A weird thing happened on Tuesday night. Manchester United played a football game, and it wasn’t a completely unwatchable dirge. What glorious bounty! What gifts we’ve been blessed with by the gods! What pleasure this must have bestowed on their fans! Of course, it didn’t do them very much good and they were deposited from Champions to Europa League by Wolfsburg, like a new parent dropping a soiled nappy into a bin.
While many United fans might have taken solace in this freewheelin’ performance, despite the defeat, you get the feeling that Louis van Gaal probably used it as a fine example of why he craves control, of why he teaches his team to jealously keep the ball like a child with a bag of sweets. “See what happens when you give in to chaos!?!?” he might have bellowed. “You see? We lose! We MUST HAVE CONTROL!”
He’s quite an intimidating man in the flesh, is Van Gaal. It’s partly that stare, the look in his eyes that not only says he’s right and everyone else is wrong, but that he can’t quite believe that everybody else is stupid enough to be so wrong. He’s pretty lofty too, appearing taller than the 6”1 that Wikipedia lists him as, which is possibly also because he has an exceptionally tall head; his is a melon that seems to just keep on going, eyebrows giving way to a forehead that seems to go for miles and miles, before it eventually turns into his odd quiff, suggesting even greater height. He looks a little bit like a long lost relative of Beavis, giving one the impression that he’s nudging Ryan Giggs on the bench not to make a tactical observation or to ask his advice, but simply to say “Uhuhuhuhuh.”
Your correspondent was at the Leicester v United game recently, and following his post-match press conference Van Gaal wandered out of the room, boisterously proclaiming that it was “better than last year, yes!?!?!” and happening to fix his eyes on mine while doing so. It took plenty of self-control not to explode in a mass of sweat and piss and simply nervously gabble that yes, a 1-1 draw was a bit better than a 5-3 defeat.
So, in that respect it must be pretty difficult to disagree with him, even when he is quite, quite wrong. Like, for example, his assertion that United have improved this season partially because they got one round further in the Capital One Cup, as if he was expecting extra credit for simply delaying their embarrassing defeat to a lower division side. Last season, MK Dons in the first game they played, this time Middlesbrough in the second. An improvement, perhaps, but only in that a cold is an improvement from the flu.
This also applies to their style of play. United fans, not necessarily because of any entitlement or privilege but because they’d rather not have their arses bored off every week, have been rather vocal in their demands for more attacking football this season. The question was put to Van Gaal after their latest plodding effort in the league, the 0-0 draw with West Ham last weekend, and he appeared baffled by the idea they might be dissatisfied, and perhaps by what constituted attacking football.
He seemed confused that some United fans were encouraging him to attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, on the basis that he thought that’s exactly what they were doing. He pointed out that they dominated the game, which technically they did, it’s just they didn’t do a great deal with that domination, and it seems the difference of opinion comes down to this whether you think having the ball in your opponents’ half a lot is the same as attacking. Van Gaal does, the assembled masses at Old Trafford beg to differ. Claiming this United team have been an attacking one for most of this season is a bit like claiming an A4 piece of paper folded into a cone shape is a suitable hat. Technically it’s true, in that it would cover part of your head, but in practice it’s nonsense.
Van Gaal will point to United’s position in the league, three points off the top, but in a division this mediocre, real improvement would have them winning the thing by a street. The problem is that he will use those domestic results as proof that he is right, despite European competition showing this United team up for what they are (or perhaps aren’t), and the sea of increasingly loud voices disagreeing with his approach. His stubbornness and absolute conviction that he’s right may be a fine quality in some respects, but in others it has meant he hasn’t properly adapted to the league, and it certainly seems to mean he doesn’t properly listen to other opinions.
In this respect he has similarities with another rather cocksure international figure with curious hair. Donald Trump this week declared that he thinks all brown people should be put into a large Tupperware container and put away somewhere (or something like that, bit sketchy on the details), and his response to virtually the entire world telling him he was a disgusting loon and very, very wrong was to literally say “I. Don’t. Care.” Van Gaal presumably does not share Trump’s spicy views on diversity, but both men are driven by the absolute conviction that they are right and aren’t especially bothered who disagrees with them. Of course, one man could end up wrecking the world with his racist idiocy while the other might only bore a few people watching football, but still.
The other similarity is that, because of the proclivities of a few misguided souls, both men might be around for a little while yet. Trump is bafflingly ahead in most polls for the Republican nomination for president, while some in the Old Trafford hierarchy are so smitten with Van Gaal that they apparently want him to stay beyond his current contract, due to expire in 2017. So we might have another two, three, four years of this stuff. God help us all.