The time has come for Manchester United fans – me included – to let go of the Sir Alex Ferguson reign and stop judging this new era by former glories. The style of play and the names have changed, but the one person not confused by the team’s development will be Louis van Gaal.
I’ve never been a manager, but I personally believe in attacking football, with a high tempo. If United were committed to protecting that style of play at all costs they should have appointed a manager with those beliefs. But there was no way Van Gaal was going to come to Manchester United and adopt somebody else’s philosophy.
It’s a bit like breaking up with a partner of 26 years and wanting the new person to be the same as the old one. They – we – are going to have to let go. The idea of referencing Ferguson or saying "It’s not the Manchester United way" at every turn stylistically is not going to take Manchester United anywhere.
Personally I would like them to play at a higher tempo. I would also like them to press high against inferior opposition, but I've come to the conclusion this isn't the Van Gaal way. It's what I believe in, what United have previously believed in and not what is in front of us now. I also think most of the new signings should be performing at a higher level.
But, if you had told me as a fan that we would be third in the league at this point, in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and on a run of one defeat in 19 games, I would have snapped your hand off.
Again: it’s about moving on, which is hard because we were married to a way of playing and a leader who dominated English football for 20 of his 26 years. Now, we are in a completely different period. We are not comparing like for like.
Seven years ago I found myself giggling with a group of mates through a business leadership speech in which the guru used four words to describe change. They were “form, storm, norm, perform.” It didn’t resonate me with me until I started thinking about United’s current condition.
The idea was this. When you “form” you bring in new parties. The storm is the chaos point. Norm means the new structure, bedding in. Perform speaks for itself. Coming out of the Ferguson era, United certainly saw the storm. But the norm has yet to fully establish itself, post-Ferguson and David Gill.
Many United fans feel confused between thinking ‘the pace is slow, we’re not playing the way we used to,’ and ‘hang on a minute, we’ve lost one game in 19, we’re third in the League and in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.’
Definitive opinions remain elusive. You can say momentarily: good performance, bad performance; this player played well, this one played badly. But we are moving out of that hazy period, to a 14-day spell in March when opinions can harden. Arsenal in the FA Cup and Tottenham (home) and Liverpool (away) in the league. To reach an FA Cup semi-final and pick up four league points in those games would put United within striking range of ending the season on a high. Those results go wrong, and this could be a baptism of fire for Louis Van Gaal in his first season.
My biggest area of confusion is the following. Watching the team who finished third last season, Chelsea, it was quite apparent where the missing pieces were. They needed a creative midfielder to make the difference in tight games and a centre-forward who could finish the chances off. Two distinct areas where they needed to improve.
United are currently third in the Premier League and I don't have the same clarity . Even now I struggle to locate the precise deficiencies. I find myself looking at five or six areas. Van Gaal’s work will be judged not by whether he can take United back into the Champions League this season but whether he can ultimately regain the English title. The Premier League is the benchmark.
I believe he will complete phase one: win a trophy and return to the Champions League. But to win the Premier League in the next two seasons he has to win the recruitment battle. In the last two campaigns United have spent £280m and recouped £54m. Chelsea have spent £313m but recouped £190m and brought in better players.
So, post Ferguson and Gill, Chelsea are definitely trading better than United. With the Juan Cuadrado signing Chelsea spent £24m and let Andre Schurrle go for something similar. United will need to be equally shrewd, and not simply buy off-the-shelf players for £40m and find they don't fit.
It seems to me that, pre-season, part of the recruitment was based on playing three at the back, with Rojo, Blind and Shaw coming in, with another part based on 4-3-3, with Di Maria and Herrera. At the moment the squad is unbalanced. Until the system is settled it’s hard to identify the players needed to make it work.
In a diamond system, for example, you need a very good No 10 who is going to score goals two very mobile forwards and energetic wide midfielders. In a 4-3-3, you need excellent wingers or wide forwards that can score goals. Playing three at the back you need two excellent wing backs. This is the conundrum at the moment. What style of play are United recruiting for?
