Be it a fan, a hater or a neutral watcher, at some level, in some remote corner of the mind, there will surely be the question – what has happened to the club (Manchester United) which has (or had?) been the most dominant club in the history of the Premier League as we know it?
Purely from an on the pitch footballing point of view, a lot of things changed at United after Sir Alex’s retirement. Sir Alex put his faith in a hard-working manager, who had done well at Everton, but didn’t seem to have the temperament to take over at a club of the stature of Manchester United. Since then, seemingly, it has all gone downhill.
We can safely say that United were not playing with a lot of confidence under David Moyes, probably also because David Moyes never looked happy or confident in the hot seat. United finishing seventh in the season after Sir Alex’s retirement was as much a case of poor management as it was of a team which was sub-par. Now, a lot of people will say that United won the title the year before Moyes came in. What they also need to understand is that the title in question was won under Sir Alex, probably the greatest man manager and arguably the greatest motivator the game of football has ever seen. This was a man who won titles with players like Cleverley, who is languishing on the bench with Everton, manning the midfield. This was a man who built title winning teams after title winning teams in his 26 years at the club. This was also a man who probably knew that his time at the helm was almost over and wanted to end his career with a bang. Probably the reason he chose to sign someone who could give him goals, but not someone who could shore up the midfield. He wanted to leave on a high, and wasn’t really concerned about the future. For a man who did so much for the club, surely, he could afford to take some leeway. But still, he left a title winning team which a manager with a little more confidence could surely have done better with.
Moyes did not make too many signings and the team looked confused playing under him. They didn’t seem to know who is expected to do what and that led to disjointed football. Where United finished that season, wasn’t entirely unexpected. However, had Moyes not looked overawed throughout his stint at Old Trafford, he probably might have got another season at the club. Too late for that now though.
Enter 2014-15 season and enter Louis van Gaal. A man with lots of confidence, a proven philosophy and a track record to boot. He made waves at the World Cup with a Holland team which wasn’t expected to do too well. The 3-5-2 formation with Robben using his pace just behind van Persie proved to be the masterstroke. Meanwhile, a wave of optimism also swept over Old Trafford. The previous year had been bleak. Surely, van Gaal will be able to bring cheer this time round. However, he started the season with what I felt was a big mistake – the 3-5-2. None of the United players had ever played in this formation. The pre-season was too short to get used it. The players probably weren’t the right fit for a 3-5-2 either. There was no Robben to support Persie. There was no Sneijder to make the play. United had Rooney, full of action, but never someone who has been able to run past players. United had Fellaini; the less said of his first season, the better. United had Carrick, someone who could control the midfield, but not provide the energy that a Sneijder could. Most importantly, United did not have solidity at the back, with Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra all leaving the club. United needed more familiarity at the back, a more familiar formation, and a more settled line up.
After the initial string of results, van Gaal mended his ways and changed the formation to a back 4 which resulted in a little more solidity. The team started responding and the results started improving. However, the focus on not letting goals in and controlling possession also resulted in boring football, something the fans were not used to. But, who cared? As long as United were going to finish in the top 4, fans were happy. The football will come, they thought. Let’s get into the Champions League, they thought. I on the other hand was wondering, who is the leader on the pitch?
2015-16, the year of high hopes, the year in which United was going to get right back in the mix. Humungous amounts of money spent on players. Good, young, talented players. Surely, good attacking football was round the corner. As it turned out, the corner was a little too distant. This year, United has been playing the same boring, side to side passing, keep ball kind of football. Teams are not afraid of United anymore. In fact, United fans are afraid that the more attacking teams will take them to the cleaners.
This season, more than any other, the players look disinterested. They look like they don’t want to fight for the shirt. They don’t seem to know what playing for United means. Of course, this could partly be because of the way LVG trains the team. Too many new faces? Maybe. But, where is the on field general? Who is the leader in the dressing room? In fact, who is good enough to take that responsibility? Not so far back, United had at least 3-4 leaders on the pitch at the same time. Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes, all were leaders in their own right. Go down a goal, someone will step up and get the whole team to fight. Score first, someone else will step up and ensure the team buries the game. You have new players in the team, let them know what playing for United means. Let them know how hard it is. Let them know they have to give it their all or just give up and leave. That’s what leaders are supposed to do.
These days, when United concede, a lot of people consider turning off their TV sets. Fans know that the tempo of the game will not change. Fans know that no one will take up the gauntlet and fight for the cause. Fans know that they will see the same brand of turgid football.
In my opinion, at times, the leader of the team has to take matters into his own hands. The leader of the team has to step up and make sure the team shifts up a gear in tough situations. Can you imagine United in the era of Roy Keane or Gary Neville not fighting back? Who is the leader in the current team? On the field, there is no one who seems eager to take the responsibility. There is no one who seems to want to do those extra yards. Of course, LVG has to take overall responsibility for the way the team is playing, but who is the person who is taking the load off him when the team is on the field? In my view, it is time for someone to really step up and do what the Roy Keanes’ and Gary Nevilles’ of yesteryear used to do for United. Inspire.