Man how we love to play coach. Pick the team, bawl at the profligacy of the centre-forward or the wastefulness of the ‘base of the diamond’. We love all that. We love being the bloke in charge – particularly when the bloke in charge ain’t making it happen.
It’s maybe an unattractive impulse. Expressing our pret-ty hypothetical superiority over the guy getting paid an enormous wedge to take all that pressure and guide all those juvenile show-pony people. Being brash and noisy about stuff we feel we know intimately but actually aren’t within a light year of; being The Boss at a mega-club.
Currently Manchester United FC (have you noticed?) are in what feels like a mess. Most extraordinarily, the manager – despite being an undoubtedly powerful personality and a legitimately major league coach – seems to have no control. Seems to have…
But hang on now. If you pause, take a deep breath and then consider the amount of media coverage and bar or living room banter about MU – say, last night and today – then maybe you/we might stifle our furies. Maybe we’ll reflect more maturely on a ‘hugely complicated situation’, with ‘untold numbers of mitigating factors conspiring against progress’. For four seconds. Then we’ll get frothing again and the ‘I CAN’T BE-LIEVE’S’ and the ‘IT’S JUST COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLES’ will start flooding violently out. Because that’s just what us fans do.
And that’s great. It’s (weirdly, perhaps?) one of the essential joys of the game. This idea that WE GET IT and sometimes those mega-folk, those plastic icons don’t. We know better than them and we could do better than them because we know what player X can do because it’s OBVIOUS, right? Obviously Jones shouldn’t be taking corners; obviously we should have bought more central defenders; obviously (now) Ferguson himself was worth 20 points a season – himself! All that stuff is the beery lifeblood of the game.
But back to now. MU are in the Top Four but seem unlikely to remain there, given that they are currently, in the round, pound-for-pound, behind Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton in terms of that phenomenon we might just call ‘playing standards.’
Swansea fans might reasonably argue that they have played more joined up footie than United this season but Stoke – nah – can’t. So maybe we could put United 7th in the table of righteousness. If we did isolate the defensive unit – why not? Everybody else has! – then we might concur with Stan Collymore that MUFC have about the 8th or 9th best defence in the league, even when at full strength. In short van Gaal has work to do.
Van Gaal does have work to do but what kind of work? Is it tinkering or is it still tectonic bloody shifting? Is this lumpen, faintly amateurish fug actually a way towards something? Is the mist gonna clear and HOW SOON? Will the advent of yet more players deliver us something kosher – something fabulous?
All these questions seem valid simply because the shapelessness of the present does imply lack of belief… generally. Hard to intuit anything else but a fear that whatever van Gaal is selling to his players too many of them are either too poor, too dumb or too over-awed by the responsibilities of the shirt to buy in. Either that or the manager himself lacks the personal skills or the authority to shape the project. It’s both fascinating and deeply concerning for the fans.
Can van Gaal – a serial winner and seemingly impervious to chronic pressure – be falling short in terms of bundling or bullying or cuddling or managing his players towards a clear objective? (And by that I mean playing elite-level football, not the specific target of Champions League. A composed, confident and consistent side would walk into that category.) Whatever ‘state’ the club was in when he took over – and let’s face it there were problems but it was hardly Coventry City – shouldn’t things be better than this by now?
Of course they should. The manager like almost every player has underachieved. He’s put himself in a position where fans/pundits/commentators are entitled to ask whether he’s up to it. Is he up to transforming or re-energising individuals and/or galvanising the side – the team? It seems absurd that we should be asking such a question of such a gargantuan figure in the game.
But hey currently most would argue that there is little in the way of team shape – or more accurately that the side feels and plays sporadically in unconvincing flashes or spurts – that things don’t link. This may be combination of lack of understanding of roles – so tactical – but also a clear lack of belief. (Bringing us back to the gaffer, right?)
Belief may not be the same thing as confidence so let’s clarify; belief here might refer to comfort within the system, meaning understanding and ease with your role in the side. This surely then is both supportive of the whole – the team shape – and liberating for the individual. Players who believe can simply play; they’ll play without fear and with that wonderful instinct; they’ll express themselves confidently.
So how many Manchester United players currently are playing with this belief… and is this a reflection of failures in management as well as inadequacies in the player? ‘Course it is.
Good managers and coaches at every level set the tone; they make it oppressive or not, fun or not. I’ve said this many times but it is the role of the coach to facilitate the expression of talent. Not to say too much and complicate things; not to overload players with either information or pressure. To facilitate the expression of talent by knowing the individuals and therefore knowing what needs to be said… and how… to the individual… to the team.
Van Gaal may yet come through. It feels unlikely however that Smalling and Jones and Evans and Valencia and Fellaini… and maybe Falcao and Januzaj and Mata (even) will blossom under him. Because either they seem bereft of belief (and therefore error-prone, or debilitatingly short of composure) or they are out of favour. This is erm… half the team.
I repeat my previous claims that the sense that half the team seems to be wilting under the pressure of playing for their contract suggest chronic, what tend to be known these days as ‘systemic’ issues which do come back to the coach.
Specifically, what is his manner with individual players? Do they respect him? Is he a good bloke to be around and to have ‘on your side’? Or has he cut some of the players adrift – or is he in danger of doing so… or do some of them fear that? Does Mata, who has surely proved himself to be a genuine top level player, wander on the fringes having become disillusioned? Does van Persie know he too must get fit and get mobile to earn a place? Is Rooney thinking ‘Jee-sus I need to get out of here? (Again.)
If it sounds that I’ve dropped into that negative spiral again I apologise. This is not what I want. I want beautiful, imaginative attacking football; I want Old Trafford to be a place for theatre and for the legitimate despatch of sporting opposition. I want Manchester United please.
Last night a good Arsenal side barely had to play to beat United at Old Trafford. There was little in the way of coherent football from van Gaal’s side again and they threw in errors left right and centre. Plus they brought an unacceptable level of shame on the club. There was a wanton-ness, a poor and cynical side to their play that spoke loudly of desperation and of lack of control. Van Gaal, as custodian of the club, needs to address that pret-ty sharply too.