I’m kinda down on footie despite being totally steeped in it. All that ‘drawing’ pens, all that desperate trying to get fellow pro’s sent off stuff. But the word fabulous appears here, more than once. Fabulous meaning really really great; beyond wonderful and into super-charged dream-particle magical. I re-found something and I’m thinking it was the number 9’s fault. That Colombian bloke – Falcao. The way he fizzed about like a kid; throwing his soul and self into it; as though (like we did) it was done for love of the game and maybe for his mates – that daft, open, sacrificial thing. Beyond money, fame, pressure. The fans loved him for it – not just the brilliance of his assist for Rooney’s tap-in – they loved his heart.
United are in a fabulous place. Fabulous in the sense that after a Moyesian extension of the previous regime – i.e. a period when (even under King Aloysius) they remained essentially fascinatingly dire and unworthy – there is suddenly the possibility for a magnificently wild chariot ride with van Gaal at the helm. If they have remained only 84% convincing going forward – whole lot less, defensively – this has not prevented United from threatening to break into that ‘cutting a swathe through the division’ category. At times, via Di Maria/Rooney/Young, even, The Reds have waved a sword – twirled it! – as they have bulleted triumphantly along. Except…
Except for that gert big hole where the Manchester United defence should be. Okaaay partly through ill-luck on the injury front but also because players selected have been visibly short of the confidence/courage/ability (you choose!) to carry that particular responsibility. The thing has felt flung together because van Gaal, plainly exasperated that a club of this stature should have such a shortage of options, has rifled through the personnel and the strategic possibilities.
I liked his early recourse to a back three but then cursed his immediate ditching of the system. Accepted, this was more about a damning of the dimness and immaturity of allegedly top top players than LVG’s personal preference but reverting to ‘the more familiar’ (yawn!) 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 smacked of capitulation. Why not stick with that defensive three (and with effectively five in midfield) then bully your side into a coiled-spring ‘wingback’ option? That plainly offers the potential for five fit blokes covering defensive duties once possession is lost. Meaning as a mob, perhaps especially a Proper Defender-lite mob, you give yourself every chance to keep the other buggers out.
Look you don’t have to be Jonathan Wilson to be aware that variations on 3-5-2 have informed the thinking of great European sides for aeons. German and Dutch national sides have made a habit of coolly out-passing opponents by having players available out wide and/or through slick interchange in a fluid, well-stacked midfield. Characteristically these teams have exuded confidence on the ball, being populated by players who receive the ball beautifully and use it with intelligence. Van Gaal will surely look to build towards this at United, whilst adding in pace – zip – in the belief that the Premier League might undermine or undo the cruise mode that seems to prevail in ‘continental’ football.
This is all context that LVG will be aware of – and I think hopefully thrive in. The notion that Manchester United FC has a genuinely noble tradition for attacking with width and pace, blah di blah. You can picture and maybe The Enemy is beginning to fear(?) a seamless transition between the mighty aggression-driven era of Ferguson through to some invincible, van Gaal-reflecting pomp. (The seamless thing has been manifestly blown but both eras laced and lit by gallivanting wide-men, with perhaps the midfield generals of the former nuanced into serene, more cosmopolitan sorts under the current gaffer? Perhaps.) Either way United have finished up with 3-5-2 formation, temporarily or otherwise, they are on a roll…and Liverpoool are out of sight.
Most agree that it’s taken the re-emergence of Michael Carrick as a force for calm and a rare exponent of the insightful or threaded pass from deep, to gift United back their shape, if not their formation. Whether he remains in a classic central defending role or a deep-lying midfield position is as yet unknowable – possibly even to the manager. (Today, Carrick strolled in the midfield.) What is clear – and to this, I for one, sing alleluyah – is that elite level footballers should be able to a) read play and b) execute passes on the understanding that possession is god. Carrick exemplifies these skills. And we did need reminding, we always do.
So, in the now, encouragingly, thrillingly for their support, United find themselves back where they belong. Champions League football seems downright certain for next season – an extraordinary transformation from but a few weeks ago – and there is just a crazy, glorious hint of a chance that they might buy two defenders next month and then go wallop everybody on the way to a sensational title triumph. A ludicrous, lew-dee-cruss thought in say, September.
And so to the game. United set up as follows, against Pardew’s Newcastle;
Jones McNair Evans
Valencia Mata Carrick Rooney Young
Early minutes. Van Gaal has clearly insisted on the back three splitting as soon as United gain possession, with Jones going wide right and Evans left; meaning McNair is potentially isolated in fifty yards of the pitch if things break down. Carrick will monitor in front but there’s too much reliance on possession being retained – and this is not the way of it. On the plus side, with the back three spread, ‘play’ should be enabled by the drawing out, into space, of these individuals and the simultaneous emergence of space for midfielders to exploit. On the negative, right across the back line, there is no cover.
This is all very well if you are a) German/Dutch b) dominant or c) three goals to the good. It’s massively bold given United’s current vulnerabilities as a team – and McNair’s youth and frail confidence. The lad’s already been withdrawn early after one nightmare; after five or ten minutes this afternoon with Newcastle looking lively, the fear is very much that van Gaal is gambling unwisely against a repetition.
But give the man some credit; if van Gaal is saying to his players ‘we will open out and we will be full of movement. We will penetrate and we will score because we have quality’ then… wow. He will know the nature of the game he is playing. Maybe we are seeing an expression of the manager’s belief in his strike power more than something ‘inevitably’ cavalier, borne of an awareness that his side simply cannot, home or away, park the bus.
Anyway first fifteen Newcastle – who look buoyant – have significant opportunities. United are on that knife-edge again, with the back three looking boyishly lost. Evans looks a liability both in and out of possession; Jones and McNair take sharp breaths and try to see it through. They do – somehow – then United respond, dynamically, Rooney scoring twice before the half to transform the match. Young and Valencia rampage intermittently, they win three-nil.
But the watching world knows and will re-visit the fact that van Gaal’s boys might have conceded three before Rooney put them ahead. And that another penno decision went their way. If I tweeted in the twentieth minute that The Geordies ‘might have already have buried them’ imagine the copious notes taken up and down the land?
… Maybe this is important. United might well achieve an easy third place in a poor ‘chasing’ group, light years behind City and Chelsea. On the one hand this might represent a solid, arguably spectacular achievement. On the other, it will not sit well with van Gaal that his side would even theoretically lie so open to dismemberment by Mourinho’s or Pellegrini’s patently more complete outfits. United aren’t there yet.
And yet I return to my original theme. Supporters excited and a charge ongoing; things twitching between joy and reality. The fans in love with Falcao’s gameness – gutted to see him withdrawn – and yet aware of that bigger picture, flicking through the gaffer’s mind. There is, there really is a season to gamble for, a title to chase. And realistic or not, United or not, that’s fabulous.