to choose between performances or results I will always choose performances and I would expect the same from any logical football fan, regardless of the team in question. If you perform well then the results will come eventually. You can’t build a sustainable platform for long term success on the back of scraping mediocre results against inferior opposition. If Manchester United want to dominate a league that contains a Chelsea team run by a tactically astute Jose Mourinho and a Manchester City team that possess a seemingly unlimited pool of money then it simply won’t be possible to achieve in one season. This of course means that United will now need to wait until next season to start making the team play as a cohesive unit. The problem with waiting until next year to try and put together a solid first 11 is that, hopefully, United will have to compete in four competitions next year and as the year progresses, the team will be constantly chopped and changed in order to ensure that the squad make it to the end of the season without tiring too much. Louis Van Gaal’s best chance of trying to build something was this year. His first year.
Van Gaal inherited a team from David Moyes that was disappointing in almost every single way. Their fear factor had gone and they had no identity. Van Gaal had a blank slate to work with and only three domestic competitions to play them in. 2014/15 should have been the year that Van Gaal built a team the way he wanted it from day one and stuck to his guns even when the results weren’t forthcoming. Any one of the infinite United first 11’s that we have seen this year would be more convincing as a unit if they had been playing together all season. Even those of them with relatively little first team experience. Partnerships would have been formed, understandings of when to go forwards and when to go backwards would have become more instinctive and the foundations of a solid team could be evident by now. Instead Van Gaal has a tendency to drop players that are not performing properly, sometimes not even allowing said player to make it to half time. No United player has been given a chance to learn how Van Gaal wants them to play this year and therefore every game that United have played so far is essentially another learning exercise. Injuries have played their part in this and Van Gaal has rarely had a full squad to choose from which explains the constantly changing personnel but does little to explain the ever changing formations or the necessity to play so many players out of position at the same time.
As alluded to before, there are many fans that are willing to put up with this woeful inconsistency if it means that United can limp over the finish line and into a 3rd or 4th place finishing spot, however lets not make the mistake of thinking that United are guaranteed to keep their current league position all the way to the end of the season. The worst case scenario could be that United have spent all year putting out varied teams onto the pitch to try and nullify their opponent and it all culminates in a 5th place finish or lower. In this scenario United will once again be out of Europe and no further along in terms of tactical progression. If this ends up happening then it could be argued that Louis Van Gaal will have achieved absolutely nothing in his first year as the Manchester United manager and the team will be starting the next campaign in exactly the same state as they began this one.
Even if United manage to strengthen in the summer, Borussia Dortmund are proof that a world class 11 can’t win games without proper direction. It would have been more worthwhile for Van Gaal to persist with one philosophy this year and risk losing out on a top four finish than to try get through an entire season by constantly adjusting his team. Especially as the second option still doesn’t guarantee a top four finish and it still leaves an incredible amount of work to do next season.