There was a moment in the second half of Manchester’s United’s 3-1 win over Club Brugge on Tuesday when Luke Shaw, in chasing down a loose ball after defending a corner, found himself with space in front of him on the right wing. He accelerated thrillingly—the fitness concerns of last season banished to history—and whipped over a cross. The ball was just behind Wayne Rooney, but he improvised and flicked it into the path of Memphis Depay, who blasted his shot over.
On a night when so much went right for Depay, it was a rare failure—although despite scoring twice, the 20-year-old, hearteningly, was furious he hadn’t got at least two more—but it was also a rare sight of United playing on instinct. There was a pace and a fluidity to the counter-attack that were out of keeping not just with the game but with the season as a whole.
Given United have won three out of three this season and have conceded only once—a freakish own goal brought about by a double deflection—it would be wrong to be too critical. In many ways the season has begun much better than many anticipated, but United are yet to play with any great fluency. That will perhaps come with time and greater mutual understanding, but it’s also an issue to do with Louis van Gaal.
Van Gaal’s basic principles are those of Total Football. For much of his career he focused on ball retention and pressing high up the pitch and, while his time with AZ Alkmaar and his second spell in charge of the Netherlands hint at a greater flexibility and a more pragmatic approach, that remains his philosophy. Yet Johan Cruyff, the man who brought Total Football into the modern age at Barcelona in the early '90s, has never warmed to Van Gaal, accusing him of playing overly mechanised football.
The first point of discord came with Van Gaal’s insistence at Ajax that midfielders should not run beyond their wingers to create overlaps. That was partly for defensive security, so that a missed attempt at an overlap did not expose the full-back, but also so that the winger always had space ahead of him to move into. The midfielder was there for support and to ensure that, if necessary, the ball could be switched quickly from one flank to the other.
An element of caution has remained in his thinking since. Forwards play with a constant awareness that they cannot over-commit for fear of leaving a vulnerability to the counter-attack. That’s what Van Gaal was talking about after the 1-0 win over Aston Villa, when he criticised Adnan Januzaj despite him scoring the only goal. His training has always focused heavily on passing drills, setting up scenarios to encourage both pressing and passing under pressure. To say the players learn set moves would be misleading; but there is an element of a score being provided on which players then improvise.
There are times with Januzaj in particular when you can almost see him thinking, as he starts to run and then checks to consider where the script says he should be going. In time, perhaps, everything will click as it did briefly last season with those back-to-back wins over Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City but for now there is an element of ponderousness to United’s play.
Part of the issue, perhaps, is Wayne Rooney, who has looked desperately out of sorts this season—and he is a player who when off-form looks dreadful. There were a few glimmers against Brugge, but his run without a goal for United now extends to nine games. But as he chugs around, looking weary, his acceleration gone, his first touch like a hammer, as he has so far this season, there’s always the niggling doubt that he is approaching 30 and has played an awful lot of football.
Rooney has played 664 games, so by the time he turns 30 on October 24, he will probably be up to 675 or so. By way of comparison, as Martin Samuel pointed out in the Daily Mail, when Ryan Giggs, the great icon of longevity in modern football, turned 30 on 29 November 2003, he had played 606. Factor in that Rooney has a less athletic body type and that his style of play means regular bumping and barging against opponents and it wouldn’t be any great surprise if Rooney is entering the autumn of his career.
“I’ve had one bad game this season and everyone’s all over it,” Rooney said. “I lost the ball too easily and I’m aware of that. It’s early on in the season. Everyone will write about the end of last season and the beginning of this season but we’re three games into the new season, so it’s down to me to keep going. I’ve experienced this before and the goals will come, I know that, and hopefully that day will come on Saturday against Newcastle.”
But even if Rooney is in form, there’s the question of whether he’s really best suited for the out-and-out centre-forward’s role. Only once, in 2009-10, has he played it with much sustained success and he is slower now, less able to sprint away from defenders.
There is a sense with Rooney that wherever he plays there will be those who suggest he should be playing elsewhere. Versatility has been one of his great strengths, but it still seems baffling that Van Gaal should have allowed Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao to leave without seeking replacements. It’s true that Javier Hernandez has returned from his loan spell and looks physically stronger than he did when he left, but that still seems to leave United short.
Pressed on that on Monday, Van Gaal was strangely defensive, accusing journalists who had questioned his use of Rooney as a midfielder last season of having demanded that he should play up front—which was mystifying, given the suggestion had been that he should be used as an attacking midfielder, behind a front man. Also, given that Van Gaal holds the press in such obvious contempt, the thought he might be influenced by them is laughable.
Pedro, more adept at cutting in from wide, never seemed a logical addition—although that may not be the reason Chelsea were able to snatch him from under United’s noses, per Matt Law in the Telegraph—and it may be that having missed out on him, United turn their attentions to a more orthodox centre-forward—not that there are a huge number of them about and available.
But at the moment it’s the one obvious flaw in an otherwise extremely impressive squad. United began the season with concerns over their defence—and it may yet be exposed by top-class opposition—but the bigger issue so far has been at the other end of the pitch. Greater fluidity will surely come, but the issue may go further than that.
All quotes gained firsthand