LONDON – “Am I so brilliant or are you so thick?”
It is one of the most famous quotes from Louis van Gaal during a news conference in his native Holland. When the man with an ego the size of Old Trafford sees his tactics questioned he reacts in the only way he can — to tell the world he is right and any doubters are wrong.
Dutch journalists are surprised it has taken van Gaal until seven months into his time at Manchester United to remind the English of his greatness and ironically it was a fellow manager who lit the blue touch paper.
West Ham’s Sam Allardyce had called van Gaal’s team “long ball United” after Sunday’s 1-1 draw which was more a tongue in cheek dig at those who have labeled Big Sam the high priest of route one than the Dutchman’s tactical nous.
But van Gaal would not stand for anyone even hinting his side did not play the beautiful game and to the disbelief, but joy, of the media at Tuesday’s news conference he produced pages of data which apparently proved United did not “thump it forward.”
Yes, United played long balls, but this was done backward or sideways and not forward. Van Gaal conceded United did play long passes forward at Upton Park, but only when Marouane Fellani came on in the 70th minute — “we scored from that so I think it was a very good decision of the manager,” he said with characteristic modesty.
All van Gaal’s passing master class produced was sarcastic articles the following day. He could and probably should have simplified the matter by saying there is a world of difference between a long ball hopefully pumped forward and a long pass, executed with precision by Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, et al.
But whichever way United passes the ball and however far it travels is merely covering up the cracks of a team that has lost its direction and identity. One thing everyone — even van Gaal — agrees on is that despite losing only one of its last 18 games, United’s football is poor. At times, embarrassingly so. David de Gea has been its best player by a country mile which is the most telling statistic of the season.
United was outplayed for long periods by 19th-place Burnley on Wednesday, when a small section of the Old Trafford crowd even booed the home team, but the Reds still won 3-1.
How much longer they can continue playing so poorly while picking up results remains to be seen, and van Gaal admitted United was “lucky” to defeat Burnley, adding: “We cannot have that in the next game” (against Preston in the F.A. Cup fifth round on Monday).
It is difficult to say anything positive about United except that it is somehow managing to limp over the line. It must soon have used up all of its get out of jail cards, though.
Van Gaal doesn’t seem to know his best team or his best system. Wayne Rooney, the third-highest goal scorer in Premier League history, was used as a defensive midfielder against Burnley when Daley Blind was injured and was cautioned for persistent fouling.
The England captain should be restored to a more forward position because his talents are wasted in midfield — he has not scored since Boxing Day — and the Rademal Falcao/Robin van Persie partnership does not work, despite the results.
The manager has plenty of potential midfield riches in Juan Mata, Angel di Maria, Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Adnan Januzaj, Carrick and Blind yet he still believes he must compromise his most potent goal scorer.
Di Maria scored three goals in his first five United starts, but has managed just one since — at Yeovil. A winger with blistering pace who cost a British record fee of £59.7 million from Real Madrid has been used in a central role and has looked a fish out of water. Herrera cost United £20 million from Athletic Bilbao last summer and the box-to-box midfielder is a favorite with United fans, though this affection is not shared by van Gaal.
United needed two games to overcome Cambridge — 14th in League Two — in the F.A. Cup fourth round so Preston — fourth in League One — looks like a real banana skin for the Reds on Monday.
* * *
MANAGER WANTED: apply to Tom Fox, chief executive of Aston Villa FC.
The successful applicant will take over a team whose tally of 12 goals in 25 games is the worst in English professional football and which has won three points from the last possible 30. The side is 18th in the Premier League and relegation is a likelihood, so the applicant must be prepared to be a Championship manager next season.
The fans have all but given up hope of anything positive, though the sacking of Paul Lambert on Wednesday brought unanimous joy to the frustrated supporters who have been demanding his departure for two years. The new manager, who will take over a squad thin on talent, should send his CV to Mr. Fox, whose relationship with Lambert could politely be described as strained.
No time wasters, please.
* * *
THE FOOTBALL Association is belatedly taking a harder line against managers’ post-match comments about referees.
It has already banned managers from talking about referees before games, to avoid unnecessary comments such as “I hope the referee is strong” which is another way of saying “I hope he punishes the opposition’s fouls but not ours.”
So what is to stop them from imposing a similar ban AFTER matches?
Nothing. It is English football’s ruling body.
This is the time when managers, excuse me, losing managers really let rip, occasionally being handed a severe punishment like having to watch a couple of games from the stand, which has as much effect as making them stand in the corner for 30 minutes.
A post-match ban on talking about referees would put an end to interviews when, with the adrenaline still flowing, managers hand back-page headlines to newspapers on a plate.
It would also mean football writers would have to offer their own opinions rather than give a platform for a manager keen to pass the buck to the referee.
In the National Football League, head coaches can say what they like, except criticize the officials. English soccer would surely benefit, even for a month’s trial, from a similar ban and then discuss the way forward.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.