Tag Archives: louis van gaal

What Comes Around

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All things considered, it’s been quite a month. The remarkable upturn in form since Solskjaer took the wheel reached an almost otherworldly level on that incredible night in Paris. A fortnight later and the giddy thrill of victory still hasn’t fully subsided. It doesn’t matter if we lose the next round 10 nil on aggregate, the fact we unexpectedly made it through to the quarter finals will remain the overriding memory of this season and a fabled moment in the club’s entire history.

Only time will tell if the likes of Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood will play major roles in attempts to return United to the game’s pinnacle in future years, but they will always have that night to look back on whatever happens. Whether they retire as MUFC legends or as mere footnotes with half a dozen appearances each, what an amazing experience for them to have been a part of so early in their careers. Titles and medals are one thing, but those rarefied moments of pure, unadulterated glory that football can deliver are far more precious. Memories, innit? Absolutely priceless.

With all this overachievement and cavorting going on, it’s not surprising that performance levels took a bit of a nosedive post-Paris and we came away from Arsenal and Wolverhampton empty-handed. The players rightly deserved all the plaudits coming their way after a stellar couple of months during which they managed to salvage a season that was looking like a complete write-off, but let’s keep things in perspective here. This whole period since Christmas has been enormously good fun but Solskjaer isn’t actually a real-life, miracle worker.

This is still the same squad containing several players who stunk the place out completely between August and December. Yes, we all know that relations between key dressing room figures and the previous manager had gone toxic, but as convenient as it might be to lay all the blame squarely at Mourinho’s feet, that isn’t a particularly accurate reflection of what was going on and nor does it tell the full story.

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Numerous players were culpable of consistently failing to perform for the previous managerial regime(s), so it figures that they are still likely to post a sudden, unexplained leave of absence now. It’s not all doom and gloom, far from it. It’s just a reminder that we’re still dealing with a couple of larger than life, hugely-revered ‘personalities’ who are eminently capable of going completely awol and failing to reach the most basic level of performance when pitted against bang-average, journeyman opposition.

To put it another way: most of the complaints aired over the last 2-3 years about the make-up of the squad and the need for further upgrades are still completely valid. 3 months of improvement and a renewed sense of optimism about the place doesn’t solve all the problems that need to be addressed. On face value, a pair of full-backs, a central defender and a wide player are what’s required at the very minimum. You could add a deep-lying midfielder and a world class striker to that list if you were going all-out and trying to fix everything at once.

Obviously, any spending spree is fraught with difficulty and doesn’t guarantee much at all. A player like McTominay has grown immeasurably in recent weeks, revealing himself as a genuine contender despite barely anyone rating him as any kind of prospect previously. If he gets a run in the side and continues to progress rapidly it could negate the need for a big money acquisition. That’s just another ‘if’, however. United aren’t in the business of ‘ifs’ and this era of football demands instant results. Solskjaer, regardless of the incredible start he’s enjoyed, won’t be granted the luxury of 12-18 months treading water. Short-termism rules so the current upwards trajectory simply has to continue.

Half the problem comes from the online fanbase United are so desperate to keep entertained. It’s mad to think that the club only opened a twitter account as recently as 2013 given their breathless enthusiasm for pumping out relentlessly banal video-clips and boasting about ‘engagement’ numbers. The Sanchez signing was a classic example of trying to make a huge statement regardless of the player’s suitability. I guess it’s easy to criticise in hindsight but was there ever any kind of plan in place to try and integrate him into the team and play to his strengths? We’ve certainly never seen any evidence of one.

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Only a few years ago, United’s transfer policy wasn’t influenced by attempts to generate memes and create a splash on social-media; everything was focused on making improvements to the team. I know that post-Ronaldo we were often frustrated by the parsimonious budget in place and Fergie’s risible attempts to seek ‘value in the market’. On the whole however, this mindful approach paid far better dividends than the scatterbrained recruitment strategy we’ve witnessed in the years since his retirement.

Given there’s evidence to suggest Ole favours a more level-headed style of management than either Van Gaal or Mourinho, it would be nice to see a more focused, coherent approach to squad-building and recruitment from now on. The twitter hoards might crave blockbuster signings and massage Woodward’s ego whenever he manages to land a big fish, but this calibre of player hasn’t done us any favours in recent times. Falcao, Di Maria, Sanchez, Pogba and Lukaku arguably… I’m struggling to see how any of these have had an entirely positive effect on the team’s progression.

Football remains a very simple game that has been over-analysed and needlessly complicated over the last decade. If the last couple of months have shown us anything, it’s that Manchester United are in a far better position doing what Manchester United have always done. Keep it simple, play attacking football and always trust in youth. If we stick to the path laid out by Sir Matt Busby and followed by Sir Alex Ferguson, history shows us everything should work out just fine. 

