Unfair trial

Suhrith Parthasarathy | Updated on January 22, 2018

The Master Manager: Louis vanGaal hasconsistently arguedthat his footballingphilosophy isdifficult to grasp,but will eventuallybring successReuters/Jason Cairnduff   -  REUTERS

Suhrith Parthasarathy   -  BUSINESS LINE

Manchester United is back in the reckoning at the English Premier League. But each victory or defeat doesn’t indicate a potential title run or a catastrophe

We live in an age that demands an instant inquiry. Only a month ago, if you believed the pundits, Manchester United was in a state of irreversible disarray. At the Liberty Stadium, against a superbly organised Swansea side, United had allowed a lead to slip through two quickfire goals scored within the space of five minutes. As a result of the loss, United, a 20-times champion, slipped to fifth position in the English Premier League table, and experts were quick to jump on the ‘I-told-you-so’ bandwagon. The abilities of their manager Louis van Gaal, who has been a winner at virtually every other club he has managed, came under renewed scrutiny. But more than anything else, any chance of United catching up to Manchester City, who had at that stage raced to the top of the table, was already considered nigh on impossible.

“I haven’t got a clue what van Gaal is trying to do,” said former Arsenal striker Ian Wright on BBC Radio 5 Live, after the Swansea defeat. “What’s their system? Surely Manchester United have got to play with a bit more pace and thrust and tempo. They seemed desperate.”

Now, just three matches later, United are at the summit, two points ahead of City, who slumped to consecutive defeats, at home to West Ham, and away to Tottenham Hotspur. These recent developments are certainly instructive. There exists a definite temptation to make an immediate appraisal: to hail United for having suddenly found the winning potion, and to question City’s defensive frailties. But, to compartmentalise these results into a specific narrative would tantamount, once again, to viewing the game reductively.

Although United have added French teenager Anthony Martial to their squad, van Gaal’s approach to the game — his philosophy, as he likes to call it — has remained largely unchanged. He continues to line United up to play the same style of football that was unsuccessful against Swansea, the same style that was the subject of a lengthy harangue for its unsuitability to the Premier League. Manchester United still builds play slowly from defence, and continues to concentrate on keeping possession, often moving the football tediously sideways and backwards. Their idea is to wear down the opposition contrary to blowing them away through rapid surges and counter-attacks. United’s three consecutive victories in the league, against Liverpool, Southampton and Sunderland, have all come by an adherence to these methods.

No doubt, Martial has also made a significant difference. Signed from Monaco for an eye-catching fee of £36 million, potentially rising to £58 million depending on his performances, Martial had been quickly written off as a waste of money, even before he had played a single minute for United. Experts said he was unproven at the highest level, and the amount paid for his signature represented a colossal gamble.

These judgments, much like the assessment of United’s early season form, have proved unduly hasty. Martial not only scored on his debut against Liverpool in a 3-1 victory, but he also bagged a brace of goals, both taken in nerveless style, in his second league match, against a doughty Southampton side. Apart from his obvious abilities as a finisher par excellence, the quality of Martial’s all-round play has also been impressive. Almost every sign in his first games for the club points to his ultimate growth from a supreme talent into a world-class footballer.

Van Gaal, it must be said, has consistently argued, since taking charge of United at the beginning of last season, that his footballing philosophy can be difficult to immediately grasp, and that his methods would eventually bring success. Of course, there’s no reason to take him on his word. A dispassionate analysis of van Gaal’s ways surely reveals merits as well as demerits. Thus far, it’s clear from both United’s victories and defeats that the team is now harder to defeat, its defence is supremely organised and its midfield spine is as solid and powerful as it has been for nearly a decade. Conversely, there are also areas of concern: the club’s captain, Wayne Rooney isn’t the player that he once was, and the team can certainly do with far greater urgency and ingenuity in attack. But, attributing each of United’s losses to the system of play is just as incongruous as hailing every victory as one that heralds a potential title run. It was the latter kind of assessment that trailed Manchester City’s early season form.

In the first five league games this season, City’s football was often irrepressible. Not only did they maintain a clean sheet in each of these matches, they appeared to have also regained great fluency to their attacking play. It seemed that the myriad problems they faced last season had been miraculously overturned. And with Chelsea struggling, Arsenal and Manchester United developing into big bungling messes, City’s road to the title, the pundits asserted with great confidence, had been sealed.

Yet again, as is so often the case with the Premier League, we have ourselves an altered narrative. City’s consecutive defeats have jolted their surge to the championship. But, on closer analysis, what’s interesting is that in at least one of these losses — the match against West Ham — City didn’t play particularly poorly. They were simply unlucky. But to make such an evaluation would not help satiate our appetite for instant, final judgements. Each victory or defeat, for us, ought to be pigeonholed into a specific plotline: of a team that is either on an endless run of success or on a slippery slope towards catastrophe.

( Suhrith Parthasarathy is a Chennai-based lawyer and writer)

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Published on October 02, 2015
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