If I had to equate United right now with any period of their time in the Premier League, I’d say they are re-experiencing the time between 2003 and 2006 where we went three seasons without winning the Premier League. Throughout that time Ferguson faced calls to go, accusations that he’d had his time and should move on. But all the while he was building a squad that would go on to great things.
The underlying issue with United now is what the squad will look like once Van Gaal is done with it.
Hired on a three year contract and at United with a three year plan in mind, Van Gaal’s team will have to look like the finished article when the Summer 2016 transfer window shuts. He’ll have no more opportunities for a major recruitment drive or cull, and expects to hand his successor (whether that be Giggs or someone else) a team of Premier League Champions that isn’t about to fall apart when he leaves.
However, Van Gaal cannot look so far ahead to the future when he has such problems in the present. Manchester United’s league position can be pointed to as evidence of a system delivering results even without providing exciting attacking football. But this is a false piece of evidence, and not vindication of LVG‘s system.
The Premier League is poor this year, United would not be so close to the top if Chelsea were not so pitiful in their title defence nor if City were taking charge of a season where they should probably be lifting the title.
Besides, United are on an uninspiring run with five 0-0 draws in their last nine games and have only scored three in their last six home games. Their finishing has not been good enough, but the chronic lack of goals points towards an attacking system failing to deliver.
For a team that could have been top of the table but for a few points, they’re also in danger of dropping out of the top four as Spurs begin to outpace them and Liverpool under Klopp picks up speed.
Van Gaal deserves credit for turning United into the best defensive team in the Premier League. The improvements made by Chris Smalling and even Phil Jones since his arrival have been excellent. Smalling can lay a legitimate claim to being the best centre back in the Premier League right now, he’s about on par with Kompany and Koscielny in terms of importance to his team. But this is helped by playing two defensive midfielders, robbing United of an additional man going forwards in attack.
Something particularly frustrating to United fans is Van Gaal’s apparent abandonment of 4-3-3, a formation that produced good football in step with LVG’s desires and capably beat Spurs, Liverpool, and City along the way before injuries to key players dragged it down. The United team that played 4-3-3 offered a good template to build on, yet it has been seemingly abandoned and the replacement has not offered up anywhere near the same quality.
If Van Gaal is at United to build them into a footballing power again, why did he abandon what appeared to be a significant step in the right direction?
It’s not all doom and gloom. United have plenty of time to turn their season around, and there’s still a sense that Van Gaal doesn’t have all the players he needs to make his attack work. While United’s interest in Sadio Mane was originally puzzling, his raw pace and power make it clearer by the game how he’d fit in. But change is needed and Van Gaal is not often one for doing so, even when faced with growing unrest among United fans. His window of opportunity to win the fans back around to his side is shrinking but not gone, he’s still got time to change opinions.