Copyright Red News – March 2019

www.rednews.co.uk

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Witness The Fitness

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Major progress alert! Such was the level of despondency that surrounded United last season, international breaks began to feel like some respite from the gloom rather than a major inconvenience. So following a cracking start to the season that’s seen us quickly gain in confidence and momentum, along came the World Cup qualifiers to place things on hold for a fortnight.

Another measure of the Ready Brek glow being radiated right now is the fact that transfer deadline day passed without incident. We’re not in desperate need of anyone as things stand – for the first time in 5-6 years, it feels like we’re in good shape with no glaring holes in the squad. Okay, a new right winger would be nice, but until such a target exposes himself we’ll persevere with Timid Tony and his signature smashed cross. At least we’re no longer starved of creative options in other areas of the pitch.

It was the Hull game that set my already twitching giddyometer to near delusional levels. I was already basking in the glow of watching us actually try and win a game in the last 15 minutes, even before the injury time winner prompted scenes of wild abandon that saw me to leap off the couch like a startled gazelle and start doing laps of the living room in the manner of David Pleat at Maine Road. Cushions everywhere, absolute scenes. It’s good to be back.

I wouldn’t normally pay attention to Paul Merson’s thoughts on anything whatsoever but he looks to be spot on with his assessment of other new signing, Henrik Mkhitaryan. “He is different gravy”, opined Merse in a recent Sky Sports piece. Now I’m not really sure what he’s on about there but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, because based on his 30 minute sub appearance at early pace setters/relegation threatened Hull, we look to have an absolute star on our hands.

In truth, before we signed the guy I’d never even heard of him due to a long-standing aversion to all things Bundesliga and an almost criminal lack of knowledge of the Armenian international football scene. That will change now, clearly. The way he picked the ball up in centre midfield and just… just ran straight at them… well it was almost shades of Cantona. Seriously, if this carries on it could be love. Get him in the team. Oh Micki you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind etc, etc.

Each of the summer signings has impressed thus far. Zlatan has been Zlatan: hungry for goals, an eye for the audacious, full of menace and withering looks when passes go astray. Pogba was immense against Southampton and is primed to be the midfield powerhouse we’ve been lacking for almost a decade. Eric Bailly looks fast and strong, despite being raw and still getting acquainted with the pace of the game in England. Taking Vidic as an example, even the best take a few months to settle – and if Bailly ultimately proves half the player that Vidic was, then we’ll be laughing of course.

The biggest buzz, however – combined with a still palpable sense of relief – remains the fact that we’ve now got Mourinho overseeing matters. Can you imagine the last 15 minutes of that Hull game if we’d had Van Gaal in charge? He’d have been sat bolt upright in the dugout studiously taking notes whilst Giggs peered out through the torrential rain, imploring the team to speed up the sideways passing. Meanwhile, rather than bringing on another striker in search of a winner, we’d have had Phil Jones warming up as a replacement full-back.

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Instead, rather than settling for what would have been an acceptable draw in the circumstances, we witnessed a vastly different United approach to what’s been the norm for the last 3 seasons. There was tactical variation throughout the 2nd half and we continued to press until Hull finally cracked. Rather than passively accepting their dogged resistance, the team sensed that 3 points were there for the taking and continued to probe until they got their deserved reward. The ecstatic celebrations witnessed in the stands weren’t just for the goal, they were heralding the return of the do-or-die mentality that’s been the hallmark of all great United sides down the years.

There were no knee-slides from Mourinho, however. Whilst everyone else was ballooning around on the side of the pitch, he immediately signalled another substitution to the 4th official and ran straight to Chris Smalling to begin issuing instructions. This was only a minor detail but was demonstrative of his always tuned-in, almost maniacal desire to win. I’m aware that too big a deal was probably made of Van Gaal’s reluctance to raise himself off the bench, but having a manager prowling the touchline again just suits us better.

One of the main criticisms of Van Gaal’s tenure was that he assembled a team that lacked character and personality. With Mourinho in place, and the additions of Pogba and Ibrahimović, this now appears much less of a concern. It’s too early to predict great things and they’ll be numerous setbacks ahead as there always are in football, but we’re now playing with more of a swagger than a lurch. The team looks more imposing and has some presence about it, it just feels more like United again.

If there’s one result that could completely obliterate the sun-drenched, feelgood vibes of present, it would be a reverse in today’s Manchester derby. The Mourinho v Guardiola narrative has dominated the build up to this one, masking the fact that both managers would probably have preferred this fixture in a few weeks’ time. Still, not to worry, eh? Let’s go out and smash ’em, reds.

Copyright Red News – September 2016

www.rednews.co.uk

We Are The Champions

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Typically, in a season that has become predictable in its unpredictability, United have settled into a decent run just as things are drawing to a conclusion. Whether we’re witnessing the final days of Van Gaal’s tenure or not (surely we are), there’s an excellent chance that as he departs for the sanctuary of his Portuguese villa in a few weeks’ time, he’ll be doing so as a ‘title’ winner. I can hear him now, his methods validated, all those hours of mind-numbing boredom a distant memory. “The English they never stop complaining, I won them a title! The FA Cup is a very important trophy in that country… they hadn’t won it for 12 years.”

