It cost David Moyes his job, and his successor is also feeling the weight of Old Trafford’s mythical bearing that makes or breaks managers. “The Manchester United way” is a standard set for every man that takes charge of English football’s most successful club, and right now Louis Van Gaal is falling foul of it.
The thing is, ‘The Manchester United Way’ doesn’t exist. It might have done at one point, back when Sir Matt Busby demanded his players entertain the working class on their day off. “All those lads you see going to the factory in Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday,” he said. “They have boring jobs, so you have to give them something they will enjoy.”
Or even when Sir Alex Ferguson led United to a historic treble triumph in 1999 playing a brand of cavalier, never-say-die football that become synonymous with the club for a time. But more than 15 years later, ’the Manchester United way’ – which sets a standard of attractive, dynamic, fast-flowing play – is now nothing more than a legend. It’s a false benchmark.
That’s not to say United fans should be content with the way Van Gaal has their team playing, but to claim the club has a certain identity that must be adhered to is arrogant folly. Man Utd have been a club without a distinct style of play for quite some time. Believe it or not, they were boring under Ferguson too.
Take the Scot’s final season in charge of the Old Trafford club, for instance. Had it not been for the goalscoring exploits of Robin Van Persie, United would have been left short in attack just like Van Gaal’s side is this season. Without the Dutchman Ferguson’s team would have averaged just 1.57 goals per game – not far off the 1.42 goals Van Gaal’s side are averaging per game this term.
Were United really such a cavalier outfit with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley anchoring the centre of midfield? Remember how Ferguson repeatedly refused to play Shinji Kagawa – an inherently inventive playmaker – in his preferred number 10 position, instead using the Japanese international out on the wing where he could graft more?
United’s lack of cutting wing-play can be traced further back than Van Gaal’s arrival too, with Cristiano Ronaldo the club’s last truly effective flanker. Danny Welbeck was rarely given a chance as the number nine – just like Anthony Martial this season – whilst Wayne Rooney was even used as a central midfield on occasion. Is that really any more progressive than any of the moves made by Van Gaal at Man Utd this season? Ferguson, just like the Dutchman now at the helm, was a pragmatist in his latter years. It allowed him to outlast everyone else.
It is true that United’s attack has declined over the past five years, but certainly not to the extent some would have you believe. After the first 14 games of the 2010-11 season (when United won the Premier League, and made the Champions League final) Ferguson’s side had scored 28 goals, whilst Van Gaal’s have netted 20. Is such a gap really deserving of such profound conclusions about philosophy and identity?
Of course, there is no right way to play football – only shades of effective ways to play the game. In that sense, Van Gaal shouldn’t concern himself with how his tactics are viewed by his own fans if the results are coming. He certainly doesn’t have a duty to entertain the working class, like Busby did. The right way is the way that works.
And yet the mythical ‘Manchester United way’ line is still trotted out as a yardstick to beat Van Gaal, and Moyes before him, with. Perhaps only with the failure of one of their own will United accept just how unreasonable their unwritten criteria truly is. It might take Ryan Giggs’ struggle – as Van Gaal’s successor – for that to dawn.
“It is my philosophy and it is Manchester United’s philosophy,” Giggs proclaimed upon his appointment as interim manager following Moyes’ dismissal in April last year. But exactly what that philosophy is becomes a little harder to determine when a deeper look is taken. United fans might not like Van Gaal’s way, but longing for ‘The Manchester United way’ is a waste of time. It simply doesn’t exist anymore.