When the news came that Louis van Gaal was to be replaced as manager of Manchester United, it was hardly a surprise. As he snappishly observed in his press conference following the FA Cup final, his departure had been anticipated for six months. And yet the strange thing is that in the second half of the season, United won the FA Cup and picked up more league points than any team (36) other than Leicester (42) and Southampton (39).
In this strangest of seasons, in other words, United outdid Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool in the final 19 games, yet all three of those clubs will go into the new season feeling that something is brewing, that their managers are leading them on an upward path. Yet given the young, or at least inexperienced, players Van Gaal has encouraged - Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard most obviously, plus the big signing Anthony Martial - he could argue that he has laid impressive foundations.
So what has been the problem? Why has this felt as though United were stagnating? More than anything, the issue has been one of style. United have habitually dominated possession - only Arsenal (56.9%) have had more than United’s average of 55.9% this season - but the problem has been what they’ve done with it. United have had just 11.3 shots per game; only five sides have a worse record than that. Eleven teams had more shots on target. United scored only 49 league goals against an average of 76.4 in the Premier League era.
Largely that seems to have been a matter of policy. While football has moved on to a post-tiki-taka phase in which verticality and pace of transition is praised, United seemed trapped in Van Gaal’s process-driven, risk-averse possession that he made so successful 20 years ago.
Even then, as Ajax won the European Cup, there were doubters. Sjaak Swart, who had been a winger in the great Ajax side of the early 70s, for instance, was troubled by the way his nineties counterparts, Finidi George and Marc Overmars, would always check back if faced with two defenders. “I never gave the ball back to my defence, never!” Swart told David Winner in Brilliant Orange. “It’s unbelievable! But that was the system with Van Gaal. Many games you are sleeping! On television, they say: ‘Ajax 70% ball possession.’ So what? It’s not football. The creativity is gone.”
United this season averaged just 9.8 dribbles per game, fewer than 11 sides, a remarkable statistic given how much of the ball they had, and averaged the fourth fewest key passes per game (8.2) in the Premier League. The goal that seemed to delight Van Gaal more than any this season, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s away at Southampton, came after a 44-pass move. Only three of those went forward more than five yards.
There is an irony in this of course. The Dutch are supposed to be the nationality obsessed by theory and philosophies of play; the English are supposed to be the pragmatists. As Dave Sexton found in the early eighties, though, at Old Trafford a certain level of entertainment is expected. Endless sideways passing may just about be acceptable if it were winning games, but when it is coupled with respective fourth- and fifth-placed finishes it is not enough.
As Jurgen Klopp invigorated Liverpool with the drama of the wins over Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal, convincing the Kop of progress being made and to come, United were merely staid. They may have been more consistent that Liverpool, but United’s highs were nowhere near so high. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a single game in which United have impressed from start to finish this season. In that sense, the form since the turn of the year feels like plodding while others have struggled. In an odd way, Van Gaal perhaps suffered for his consistency. The problem is, it has felt like flat lining.