Defensive football distracting Man United fans from deeper problem at club

Manchester United are poor at the back, acceptable in the middle, and poor upfront. The club's squad isn't fit for the purpose of challenging to win the Premier League and also the Champions League, and it's only a ridiculously poor quality season which sees Man United close to the top of the domestic pile with a chance of winning the title. 

That, and Louis van Gaal playing defensively.

Criticised for producing some of the most boring football in living memory, Van Gaal hasn't been doing it because he's a masochist, but out of what he sees as necessity.

The Dutchman loves being loved, that's been evident throughout his career and since arriving at Old Trafford. Van Gaal may have an outward persona of not caring one jot, but he'd much rather be adored by his own fans than mocked.

The press? He probably doesn't care. The fans? It's different.  

Therefore it has to be considered that he's not simply clinging to a philosophy of miserable football because he quite likes it. Van Gaal's natural style may be more possession and control based than previous Man United managers, but it's not before been quite this miserable. 

Van Gaal's first year at Bayern Munich saw the German club win the league and score 72 goals, only 8 less than Pep Guardiola's wonderful side managed last season. They won the cup too, scoring an average of 4 goals a game in that competition, and reached the Champions League final.

The next season brought trouble, but Bayern weren't playing with a misery philosophy and had scored 51 goals in 25 matches by the time, in March, that it was announced the manager's contract wouldn't be renewed. The team went on to score 10 goals in the next four league matches before Van Gaal was removed early.

At the World Cup, Van Gaal's Dutch side scored more than 2 goals a game, pretty good going for such a tournament and, on 15 goals, putting the side just a single goal behind world champions Germany. 

The current perception of Louis van Gaal being an enemy of football and happy to suck the joy, and goals, out of the game simply doesn't sit well with his record. 

Philosophy and process fit with the circumstance and it would appear Van Gaal believes Manchester United's defence is so fragile it needs protecting by the whole team. A looser approach against Arsenal resulted in three goals being shipped, as did the same against Wolfsburg.

Conceding three goals in each of those games didn't tell the full story, with Man United's defence a calamity. It was glaringly obvious in each of those games that the quality of players on show simply wasn't high enough.

Chris Smalling has proven himself to be better than many thought but is a long way from the level some have pushed him to, he could probably progress more with a senior partner. Daley Blind lives a charmed life and a couple of nice contributions a game often help the utility man avoid much criticism.

Ask a supporter of another top club if they'd want Blind as a central defender and you'd struggle to get many positive answers. That's not tribalism, Blind is an intelligent footballer, and a very nice man with wonderful hair, but he hasn't yet shown he's a top level central defender. 

Losing Luke Shaw was an underestimated blow to the season and Matteo Darmian failing to build on early promise is disappointing, but perhaps also a symptom of the middle of the defence being jelly-like when genuinely under pressure. It spreads. 

That's why Van Gaal has been playing a football-god-forsaken brand of the game.

Boring football, the form of Wayne FFS Rooney and the very existence of Marouane Fellaini are distractions from a more widespread problem. Man United's squad isn't up to task and needs improvement and, yes, much more investment.

Despite the perception of Edward Woodward spending like a drunken sailor, Manchester United haven't broken any banks. Claims of £300m being spent are de rigueur, but misleading.

Van Gaal's first summer saw £135.52m spent and £33.87m brought in, making a net spend of £101.65m. Hefty, but not the ground-shaking, game changing spend which it's often perceived as. 

The summer window just gone saw £97.65m spent (counting Martial at £35m and so without all the bonuses) and £69.63m brought in, making a net spend of £28m.  

The total of £129.65m net is hardly a drop in the ocean, but it's not redefining how clubs spend. As an example, Manchester City, starting the period as champions, spent £157.88m net over the same period.

Van Gaal took over a squad which had finished 7th, was old and lacking in several places. With the exit of David Moyes also came the exits of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, both way past their best but both not replaced in advance or since. Smalling has progressed but, with all due respect to the England international, he's hardly Ferdinand, and Vidic's decline and exit has never been tackled.

Man United need quality additions throughout, but especially in defence. Smalling could then have the chance to progress further and live up to the accolades placed on him this season. 

Additions are also needed in wide areas as Adnan Januzaj's curious loan becomes stranger by the month and even the loss of Luis Nani looks like a mistake in hindsight, as does the sale of sulky Robin van Persie.

Rather than leaking stories about moves for Ballon d'Or contenders, Woodward needs to get real and work on fixing the huge broken window before buying fancy curtains for it. Van Gaal needs to make sure Woodward does, the Dutchman deserves heavy criticism for not having solved the problems which were there when he arrived, and perhaps for having too much faith in some players.

Next time Manchester United play too defensively, it may be worth considering the manager is doing it because the club's so called best defence in England is anything but. 

Figures from Transfermarkt.

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