Many people have rightly claimed that the footballing philosophy that Louis van Gaal has brought to Manchester United has made them a dull, relatively predictable attacking team.
While the ideas he has put in place, centring around structure and possession of the football, have helped solidify a leaky defence, it has in turn stifled the attacking flair of which Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams were fondly remembered for.
With that significant comes criticism, rightly or wrongly, for the direction that the team is going in under the Dutchman. Many question whether it will win the club anything and even if it does, whether it would have been worth watching the mundanity of it all.
Some would also argue that the amount of money that United have spent in the last two summers demands trophies. That others have spent similar or less and have achieved results, therefore the same should be said of this current crop of players at Old Trafford.
However, some are forgetting what he inherited. The end of the Ferguson era saw the Moyes era and he simply could not lay the foundations that would stand the club in good stead not just in their immediate future but for many seasons to come.
They went backwards, without a real plan in attack or defence and with a squad that was waning, he could not put enough in place quickly enough to make a stark change.
In came Van Gaal, in came big changes to personnel and for a brief moment, it worked. The autumn was solid but it lead to a relatively bleak winter that saw United begin to dip in form. Unable to defend and with a lack of potency up front, they stagnated.
Then, there was a sign of real life.
A 3-0 performance at Old Trafford against Tottenham Hotspur was a real marker of what this team can do. There was a real energy when the ball was played forward, the team pressed high and were rewarded with quick counters in the final third that Barcelona have proved in the last few years can be so deadly.
It didn’t require a huge amount of possession, with only 52%, and despite having 11 shots on goal, only three were on target. They all ended in the back of the net, a pretty regular symptom of the new Manchester United, of which that if they tend to work a goal-scoring opportunity, it at least ends in the back of the net.
And again, it was built of the solid defensive play from earlier in the season. Spurs failed to have a shot until the 89th minutes, the on-fire Harry Kane was completely anonymous and they build on top of that with a high-press, quick attacking game.
It lasted a few games before the team ran out of steam. In came a few more signings in the summer, some extra youthful injection as well as some real solidarity in midfield and other than potentially a real solid centre-back, it was the summer the team were begging for.
From the start of the season up until now, the team haven’t set anyone alight.
Van Gaal’s tactics in most games are set up almost not to lose or concede, which seem much more sensible when you consider the plights of Chelsea but seem outrageous when you can’t be adventurous away at Leicester City, a team that have been on quite the run but aren’t the most formidable defensive team.
Instead, they tried to stop the Foxes entertaining attack and for the most part they did, it did not end in a win but the team that was set out, with three centre-backs and two defensive midfielders, although Bastian Schweinsteiger did become more advanced once they went behind.
What one can learn from these displays is that Van Gaal is at least providing a foundation of which the team can build from. No one wanted to join with Moyes in charge, he has attracted young talent that will grow with the club and their attacking flair will come to the fore at some point.
The defence can now defend properly and if Luke Shaw wasn’t injured, the back line might never have changed all season. Daley Blind has held his own, Phil Jones has impressed when fit and Chris Smalling has been a revelation. If Matteo Darmain can rediscover his confidence, it’s a good unit that is now finally protected by a solid defensive midfielder with good interplay skills in Morgan Schneiderlin.
They have the best defence in the league, conceding 10 goals in 14 games and in an era when defending has become an afterthought for some teams. It’s impressive when heading into the season, people thought they desperately needed a centre-back but all they needed was a firm structure and a bit of consistency.
While it’s clear that he’s restricting the attacking players, which is only more frustrating when you look at the talent and how some performed at the back end of last season, they have a solid backbone. Either Van Gaal will eventually let some of the reigns loose as his team continues to hold off others or someone else will make it so, much like at every other club the 64-year-old has been at.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich are both lauded for their attacking flair but what is also forgotten about, especially under Pep Guardiola, is the fact that they don’t concede many goals either. They had a basis, of which attacking play was then build upon and then the success would come.
It might be difficult to tell at the moment and a little inconsiderate to ask for people to wait for this to work but at least there looks to be a plan. Other teams spend in hope, as have United, but it’s with the intent to advance the team for the foreseeable future.
The days of traditional wing play and counter attacking football is gone, at least for the time being. The club are doing what every other rebuild should do, rebuild from the back and then move forwards, then you can create a team capable of winning silverware on a regular basis.
Whether it will be Van Gaal at the helm when that does happen is unlikely but United fans should not fret too much, the foundations are at least laid for a real identity to be placed upon them sooner rather than later.