On a night commemorating the tenth anniversary of George Best’s death, Old Trafford watched on as Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United laboured to a goalless draw with PSV Eindhoven. The current Dutch champions are of course no pushovers, but it’s easy to imagine what Best, arguably the greatest player ever to wear a United shirt, would have made of the home side’s listless performance.
Chances and edge-of-seat moments were, apart from a brief spell in the first half, few and far between, and the sideways domination which has become the new norm was restored to an Old Trafford pitch accustomed to such consistent excitement over the years. The bad news for Van Gaal? There is an increasing sense amongst Manchester United fans that the players aren’t to blame in the slightest.
Most jarring was the second-half, now entirely predictable introduction of Marouane Felliaini. The giant Belgian is always a signal of things to come, and the embarrassing aerial bombardment which arrives as he steps on to the pitch always serves an admission that Van Gaal is out of options; that a Plan A which consists of strangling the creativity out of the game from both teams hasn’t done the business.
Louis van Gaal’s philosophy will, perhaps in time, be looked back on as one of the great enigmas of English football. Generally, fans will sit contentedly in the stands if results are positive. It’s normally only when results begin to turn that the manner of performance is more closely scrutinised.
But at Old Trafford things are different. If things don’t change, over the coming weeks and months the Manchester United fans will begin to rally more audibly against Van Gaal and his methods. It’s easy to forget that Manchester United supporters have been spoilt over the years. Best, Giggs, Cantona, Ronaldo, Beckham, Scholes, Robson, Sir Alex Ferguson himself. All entertained the masses with astonishing regularity under the Old Trafford lights. United fans don’t want to win ugly, they expect to be enthralled.
The contradiction is that, rather incredibly, United will go top of the Premier League if they beat Leicester this coming weekend. Results in the league have been good, even as rumbles of discontent are growing louder. And it’s not just the fans. An unnamed player, speaking with a respected British journalist is quoted as saying that he wasn’t “half the player he could be here, and doesn’t feel it’s fair on the fans that he can’t express himself properly.”
If Van Gaal deserves credit for one thing it is plugging a porous defence and putting together the meanest back line in the country. But if this continues to be at the expense of the club’s very identity, critics will jump, as they are already doing, at the every sign of a dip in form.
Despite his safety-first, low tempo football, it’s entirely feasible that Van Gaal’s side will be top of the table come Sunday evening. But on the European scene things are looking more bleak. The draw with PSV has left United’s progress into the next round hanging in the balance. If PSV win their final group game at home to CSKA Moscow, United will need to beat Wolfsburg away to remain in the competition. Anything less will see them drop down into Europe’s second tier tournament, where the slog of regular Thursday night fixtures will undoubtedly affect their domestic form.