Manchester United: Can Louis van Gaal's 'boring' team win the title?

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Wayne Rooney and Louis van Gaal
It has been a difficult season for skipper Rooney, but Manchester United remain in the hunt for the title

Manchester United missed the chance to go top of the Premier League after another colourless display from Louis van Gaal's side earned a point at Leicester City on Saturday.

United remain in third place behind Manchester City and Leicester - but are they betraying recent Old Trafford traditions with their conservative approach, and can they seriously expect to mount a title challenge playing in this manner?

Is it fair to call Manchester United boring?

It is the question that would never even have been considered in the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson when every United game, in a football context, contained an element of danger as they so often lived on the edge in the search for success.

Former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen recently explained how Ferguson felt a duty to attack.

"Sir Alex was very clear on this one," Dutchman Meulensteen told the BBC. "We want to be successful, we want to win games, we want to win trophies but we have an obligation to entertain the fans."

United invariably came out of the other side fuelled by Ferguson's insistence on all-out attack - but there has been growing discontent with the functional but dull style employed by Van Gaal, whose appointment was meant to clear the air after the disastrous tenure of David Moyes and bring the flourishes back to Old Trafford.

Statistics back up their complaints and will only add to the growing belief that this is a United side at odds with how they are expected to play by those steeped in the club's tradition.

An attack in decline? (Stats after first 14 games)
SeasonGoalsShots (inc blocked)Shots on target

In 14 Premier League games this season, they have scored 20 goals from 146 shots with 53 on target. Even in the misery of the Moyes season in 2013-14, they had struck 22 times after the same number of games.

In Ferguson's final title winning season in 2012-13, at this stage of the campaign they had scored 33 goals from 229 shots, with 84 on target.

When £36m teenager Anthony Martial announced his arrival from Monaco with a brilliant goal on his debut as a substitute against Liverpool in September and followed it up with a double at Southampton a week later, it looked like Van Gaal had added an extra dimension of excitement.

Instead, the exciting young France star has had his effectiveness reduced by being moved to the wing and the impression that Van Gaal's much-touted "philosophy" simply does not chime with Old Trafford is strengthened by his use of two holding midfield players, with Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger deployed at Leicester.

Both are increasingly immobile, although the German has scored vital goals at Leicester and Watford - but it immediately hints at a defensive mindset. One, yes - but two?

United, dull against PSV in midweek, were horribly narrow at Leicester and as a consequence rarely got in behind Claudio Ranieri's side. They have looked equally impotent on many occasions this season.

Anthony Martial
Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes recently said Anthony Martial does not look "bothered"

Juan Mata was in the "number 10" position but this does nothing to address a glaring lack of pace - and with Wayne Rooney's powers diminishing, this is a United side shorn of the speed, verve and sheer adventure that their fans are used to.

Van Gaal bemoaned not winning Saturday's game, but when he talked of United's "dominance" it was utter nonsense and at odds with the reality.

On the evidence of this season, Van Gaal wants his side to be based on a strict structure which seems to stifle individualism, a team pattern driven by repetition on the training ground as opposed to any spontaneity.

Their outstanding defensive record of conceding only 10 goals, the fewest in the league, is propping up a lack of invention and artistry their fans have come to expect.

It was the 74th minute before the first cries of "attack, attack, attack" were heard from the visiting United fans.

They may have to wait a while because this is simply not a side assembled to fulfil their wishes.

Are Man Utd fans right to complain?

The respected Red Devils fanzine United We Stand recently carried the headline "It's Not What You Do It's The Way That You Do It". After the goalless draw with PSV in the Champions League on Wednesday, some fans on BBC Radio 5 live called for the return of Moyes.

On Saturday evening, some others tweeted me to say that even if United won the Premier League it would not be fun or memorable.

Look at the table and the fans are not right to complain - look at the action (or lack of it) from their team and they have a case.

Of course if United win the title or Van Gaal brings the big prizes back to Old Trafford, he will be delivering the most emphatic response possible.

Manchester United fans
Manchester United fans have voiced their discontent with the style of play at times this season

The problem Van Gaal has is that the standards have been set highest of all by Ferguson's reign.

Even though he is the man after the man who replaced the great Scot, he is doing little to live up to the reputation given to him when he arrived in 2014 after a successful World Cup with the Netherlands in Brazil. He was the progressive coach who would restore gloss to the 'Theatre of Dreams'. The wait continues.

Some may regard the complaints of United's fans as those of a support spoiled by the successes of the past. While this contains an element of truth, they are also driven by the desire to see something that at least resembles what they saw only a few years ago, especially given a vast transfer outlay.

