Van Gaal still isn’t getting the most out of Manchester United’s talent

If, before the start of the season, you had offered a top four spot and a place in the FA Cup quarterfinals to most Manchester United fans, they would have snatched your hand off, even if you only offered those results through late February. In that sense, the Louis van Gaal era is off to an acceptable start; acceptable, if you have modest standards and haven’t watched any of the games, that is.

While the results could obviously have been better, the real disappointment is in the style (and even using that word to describe United at present stretches the limits of its definition). Bar a brief spell of games in the second month of the season, United has been awful to watch all year. The team can’t seem to defend competently and attack with purpose within the same match, which is usually the minimum requirement for a top team.

So far, van Gaal and his men have benefitted from the relative failures of the teams around them. But with Liverpool, Tottenham, and Arsenal all showing improvement, that “third place and the FA Cup” dream is very much in jeopardy. If this team is going to meet even tempered post-Fergie expectations, it needs to get its collective shit together, and quickly.

Manchester United v Leicester City - Premier League

Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

Identifying what is preventing United from living up to its supposed potential isn’t a hugely difficult task. Just watch a few games, and the problems are laid bare. The challenge for van Gaal and his team is that there are so many problems. In fact, it’s easier to start with what’s not wrong. David de Gea is unquestionably world class, and has been playing out of his skin this season. That’s pretty much the full list of “Not Shit Things About 2014-2015 Manchester United.” And even that silver cloud has a dark lining, because the Spaniard has less than 18 months left on his contract, and Real Madrid is batting its eyelashes. And anyone who thinks that Real Madrid doesn’t always get what it wants, please get in touch with me about a bridge for sale.

Aside from the future Abu Dhabi Santiago Bernabéu hero, the performances of United’s other players have generally ranged from “meh” to “stealing a fucking living.” Starting at the back, United’s defense was surprisingly stingy for long stretches of the season, particularly when employed in the much-maligned 3-5-2 system. The failure in that system was not in its defensive solidity, but rather in how it relied on defenders to be able to bring the ball out of the back, which most of United’s center backs are wholly unqualified to do. The reversion to a back four masks these shortcomings, but it exposes fresh ones; namely the absence of a consistent partner for Marcos Rojo, and any sign of a serviceable right back. Paddy McNair is a midfielder-cum-center back, and Antonio Valencia is a winger-cum-crap winger. Rafael da Silva was a very good right back not too long ago, but given that he couldn’t even make the bench for a cup game against lower league opposition recently, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for his recall. Unless van Gaal has a sudden change of heart on the Brazilian or applies the same dark magic he used to turn Ashley Young into a decent left back toward making Phil Jones into something other than a hopeless oaf, United’s rearguard will continue to disappoint.

In midfield, the sense of disappointment is perhaps the most acute because of how much potential there is for genuine excitement. On the bright side, Ander Herrera has been restored to the team and has responded by providing tenacity, drive and even a couple of goals. Wayne Rooney has been mercifully pushed back up front, but unfortunately his role of “being utterly useless in the middle of the park” has been assumed by Marouane Fellaini. To be fair, Fellaini is quite useful when pushed up front, but he’s also slow, clumsy, and a subpar passer of the ball. Seeing him play at the tip of the diamond on the weekend – ahead of Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj, no less – felt like a personal attack on the happiness of the viewing public. Ángel Di María has only occasionally been played in his best position, but he hasn’t impressed in a full game since it was still warm out. If Herrera’s reinstatement is a step forward, then the inclusion and form of Fellaini and Di María respectively are two steps back.

At the close of last summer’s transfer window, United fans must have felt like they were on course for a season of wild, high-scoring games. With all the attacking firepower now at the manager’s disposal, there was real cause for optimism. That hope has long since evaporated. Rooney, the most reliable finisher at the club, spent most of the season playing elsewhere on the pitch. While he has now been restored to the attack, he will almost definitely need a few games to regain his sharpness in that position.

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Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images.

While Rooney was doing his best Steven Gerrard impression, the strike pairing of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao was operating with all the speed and fluency of, well, exactly what they are: two washed-up strikers who shouldn’t be playing together. Two years ago, both players would be at the top of any list of world class number nines. Two years ago, they both had it all: strength, skill, clever movement, faultless finishing, and an ability to make the outrageous look routine. Sadly, in 2015, both look finished. Falcao is not the same player he was before his recent knee injuries, and van Persie has not had more than two consecutive good games since March of 2013. The injury suffered by the seemingly undroppable Dutchman may at least increase the chances of James Wilson forcing his way into the lineup. The youngster is still raw, but he at least injects some pace into what has largely been a predictable, one-paced attack.

The most worrying issue for United may be the manager himself. Van Gaal has done a lot right, and it would be mischievous to say that his job should be in danger, but it is a concern that he cannot seem to get the best out of his players. Of the core members of the squad, most are having worse individual seasons under van Gaal than they had last year. Di María, Mata, Rooney, van Persie, and Falcao, among others, look like pale imitations of their best selves. Van Gaal is rightly lauded for his history of developing young players, but his failure to get the best out of his established stars is a major reason why his United team is underachieving.

This is the part of the season that one famous former United manager used to call “squeaky bum time.” In that context, the term referred to the pressure of winning games with titles on the line, as opposed to the fight for the fake title of “not fifth” in which United is currently embroiled. But the concept is the same: this is the time to put up or shut up.

For a club of United’s stature, a second consecutive trophy-less year, and another season outside of European competition would constitute a minor disaster. The time for doing enough to get by is over. To avoid another failed season, the manager and the players need to get their heads in the game, and they need to do it yesterday.

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