Respected King Louis,
Watching Manchester United beat West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was a pleasant surprise – I was actually enjoying the match! The side-passes no longer seemed an excuse to keep possession, rather appeared to be a calculated ploy to open up the congested midfield; Rooney’s lack of shooting at goal did not trouble me as long as he linked up with Carrick, Mata and Martial; passing back to the goalkeeper was not a sign of unwillingness to play forward. In fact, it meant the birth of a new attack.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to get the philosophy – something of an acquired taste. Having Daley Blind at centre-back now makes sense. He is, after all, the modern-day playmaker in your book. Rooney not racking up goals should not be a worry as long as he is not breaking down moves (which he still does, by the way).
And Herrera really needs to stop running in search of the ball and stay in his position; he, like most of us United fans, needs to learn the virtues of patience, the fact that a football match lasts for 90 minutes and good things come to those who wait.
In our defence, though, what you preach has been a culture shock to us. The Manchester United we have come to love for the past 20 years, attacks.
The defenders have always been strong and brave, raring to stop the opposition and launch a counter-attack. The midfielders have never wasted any time in niceties – pinging 60-metre laser passes or running box-to-box.
The strikers (yes, there were two of them on the pitch) would have a goalscoring competition between themselves, with the result that even super-sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ended up with no less than 15 goals every season. And the wingers. Oh, the wingers! Let’s just say your assistant manager would still be better than Juan Mata.
Having said that, your philosophy has its own virtues. We have the best defensive record in the Premier League so far and have gone 555 minutes without conceding in all competitions – something even the great Vidic-Ferdinand-Van der Sar combination could not achieve.
Sir Alex, for all he has done, won only two Champions League trophies in his time, and your methods seem better-suited to tactically control games in Europe’s elite competition. In addition, you have followed one great tradition of ours and given a chance to youth – aiming to develop them from a young age and lay down the foundation for future teams, like you did at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
So there, I understand your philosophy and am even willing to accept it. But your philosophy is not without its faults.
You yourself have admitted to a concern for an occasional lack of goals, claiming the lack of ‘speedy’ wingers as a possible cause. But the role and suitability of some of our players in your system seems questionable too.
If and when you do acquire a winger, where does that leave Mata? Will he be given a role alongside Rooney in the middle, or will he be moved on, the last remnants of the still-birth that was Moyes’ tenure?
What about Ander Herrera, our answer to Xavi, who combines so effectively with Mata on the right? Will he be used only as Rooney’s substitute, that too when Marouane Fellaini’s head is not needed? Or did his utility cease to exist when you decided to give up the 3-man midfield for the double pivot?
And what about Memphis Depay, the winger who proved a revelation for you and Netherlands at the World Cup? Was he bought to play on the wing, or up front with Wazza like you tried initially? Is he now out of the team because he, like Angel Di Maria, is taking on opponents and risking possession?
There have also been times when your playing style has not helped us, especially in away games. The 0-0 draw with Newcastle at home had me tearing my hair out.
The 2-1 loss to PSV Eindhoven was embarrassing for the sole reason that, for all our intricate, sophisticated build-up, we were undone by simple, swift, direct counter-attacks. The Swansea loss and the narrow 3-2 win over the Saints again showed our vulnerability in away matches, as if the players still do not have the confidence to play your way in a hostile atmosphere.
Most shocking, though, was the 3-0 loss to Arsenal. For a change, it was us that had a soft underbelly against the Gunners. The defeat was morally damaging and I, for one, hope you will never play Carrick and Schweinsteiger together against top sides.
These losses have made me realize that your way has been found wanting in difficult periods for our team – in away matches, while trailing, looking for an equalizer or a winner – and it is in these situations that I urge you to give our philosophy a chance.
And no, our philosophy is not to “attack, attack, attack” as many would say. It is to believe. Believe that the opponent is fallible, believe that the equalizer can still be scored, believe that victory is not far away.
So tell your wingers to take on defenders without thinking about possession, let the midfielders make runs into the box without worrying about counter-attacks and have that extra striker on the bench as a last throw of the dice. Losing will often make legs heavy, leave shoulders drooping and let doubts creep in, but when the players believe they can score a goal, the fear goes away.
That is how we have scripted one comeback after another since that night in Barcelona. That is how Old Trafford has become the Theatre of Dreams.
Your philosophy is perfect, Mr Van Gaal; it provides the brains for our team’s success. Let us provide the heart, and the world will be at our feet.
A proud Red Devil