Beyond a point, it gets difficult to evaluate Man United’s season. There are vast fields of pale, decaying yellow grass where everyone finds agreement. Horribly inconsistent league form and dropped points against lesser lights have left Louis van Gaal’s team gasping in the race for the Champions League places. Their European campaign was marked by the ignominy of a group stage exit and a hiding at Merseyside. Their football has by and large been uninspired, soporific, snore-inducing fare.
But among the decaying fields are suspiciously verdant hillocks: an identifiable core of de Gea, Smalling, and Martial have had great seasons and are a potential bedrock to build upon, swathes of greenhorn teenagers have played with a liberating freedom when injury crises forced them on the field, and an FA Cup semi-final looms in the distance as a chance to salvage something tangible from a season in transition.
Insipid fares and chaotic musical chairs
In Louis van Gaal’s defense, he has never been known to oversee exhilarating, fast-paced football at any of the teams he has coached. Even the wonder team that Johan Cruyff forged from the fires of Total Football were turned into something more functional than ethereal under his stewardship. Same was the case with his time at Bayern Munich, his fractious second stint at Ajax, and during his various spells with the Dutch national team. He was certainly successful in all his club stints, but it was generally accepted that LvG brought silverwares and not smiles.
The lack of smiles have persisted during the last two years in Manchester. Van Gaal has patronised cautious possession and positional rigidity in the hope of dominating matches through the middle, with decidedly mixed success. There have been glimpses of what can happen when his vision is executed correctly: United’s third goal in their 3-2 win at Southampton back in autumn came after an endless string of passes with the opposition tied in breathless knots. But far too often, United’s play has been characterized by a lack of adventure and bite, a reticence to cross and play vertical passes, and a paucity of goalmouth activity. A nadir was reached when the Old Trafford faithful resorted to shouting ‘Attack! Attack! Attack!’ even when United were having a run of decent results, in an active show of dissent against how their team was playing. A measly 39 goals scored this season underlines the relevance of those chants.
And it’s not like this playing style is pretty on the numbers while being ugly on the eyes. United have had a poor showing by statistical standards as well. They are 11th in the table of both defensive and offensive WhoScored ratings, suggesting that their position in the league table is actually higher than the quality of their play merits. Van Gaal’s win percentage at United so far is 50%, the lowest number he has had throughout his career.
On top of the regressive playing style, van Gaal’s eccentricities with respect to substitutions and player positions are a cause for further opprobrium from the press and the terraces. Ashley Young has played both as a full-back and a centre forward, Martial has been shunted between the wing and the centre, Lingaard has played as a wing back and a number 10, Fellaini has been moved all over the pitch; the list is endless. This strangeness is best characterized by the fusillade of fullback substitutions that van Gaal usually resorts to whether the team are winning or losing. A staggering 13 players have played at full-back this season for Man United, alluding more to the confusion of the manager than the versatility of his players. It is more of a chaotic free-for-all game of musical chairs, than a strategic siege.
Solid crux and 93 redux
A host of players have had disappointing seasons at Man United. It’s almost has if predicating the gameplay on collective performance has led to a deterioration in individual ability across the board. Darmian looks like a liability in boots now after a solid start to the season, Schweinsteiger has been stop-start, Rooney couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo before his New Year resurgence, and Depay has reprised the role of a less effective Nani. But there has been a spine of players consistently putting in good performances, a spine without which United would be much lower than they currently are.
David de Gea has only seen his stock rise since the shift to Manchester, providing the defensive backbone for Sir Alex’s last league win and being one of the few players to emerge with any credit from the short-lived Moyes era. He has been as electric and commanding as ever this season, defying the laws of physics time and again to make save after unbelievable save, the most recent of which was a breath-taking series of three saves to keep West Ham at bay in the FA Cup quarter-finals. De Gea became the first goalkeeper to win United’s player of the year award two seasons ago, an award he retained last season and looks good to accept for the third consecutive time this year.
Chris Smalling has proven an able marshal of the defence in front of de Gea, the only constant in a backline that was ceaselessly chopped and changed due to injuries and managerial whims. After enduring a mixed start to his Old Trafford career, Smalling slowly but surely came into his own in the second half of last season and has surged upwards ever since. His WhoScored rating of 7.17 is bettered only by Luke Shaw’s 7.36 – a figure to be taken with a pinch of salt owing to his early season injury – and Anthony Martial’s 7.20.
Coming to Martial, all scepticism over his huge transfer fee has undoubtedly evaporated over the course of the season. He has a predilection for the spectacular, as evidenced by the slaloming run and finish against Liverpool, the delicate dink against Sunderland, and the deliciously curled effort against Stoke. He also has a very level and humble head on his shoulders, eschewing the limelight and social media eyelid-fluttering that marks him apart from most of his generation. A return of 13 goals and 4 assists can definitely be improved, but if he can refine his rawness while maintaining his attitude, he can be United’s attacking spearhead for many years to come.
More out of accident and desperation than anything, this solid spine has been buttressed by bells and whistles of an intrepid brigade of young players this season. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Andreas Pereira, Guillermo Varela, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have been drafted into the team at various stages of the season owing to injuries, and have played with a flair and fearlessness sometimes lacking in the senior squad.
Rashford has perhaps been the pick of the bunch bursting onto the scene with a brace in the Europa League before putting Arsenal to the sword with two smartly-taken goals. Further strikes in key matches against Manchester City and West Ham show that he is unlikely to go down the Macheda route and peter out any time soon. Fosu-Mensah got his debut against Arsenal and acquitted himself well at left back, before playing centre back against Watford and right back against West Ham. With a versatility reminiscent of John O’Shea’s and a strong tackle, Fosu-Immensah (as christened by the fans) is surely one to look out for.
Varela and Borthwick-Jackson had teething problems early on but have shown enough since then to fuel optimism. Lingard has also done well to fill the unexpected void left by an under-performing Memphis. Looking at this entire crop, with Januzaj waiting on the side and de Gea, Smalling, and Martial still young, this seems to be the strongest batch of youngsters at United since the famed Class of ’93. Whether or not their success is emulated remains to be seen.
In summation, much of the bad, boring side of United seems to be deliberately wrought by van Gaal’s delusory machinations, and much of the exciting, youthful exuberance has been incidental serendipity. There are definite makings of a solid side, and a stable of tyros that can take European football by storm; but an archaic embrace of possession-based gameplay and player positions more confusing than the Marvel Cinematic Universe ensure that changes need to be rung before United can legitimately boast of moving out of Fergie’s giant shadow.
"Boring by design, exciting by accident" sums up the season for @ManUtd! Can they still finish in the top-4?— sportscafe.in (@IndiaSportscafe) April 19, 2016