Manchester United and Southampton played out what can politely be called a “tactical chess match” on Saturday. More accurately, it was a dull, crap game of soccer with United’s narrow loss to its top four rivals (!) leaving Louis van Gaal’s team with 37 points – the exact same total it had last year at this point last season, under David Moyes. United has even scored a goal fewer, and recorded fewer shots on target.
Naturally, this led to questions about whether van Gaal is really a managerial upgrade on his predecessor. Is United actually better this year? Does van Gaal know what he’s doing? Not only are these questions incredibly boring, but the assumption at the heart of them — that the number of points won is the best indicator of progress or lack thereof — is, quite frankly, fucking stupid.
A point often made in the tiresome Moyes/LVG comparisons is that United has played some dire soccer this year, as it did last season. This is unquestionably true. United has been frequently and painfully shit since van Gaal took over, and was invariably shit during Moyes’ reign as well. But not all shit soccer is created equally. There’s a certain amount of shit that the United faithful are able to stomach — Sir Alex Ferguson put out his fair share of it, especially in his later years — but it has to be the right kind of shit.
Moyes’ United was rubbish from start to finish, so much so that most United fans are suppressing the memory of the 2013-2014 season, like that of a regrettable drunken hook-up fueled by tequila and “20 minutes to last call” desperation. Best to pretend it never happened.
But the worst part of the short-lived Moyes era wasn’t just the terrible soccer on display, it was the the sense of hopelessness. Yes, it is the hope that kills you, but it’s also the hope that gives you life. Under Moyes, it was quickly apparent that the manager was out of his depth, the players had given up on him, and no one seemed to have any idea when it was going to get any better. Under van Gaal, there is at least a sense that United is going somewhere, even if you’re not quite sure where, or why it has to stumble so much along the way.
To be fair to his detractors, van Gaal certainly has things to answer for. Unless you buy into the theory that much of his decision-making is done under the influence of drugs (entirely possible), it’s hard to explain some of what has gone on at United. Other than when Marouane Fellaini’s introduction at West Brom changed the game and birthed the brief Fellainaissance™, practically every one of his substitutions has been ineffective at best, and outright counterproductive at worst.
His starting choices have sometimes been bizarre as well. Ángel Di María has been criminally misused. After being named to the UEFA Team of the Year in central midfield, he has been played recently as a striker. An actual striker in Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, has been played in midfield with limited success. Rooney is said to “resemble” Paul Scholes’ qualities in the role, which I assume is either racist (not all pasty Englanders are the same) or in reference to Scholes’ passing ability after a week-long bender in Las Vegas.
Worst of all, he persists with playing some version of 3-5-2, despite the complete lack of technical ability in all the center backs available to him. Watching Chris Smalling and Phil Jones bring the ball out of defense, lumber forward and hit hopeless long balls when under pressure is enough to drive a man to drink. Heavily. After spending 70 gajillion dollars in the transfer market (citation needed), it is borderline unforgivable that the rearguard was not not properly strengthened.
These are all legitimate criticisms of the work that van Gaal has done so far. Truth be told, he’s lucky that the usual competition for places is so poor this year. He may have won the same number of points as Moyes so far, but he is crucially three places higher in the league table. On top of that, he has been dealing with a laughable run of injuries. It’s hard to get a team into rhythm when players are dropping with knocks, twists, pulls, and breaks just about every week.
In contrast to last year’s garbage can fire of a season, there is at least a sense that van Gaal has a vision, even if he’s doesn’t yet have the personnel to see it come to fruition. Where Moyes was too timid to properly reshape an unbalanced squad, van Gaal wasted little time in shipping out the players that either didn’t fit his “philosophy” or were just not good enough.
Naturally, this rebuilding couldn’t be completed in just one transfer window, and it is reasonable to expect the real van Gaal effect won’t be seen until at least next season. The progression on the pitch has by no means been linear, but there has been progress. Moyes’ team didn’t seem to be moving much at all; it seemed to be a disillusioned bunch of former champions sinking slowly into a quicksand of cluelessness. Van Gaal may be serving up shit, but at least it’s shit with a purpose.