“Don’t it always
Seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone…”
Manchester United fans will have raised a nice glass of bitter to those immortal words of Joni Mitchell during the darkest days of David Moyes’ post-Ferguson tenure, though they also ring true of Louis van Gaal’s current attacking woes.
Van Gaal hasn’t quite paved paradise and put up a parking lot at Old Trafford, but watching United’s goalless draw with West Ham United felt like running into a concrete wall. The Hammers were unlucky to leave Manchester with just a point, and United deserved to be booed off at the final whistle.
The stalemate was their fifth such result in nine games, and though United have the best defensive record in the league this term – conceding just 10 goals in 15 games – they are somnambulist specialists, scoring just 20 times in what sometimes feel like a sleepwalking daze up to the opposition goal.
Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera both missed Saturday’s game through injury, but one shot on target from 21 attempts is dire. With Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa and James Wilson all scoring on Saturday, it’s a potent reminder that Van Gaal has fashioned a rod for his own back in letting so many attacking players leave since his arrival in 2014.
Nani and Robin van Persie were allowed to depart for Turkey at perhaps the right time in their careers, while Hernandez had to settle for Bayer Leverkusen after failing to convince Real Madrid of making his loan deal permanent.
The year before, Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Wilfried Zaha were jettisoned. Even if they are B-list talents, Zaha is now back to his best form at Crystal Palace, while Kagawa netted Borussia Dortmund’s late winner at Wolfsburg on Saturday having rediscovered his verve at BVB.
Chicharito’s exit was inevitable even before Van Gaal and Giggs’ dubious glance as the striker missed an open goal against Club Brugge, but it’s tempting to wonder what the Mexico international could have offered had he been afforded even half the faith the coach has shown in a misfiring Rooney.
The Dutch managers prefers all-rounders in the mould of Thomas Muller, but Chicharito deals in goals. He now has seven in the Bundesliga, and has even outscored United since the start of October in all competitions.
Goals in all competitions since the start of October: Man United (10) Javier Hernandez (11) pic.twitter.com/PTYQyys2oC
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 5, 2015
It’s arguable the forward has now found his level at a decent Bundesliga club, though United certainly lack his edge as Anthony Martial appears to have been declawed following his stunning start in Manchester.
As United duly struggled on Saturday, James Wilson scored a stunning solo goal for loan club Brighton against Charlton after waltzing past an entire defence – entirely fitting considering the forward was reportedly berated by Van Gaal in training earlier this year for having the temerity to run with the ball, according to United correspondent Samuel Luckhurst.
Even Chilean starlet Angelo Henriquez – who failed to play a single first-team game for United before being sold to Dinamo Zagreb this summer – has six in 12 games this term after netting 21 in 25 on loan last season, while Will Keane scored for loan side Preston on Saturday.
It’s natural that talent comes and goes at a club like United – the margins between success and failure are incredibly tight at elite clubs – but Saturday’s reports suggesting Van Gaal will be treated to “at least one Galactico” next summer (as per ESPN) should be treated with both alarm and anticipation.
United signed one such Galactico from Real Madrid in 2014, though Angel Di Maria hated life under Van Gaal’s watchful eyes and Manchester’s leaden skies so much that he fled for Paris as soon as a £59.7m man could (fee via BBC Sport), and is thriving with four goals and six assists in 12 games. Ligue 1 is a step down from the Premier League, but selling Di Maria to then ask for world-class wingers is like spitting out pate and demanding caviar.
Van Gaal is seemingly on a quest for the impossible: a wildly talented attacker he can contain; whose game-changing magic can be bottled with his own stamp of approval. Those who cannot follow orders are not trusted to start; Memphis Depay being a case in point.
United have been linked with a number of Ballon d’Or hopefuls, but spending money will not necessarily change anything. Luis Enrique is blessed with the best attacking trio in history in Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, though it’s questionable how Van Gaal would actually set up were he to somehow convince them the grass is greener away from the Camp Nou.
Had George Best come through the youth ranks last season, he would likely have been initially promoted before being farmed out on loan like Adnan Januzaj and Wilson.
United have always welcomed troubled geniuses. From Best to Eric Cantona to Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s in the club’s DNA to offer such rare men a platform – a home, even – in return for the privilege of watching them lead the team to silverware.
The very fact Van Gaal questioned the fans’ cries of ‘Attack, attack, attack’ against West Ham highlights his basic misunderstanding of the institution that is Manchester United. It’s not enough to control games and constrict opponents like a snake: hearts must be won; skulls cracked.
Pep Guardiola has shown at Barcelona and Bayern Munich that games can be controlled with a borderline obsession with possession, while goals are ruthlessly stacked up for fun.
The fact the Bayern coach’s contract is up at the end of the season will not be lost on United’s board, though it seems they are ready to stick with Van Gaal and let Manchester City have a free run at Guardiola.
If United’s noisy neighbours land Pep and use their new-found Chinese millions to convince one of Messi or Neymar to the Etihad, then Van Gaal may only have to peer over the garden fence to see what maverick talents let off the leash can truly achieve.