If we cast our minds back to exactly seven years ago today, Manchester United were four games into what would become a record-breaking 14 games without conceding in the Premier League. They beat Sunderland 1-0 on that day as Red Devils hero Nemanja Vidic snatched a dramatic injury time winner .
Man United ended that season with the joint best defensive record with Chelsea, conceding just 24 goals all season. However that team paired their excellent defending with swashbuckling attacking play, quick counter attacks, asserting their will on even the biggest teams and the belief that they would always score even if they only had one second left on the clock- they had it all.
During that historic 14 game stretch Sir Alex Ferguson’s men scored 33 goals, an average of 2.3 a game. The defensive record was historic but not something that became synonymous with Manchester United. Even today it’s a feat that gets lost in the avalanche of great attacking performances through the years: the 8-2 against Arsenal, the 4-3 against rivals Man City and so on.
Bring it forward to the weekend’s clash against West Ham and their latest bore draw. Louis van Gaal’s United have become a pragmatic side whereby they seem to pride themselves on organised and solid defending rather than it being the direct consequence of the opposition being punch drunk from a dizzying attack.
United have six clean sheets so far this season and have the Premier League’s best defensive record shipping just ten goals. They are hard to breach no doubt. However the screams of “attack, attack, attack” tell the tale that the Old Trafford faithful simply do not care about the defensive solidity and the low number of goals conceded. They want their old cavalier team back which, had they had 63% possession and 21 shots against West Ham, would have ended today with a comfortable 4-0 victory and it would be business as usual for a Manchester United team starting to build momentum ready to kick on after Christmas.
van Gaal has United play a system based around the quantity of possession rather than the quality of it. The stalemate against The Hammers makes for odd reading when teamed with the “attack” chants. United tried to attack – they were simply hopeless at it and unfortunately this has been the case for a large number of matches, not just this season, but under the former Bayern Munich manager as a whole.
United have only scored four goals twice in van Gaal’s 53 Premier League games in charge. United scoring four goals used to be quite routine when they were clicking on all fronts under Sir Alex but the stark reality is, those days are long gone and this team under van Gaal is more about grinding out results.
Chelsea have shown how effective, pragmatic football can be appreciated in a different way to the gung-ho attacking approach. However it was Mourinho which installed that mantra, it is what Chelsea are used to: winning ugly. United have always been used to winning and with a great amount of style, the argument could be made that the fans have been spoiled by the Ferguson years and – although seemingly in crisis, van Gaal has his team sitting just three points off the top playing what can be described as incredibly dull football.
There are not many teams in world football that could sit three points from the summit yet seem to be so unstable and ‘in crisis’, Manchester United are one of those teams. Much like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – it is not simply about the winning, it’s how you win.
United’s manager must take a huge amount of credit for playing hard ball with David De Gea and eventually getting him to ink a new contract and turning Chris Smalling into one of the best centre backs in the league. However United’s latest number seven, Memphis Depay, looks to be fading and United’s last number seven, Angel Di Maria was well out of the picture by this time last year.
United number sevens have always been explosive and exciting and capable of grabbing a game by the scruff of the neck. Beckham, Ronaldo, Best, Cantona. All of these players had the great gift of great improvisation, a gift that does not fit its way into van Gaal’s very strict system it would seem. The strict system has played a huge part in their defensive improvements but it has all but extinguished any creative flair.
When Anthony Martial burst onto the scene with his wonderfully taken goal against Liverpool it was a throwback to the Manchester United of not so long ago. Confident, improvised, off the cuff and simply brilliant – it was not in keeping with van Gaal’s system but it was one of the very few times all season that Manchester United looked like Manchester United again.
The United manager has spent close to half a billion pounds on new players, most of them attacking players. But the cut and thrust of Ferguson’s United now seems a very distant memory and has made way for a rigid, matter-of-fact approach which has seen what, what was a fractured defensive unit, find solidity. But it has also seen the death of what was Man United’s greatest strength: their consistent moments of team and individual unscripted attacking brilliance which made them the team so many remember fondly. It is very clear from the disgruntled fans making themselves heard that winning is not what the game boils down to. It’s winning in the most thrilling way possible.