Their hopes were lifted with the arrival of Martial and Memphis Depay for a combined £67m, but one has been dragged down after a bright start and the young Dutchman has struggled to justify his fee.

Van Gaal can, and will, stop the complaints by presenting United's fans with silverware - but displays like this one at Leicester, and their manager's almost farcically upbeat view of their supposed domination, does not help his case.

Listen to fan Jay discuss Man Utd's loss of "identity" on BBC Radio 5 live's 606 phone-in

Should the old boys be complaining?

The complaints from former Manchester United greats about their performances have been a running narrative this season and they were at it again as the action played out at the King Power Stadium.

Paul Scholes has been the fiercest critic - "I keep saying it's boring, I know," said the former midfielder on Wednesday - but his old partner in success Gary Neville made a pointed comment when Jamie Vardy concluded a stunning Leicester break with his record-breaking 11th strike in successive Premier League games.

"Manchester United used to counter-attack like that," was his response and there were some other telling blows delivered as the groundswell of opinion that this is a dour football team gathers momentum.

Ex-Man Utd players and coaches have their say:
Rene Meulensteen: "The word is maybe rigid at times...there's a lack of freedom now."
Michael Owen: "They're just a defending team with a few attackers and no help from elsewhere."
Rio Ferdinand: "It wasn't always exciting in my day... certainly during the final three seasons under Sir Alex it was more a case of us getting over the line."
Paul Scholes: "Attacking-wise they don't look a threat, they don't look good enough, they don't look like they're going to go and score goals."
Gary Neville: "I don't think Van Gaal is telling all the players on the training ground to pass backwards. They need to take some responsibility."
Jesper Blomqvist: "I expect more entertainment from United."

Norman Whiteside, who won the FA Cup with United in 1983 and 1985, tweeted at half-time: "Please let's enjoy some Man Utd football in the second half please please :)"

And Dion Dublin, who played under Ferguson, said during the game: "Manchester United haven't been brilliant. It's not the outcome, it's the way they are trying to achieve it. It's very stagnant. There are no smiles on the players' faces and Manchester United usually play with width.

"But if you're not doing that, then it's not the Manchester United way for me. I'm not excited about watching them any more."

Van Gaal will never win any battles, especially with United's fans, by going up against the likes of Scholes.

There will be those who claim the former greats are simply living in the past, gazing at their old club with rose-tinted spectacles.

The problem Van Gaal has is that they are not just shaping the opinions of United's supporters - they are echoing them.

Salford City owners Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes
Scholes (far right) and Gary Neville (second right) have been criticial of Van Gaal's United

What does Ryan Giggs think?

If one player epitomised the free-flowing, fearless football of Ferguson's reign, it was Ryan Giggs. He was there through all the successes with the approach of his manager and mentor driven into every fibre.

So how will this symbol of United's golden era - making a club record 963 appearances and winning 34 trophies, including 13 league titles, four FA Cups and two Champions Leagues - feel as he sits alongside Van Gaal as assistant manager, watching performances that seem at odds with everything he stood for?

Giggs may be Van Gaal's right-hand man but his manager has always been renowned for his dictatorial style. Does Giggs have enough significant input to try to put a more natural attacking imprint on the team?

When he concluded his playing career in May 2014, he stood on the pitch at Old Trafford and addressed the fans, saying: "You have seen a glimpse of the future. We never stand still and always give youth a chance and we try to play attractive football."

Giggs, who is a co-owner of Salford City with Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers - would be hard-pushed to press those claims now, and there were reports that he was frustrated that 19-year-old England Under-21 striker James Wilson was sent out on loan to Brighton this week, a player of rich promise only getting a handful of games under Van Gaal.

He is very much Van Gaal's silent partner and the veteran manager's single-minded approach always begs the question about how much advice of others he will take on board - which can be a quality as well as a criticism.

A penny for Giggs' thoughts would be a very interesting investment.

Ryan Giggs (left) and Louis van Gaal
Giggs (left) was an attacking and exciting player - and now works for Van Gaal

Can Man Utd bore their way to the title?

They most certainly can - but they will surely have to rely on the failings of others rather than any deeds of their own because they currently look functional, well-organised but lacking in spark and inspiration.

Champions do not need to be inspirational every week and a Premier League title will vindicate every method Van Gaal has implemented, but this does not look like a side that will win it.

United have lost only two of 14 league games this season and were one goal away from going top of the table here at Leicester, so to paint this as a tale of unrelenting misery would be wrong and unfair.

Van Gaal's United, however, have an image problem. Manchester United have an image and a style - and his team are not living up to it.


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