Unfortunately, although silverware will be very welcome and moments like the goon that greeted Martial’s winner live even longer in the memory, it won’t be enough to save Van Gaal, ultimately. After a trying first year in which he at least delivered a top four finish, this season has been a backwards step and a huge disappointment overall. Although the final moments could well see him brandishing the cup and addressing an appreciative crowd in Albert Square, the dreadful monotony of the football witnessed between November and March shouldn’t be forgotten.

The quarter final replay at West Ham and the Wembley semi were stark reminders of what’s been missing far too often – genuine excitement. There are always peaks and troughs during a 60 game campaign, but barring a handful of moments from Martial and Rashford, the season mostly panned out as an excruciatingly long, uneventful slog. Win some, lose some, draw some… doing just enough to stay in the chasing pack without ever looking like we were growing in confidence and making progress. Wins were earned with scrappy performances, leads thrown away too frequently and the regular defeats didn’t prompt any kind of determined response or stunned reaction.

Van Gaal admitted himself that he’d run out of ideas at Christmas – a virtual resignation note – but he somehow survived and limped on. Since then, on each occasion his position has appeared untenable, a result has come along and bailed him out. The home draw against Chelsea, a win at Anfield, crushing Midjtylland, beating City away; all of these appeared as the sack seemed inevitable – but they still don’t mask the reality of where United find themselves. 9 wins out of the 17 league games since Christmas doesn’t demonstrate an upturn in form or provide any kind of justification for keeping him on next season. FA Cup or no FA Cup, it’s still not good enough.

During the Ferguson years, we used to hear a lot about players being selected to play for United based on personality as much as their abilities. Fergie spoke at length about youngsters’ family backgrounds being considered, and transfer targets being researched with a forensic level of detail level to ascertain whether or not they possessed the requisite character to fit in. Somewhere along the line we appear to have lost it because the team is now inherently soft. I don’t mean soft as in ‘crap in a fight’, it’s more about a lack of mental strength. The amount of times we’ve switched off in games this season or completely failed to impose ourselves for long stretches, demonstrates that something eludes us that we had in abundance previously.

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The season was summed up for me at the end of January, driving home from OT having just witnessed a 1-0 defeat to Southampton. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a fair bit of time for Chris Smalling given how he’s one of few who have actually progressed in recent times, but his reaction to the defeat that day nearly made me switch to the opposite side of the road and plough into oncoming traffic. When asked about the result, he chirped up that the players were “disappointed not to draw”. Just consider that for a moment. Disappointed not to draw. At home. Against Southampton.

That, dear readers, said it all to me. The next captain of Manchester United went on national radio to express his feelings after another pathetic home defeat and the strongest response he could muster was to suggest the team were sad they didn’t hold on for a point. Seriously, if that was genuinely representative of the dressing room reaction then the whole team needs something very drastic. I’m not talking Mourinho, forget Fergie’s hair dryer – they deserve Roy Keane with full beard, coming off a 48 hour bender, mislaid his house keys so denied any sleep levels of rage.

If there is a managerial change in the summer, one hopes it helps to instil some desire and a collective sense of responsibility to the current group of players. I’m sure they’d be the first to proclaim “of course we care!”, but do they care enough in that crazed, siege mentality sense that turns disparate individuals into a team of serial winners? I just don’t see anything like that level of togetherness, currently. It’s hard to detect much of a bond between management and players, as Van Gaal’s methods appear to be tolerated rather than trusted. Admittedly this is speculation based on hearsay, body language and tersely conducted interviews – but the gloomy demeanour of everyone involved speaks volumes.

Van Gaal looked and sounded very subdued at the semi-final press briefings, both pre and post-match. Perhaps it was the pressure, maybe a sense of relief, but he no longer sounds in any way confident at the prospect of remaining in situ beyond May. Questions about the future were dismissed with a wave of the hand and he only wanted to discuss the performance. Fair enough, you might argue – but it’s very much a marked contrast from the indomitable bluster he’s come out with all season.

There will very probably be a number of people reading thinking, “what’s the problem?” Typically unappreciative fanzine scribe having a good moan and picking holes after his team has just reached a cup final. “Can’t you just be happy for once?” Well, clearly not. Winning the cup would be a great day out and a much needed fillip for everyone connected with the club, but that’s all it’ll be – a brief respite. Over the last 3 seasons we’ve strung 3 consecutive wins together just 10 times, whereas in Fergie’s last season alone we managed 8. Van Gaal is a good man who’s made hard work of a tricky rebuild, now we need someone to come in who’ll take us back to the top.

Enjoy the summer and I’ll see you in August.

Copyright Red News – May 2016

www.rednews.co.uk