Three weeks ago, as news broke that Paul O’Connell’s rugby World Cup and test career with Ireland had come to an end after a serious injury, a famous clip of the former Munster captain reappeared across social media.
In the video, filmed before a Test match against France, O’Connell rallies his team mates in the dressing room, demanding they deliver “manic aggression” for “every minute of the game” and exhorting them to lay down a marker from kick-off.
Without stretching imagination too far, it is easy to imagine the same game plan being outlined in a Manchester United dressing room over the best part of the last six decades.
Under Louis Van Gaal, however, not only do United seldom impose themselves on the game from the start, they seem content to sleepwalk their way through a large portion of the match safe in the knowledge they’re unlikely to concede if they control possession.
United have indeed becoming masters at the art of keeping the ball over the last two seasons, regularly topping the passing and possession stats modern football places so much emphasis upon.
The style has come under intense criticism, with pundits and media only too happy to dismiss United as mind-numbingly boring, while an ever growing section of fans accuses Van Gaal of betraying the club’s ethos by stifling his side attacking instinct.
Both arguments would be worth only a few words rather than entire columns if United looked like serious title challengers.
However, as they do not and have not done so at any point since Van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford, the criticism over is somewhat justified.
“In some matches, we ended up with 80% possession, but there was no real rhythm or pace,” said Bayern Munich legend Paul Breitner in 2012. “After half an hour, everyone in the Allianz Arena would be yawning at this display of constant passing. Our game was well executed but very, very predictable.”
Of course, under Van Gaal, United have returned to the Champions League – and after Tuesday’s encouraging win against CSKA Moscow they look favourites to reach the knock-out stage – and their domestic form has clearly improved since the Dutchman took over.
Van Gaal has steadied the ship brilliantly but if his side are to mount a title challenge in the 18 months he has left at Old Trafford, something has to give.
United do not create enough chances, their refusal to commit men forward is puzzling and their tactical rigidity increasingly worrying. Players seem so focused on occupying certain positions at a specific time of the game than the actual act of playing football has almost become an afterthought.
Over the last decade, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, two of Van Gaal’s former clubs, have built their dominance on keeping the ball, although neither relies exclusively on it as their only weapon.
For both sides, possession is a way to open teams up and then close the game down but United do not pass the ball with the same purpose and verve to be able to carve their opponents open.
If United were a cricketer, they would be an opening batsman from a bygone era: more focused on playing themselves in and neutralising the bowlers rather than being the first to mount an offensive.
However, while fans begrudge the lack of attacking football – admittedly a feeling fuelled by a more than slight hint of revisionism, for Fergie’s latest seasons seldom delivered cavalier football – the wider point often goes missing: under Van Gaal, United have not forgotten how to play attacking football. They’ve been stripped of the aggression that once characterised them and instructed not to take risks.
Because of the tactical rigidity that’s been imposed on them – which, let’s not forget, has delivered a defensive solidity United could dream of under David Moyes – United no longer are in their natural habitat in games played at high tempo, nor do they seem allowed to press on the accelerator.
To borrow another cricket analogy, where once they were bowling to take wickets, now they are happy to be tightening their end up with maiden over after maiden over.
Alas, the absence of a bowling partner capable of taking wickets means a change of strategy might needed sooner rather than later.
Unlike in cricket, draws are seldom worth a celebration in football.
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