Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal is nothing if not a pragmatist. Bristling at criticism of his side’s lack of attacking flair of late, the Dutchman has insisted that his team is still a work in progress.
It is, as he has labelled it, at a moment in an ongoing process.
United’s fans, spoiled as they were during the unprecedented entertainment levels of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, are unimpressed. ‘Processes’ are not what they pay to see.
But Van Gaal is not a man to shrink in the face of criticism. He is, rather, a man uniquely blessed with the sort of bullet proof exterior of a panza tank. Criticism does not just redundantly bounce off this monumentally impenetrable surface, it ricochets off with all the force of the hairdryer of old. It is maybe just as well that the Manchester press corps have had plenty of practice in wrapping up their post-match fawning in a benign sugar coating. Any dangerously pointed criticism could see someone getting hurt.
There is little doubting the fact that Van Gaal himself is not the easiest man to like. A bitter whiff of arrogance is routinely left hanging in his wake. The great man – as he is said to refer to himself – cuts an undeniably imposing and authoritarian figure. But United fans are beginning to wonder whether a more practical source of authority than the manager’s own self-assessment might be desirable.
United have, undeniably become a more competitive outfit under Van Gaal. They have resumed their ‘natural’ position within the Premier League’s top echelon and their Premier League odds are considerably shorter than they were under his unfortunate predecessor.
But, for all Van Gaal’s attaché case-based analysis of his side’s performances, and irrespective of their workmanlike climb into the top four of the Premiership table, they remain catatonically dull.
The paying customers continue to fill Old Trafford in their droves. The stands remain brim full and the great corporate edifice which is the modern United continues to churn out the weekly millions. But those seats are filled with season ticket holders who had parted with their cash before they knew just what they were in for.
The dangerous truth is that cooperate hospitality, the TV deals, the merchandise and the global audience of millions – including in Canada – that sustain the whole machinery all depend on a product that offers something more dramatic and more watchable than an excel spreadsheet and an ego the size of Uzbekistan.
Van Gaal’s entirely corporate pragmatism is in danger of turning United from the laughing stock that they had become into a stock of an even less marketable currency. Any football fan can forgive his side losing occasionally, as long as their successes do enough to stir their pulse above a torpid resting rate when they win. Chelsea may be falling apart, but at least they are interesting.
But in this crucial respect Van Gaal is coming up short. His team produce not so much football by numbers as football by numbness. The danger is that even if they win anything playing as they are no-one will be there to notice. Pragmatism may produce Premier League security – but such a bullet-headed approach ignores the whole point of what United stand for.