Throwing players in at the deep end requires courage. ManU have done that consistently
This international break gives us an opportunity to assess the first half of the season before the hectic winter activities. Titles are not won or lost in November-December, but by Christmas, we will have a fair idea of what to expect in May. We are talking about the Premier League here and the situation at the Bridge is getting increasingly desperate. Chelsea are placed 16th in the table—just two paces above the drop zone. In 12 matches, the defending champions have lost seven times, winning only thrice. Club owner Roman Abramovich has been very patient so far; unusual for someone who likes to play the Russian roulette. He has sacked 10 managers since taking over in 2003. Jose Mourinho is dodging the bullet, but he must turn things around very quickly to save his job. If Cesc Fabregas is to be believed, the manager hasn’t lost the dressing room. “Mourinho trusts us and we trust him.” There’s still a silver lining in the cloud…
This column, however, intends to focus on Manchester United because the story at Old Trafford appears to be interesting at the moment. Twelve matches, seven wins, 24 points—United are in the top four and only two points separate them from league leaders Manchester City. Opta informs, they’ve now kept a clean sheet for 555 minutes. You expect a team in transition to be lauded for being so resolute. But they’re copping the flak, especially their manager Louis van Gaal, because United are not playing ‘the United way’. They’ve scored only 17 goals in 12 games and patience is wearing thin among fans and former club greats.
Paul Scholes is leading the tirade. The ex-United midfielder revelled in reticence during his glittering top-flight career that lasted from 1993 to 2013. Looks like he’s very keen to make up for lost time, as a TV pundit said. “It’s a team now you wouldn’t want to play against because they’re tightly organised. But it seems he (Van Gaal) doesn’t want players to beat men and it’s probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in. The hardest thing to coach is scoring goals and creativity,” Scholes had said after United crashed out of the League Cup. The ‘ginger genius’ upped the ante ahead of United’s Champions League fixture against CSKA Moscow. “It’s just a sideways, possession, boring style of football and you’ve to say, does he have a problem with forward players?”
When a club legend speaks, fans listen. And they roundly booed Van Gaal for substituting Anthony Martial for Marouane Fellaini during that game. United loyalists are not prone to mutiny. They stand by the team through thick and thin. Turning on the manager was a direct consequence of Scholes’ comments. But Van Gaal’s decision had been vindicated as his side won the match 1-0. It was United’s first win against a Russian club. He kept faith in Wayne Rooney and the captain eventually delivered, heading home a brilliant Jesse Lingard assist.
Four days later, Lingard scored the opening goal against West Brom; an excellent right-foot curler from outside the area. The young man has usurped the £25-million summer signing Memphis Depay into the first team because Van Gaal cares a hoot about reputation or price tag. And as the game entered the last quarter, he brought on 18-year-old left back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. It was heartening to see two academy graduates—Borthwick-Jackson is a Mancunian—on the field and doing well. “I put Cameron in the line-up without any fear and I’ve to say he did very well. I’ve seen him once or twice and I’ve been impressed by him,” Van Gaal said after the match.
Football is not about glory-hunting. It’s easy to buy your way to the top, but bringing players through the ranks and throwing them in at the deep end requires courage. United have done that consistently. From the Busby Babes to the Class of ’92, this club has always maintained a different identity. Van Gaal, too, is backing the home-growns. In fact, this is one of the key features of his coaching, which his work at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich will attest. It’s very pleasing that even in the cut-throat competition of the Premier League, the Dutchman is following his philosophy, ignoring threats from the pretenders and big-spenders. So give credit where it is due. Apologies to Scholes, but United seem to have the right man for the job, and they’re moving in the right direction.
We’ve to put things in perspective. Van Gaal’s United are still not a finished article despite the fact he has spent over £250 million since arriving at Old Trafford last year. It takes time to build a team. Sir Alex Ferguson had to wait for four years to win his first major trophy. He ended up as the greatest manager in the history of the game. Van Gaal deserves support.
The 64-year-old took charge after David Moyes’ moronic regime, when the confidence of the players was at an all-time low. He’s rebuilding the club. Yes, Van Gaal’s style is completely different from Ferguson’s gung-ho approach, but every manager has his own methods and fans must respect that. There’s no harm in building from the back and playing possession football. It’s not easy on the eye, but effective. Apart from being in the top-four in the Premier League, United also top their group in the Champions League. Yes, they lack the cutting edge upfront but once again, we’ve to be patient. Martial, Lingard and Depay are all very young and will grow with experience. Even the great Cristiano Ronaldo needed two seasons to get into the groove after he arrived at Old Trafford as an 18-year-old in 2003. Premier League is the toughest football tournament on earth.
Make no mistake; United won’t win the title this season. But a strong winter charge and a stronger finish will set them up big-time next term. “There are things as a team that we do differently to how we did them in the past. But to me that’s just obvious when you’ve a new manager and he has different beliefs,” said Michael Carrick. Spot on.
Luke Shaw’s injury has been a huge blow to United. It’s always difficult when you lose your most improved player. But the boss is coping with it well. He has instilled belief, maybe at the expense of attractive football. But pragmatism is now the order of the day and we expect club emissaries like Scholes to be more judicious. They’ve earned the right to express their concern directly to the manager or coaching staff. Why play to the gallery?