These questions will be at the forefront of Van Gaal’s mind. And he knows he has to get this next wave of additions right. The summer, after the World Cup, and this January window arrived too quickly. By May he should know exactly how he wants to shape things.
Is he happy with Mata, Fellaini, Herrera, Falcao? All have been left out for long periods and all been given chances. Will David de Gea stay? What will happen with RVP? Depending on those decisions, he could find himself in the necessary position of wanting another batch of signings at a very high cost. I suspect he will be planning for a three-year stay and will push for players that can have an immediate impact.
I know he needs to strengthen but I’m not totally sure where or when. While United fans – me included – are unsure, the one person I guarantee won't be is Van Gaal because he is so sure of himself. I bet he can’t believe the current fuss. He will be relaxed, confident and pleased with a run of one defeat in 19.
This idea that United are lucky is wrong. Luck expires in an unbeaten run after three or four games. One defeat in 19 is not luck. Then again some of the big signings of the last 18 months are still well below their peak. They are not performing anywhere near full tilt. That’s a concern. In the next two or three months those star names have to perform or will find themselves under pressure.
Rooney is always central to these discussions, and seeing him go back to centre-forward last Monday at Preston tells me that the Van Persie-Falcao centre-forward experiment has probably ended. I’m not saying you will never see them again as a duo but it doesn't seem to work.
There is a particular movement that tells a story. When the ball goes out to Shaw or Valencia in the advanced full-back area, those two forwards in a split-striker system need to make a ‘corner run’, in between centre-back and full-back: first, to give a forward-passing option to Valencia or Shaw, and second to stretch the defence and open space in midfield.
Both those players – Van Persie and Falcao – are sometimes unable or unwilling to make those runs. Inevitably the ball then gets passed backwards. I think this can be directly linked to the lack of movement into wide areas from United’s strikers. This small change of movements would give more purpose to United’s play.
In this current system, then, Rooney is a better bet at centre-forward. If Van Persie and Falcao are going to play as a pair, you would need to play with wide players who would service them. They are both box players who lack mobility and blistering pace.
So here we are still in that storm period. And I am among those who have watched United thinking – this is a bit slow. Yet there is a transition going on, with the manager, who has a different way of playing to that of Sir Alex Ferguson.
How is it different? Van Gaal likes more controlled possession. Sir Alex liked possession too, but his big words were “tempo and risk.” He used those words so often in our changing room: "I want tempo and rhythm in our passing." Get the ball moving quickly.
If we were ever two or three up then he would be happy for controlled possession .Van Gaal is happy to shift the ball side to side relentlessly from minute one, not risk as much in possession and work openings whereas under Ferguson their was a greater intent to take risks until the game was won.
There are people who called Barcelona boring to watch with constant possession. Van Gaal is more inclined to want this type of game and we can be sure he won't change his way.
Had any other manager responded to Sam Allardyce’s “long-ball United” remark by turning up to a press conference with pages of stats, you might say they were cracking up. Whilst it was probably a mistake, a misjudgment, my experience of sitting down with Van Gaal earlier in the season tells me he will have produced those figures and facts to attempt to teach people.
I can imagine him sitting in his office saying: "I will cure them of their ignorance." He has managed at Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Replying to Allardyce, he will not have been flustered. In his view he will have set out to educate the uneducated people about how football should be played.
His absolute confidence will have led him to think: ‘I will transform all your opinions, so you start thinking the way I think.’ I laughed when I heard people saying he’s cracking up. This was nothing like the Rafa Benitez incident, when the then Liverpool manager produced his sheath of “facts” about United. Benitez was under pressure, challenging for the title.
It's too early to pass the ultimate judgment on Van Gaal but we can have confidence that he has been down this road with huge clubs before. I always think of the very last question I asked Van Gaal in the interview I did for the Telegraph at the start of the season. “Will you win the league within three years?” He replied: “Yes, of course.”