The swashbuckling approach of the Busby Babes had been continued by the club all the way to the Premier League era where United in the 90s became world famous for their fast-paced, wing-orientated attacking play.
United and Louis Van Gaal originally seemed like a match made in heaven in that regard. “My philosophy is always – because I believe we must entertain the public – to have attacking play,” Louis Van Gaal said when speaking about Mourinho, ironically given the fact he is most likely to replace him, in a biography on the Portuguese coach.
“His philosophy is to win! That is the difference,” the Dutchman added. It is hard to argue with Van Gaal here about Mourinho. Mourinho is a reactive, defensive coach who prioritising winning over style. However, people know what to expect with Mourinho and he is not shy in admitting to setting up teams in this manner.
The same cannot be said for Van Gaal. It was supposed to be an attacking philosophy, instead it is slow, suffocated and defensive. Even when United were getting good results, their style of play was a serious bone of contention that clashed with the club’s ideals.
However, if we use his full body of work to judge Van Gaal over the course of his career, he has more often than not been an attacking manager.
His Ajax team won the Champions League in spectacular fashion, while his Barcelona side of the late 90s was also built on attacking tradition.
So why has his United side played in such a stifling manner?
It is because Van Gaal is a manager who has become more and more pragmatic with age.
He no longer represents the same ideals that he did as a young coach in the 1990s and has sacrificed the more gung-ho elements of his philosophy. It seems like his belief in attacking possession football has dwindled by the year.
It began before taking the United job. Van Gaal was Netherlands manager for the 2014 World Cup.
The Netherlands team have always been deeply entrenched in the fluid 4-3-3, total football style that made them so popular in the 1970s. It is still seen as a sacrilege to abandon that style that had given them such success, especially for purists in Dutch football like Johan Cruyff.
Van Gaal decided to change the formation of the Netherlands team for the 2014 World Cup to a more defensive 3-5-2 formation. He felt that his team were not good enough to compete with the open, more attacking style of Dutch teams of the past.
His team would play counter attacking and rely on solidity and the occasional genius of Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, instead of a possession based game.
The results were great, even though they were not performing in the usual Dutch way. While they overcame world champions Spain to dramatic effect, they were often lacking in flair in their knockout games and failed to score in either the quarter-finals or semi-finals.
Pragmatism had triumphed over style for the Dutch as they finished in third place. Van Gaal learnt from this experience and he became more susceptible to conservative ideals.
When he took over at United, he spoke with authority about the attacking philosophy that he was going to implement at Old Trafford. Sixty minutes into one of the early games of the new season, it felt that his bold selections and enthusiasm had rubbed off on the players.
His team were cruising 3-1 against Leicester City. They had just comprehensively beaten QPR by four goals in the previous game.
Fans were excited by the club’s expensive transfer dealings that had attracted world-class stars like Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao to the club.
These two, along with Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie in attack, supplied by Daley Blind and Ander Herrera in midfield, formed one of the most attacking sides in the league. The interplay between the forward players was sublime in this game and it was topped off by a sumptuous chip by Di Maria, which was an early contender for goal of the season.
Di Maria had cost a British record £59m and had not that long ago been man of the match in the Champions League final. He was the key attacker in this new ‘Gaalactico’ side.
Suddenly, Jamie Vardy chased down a nothing ball that Rafael should have dealt with and won a very dubious penalty.
What happened after the spot-kick was converted was shocking. United completely fell apart to allow Leicester to win the game 5-3; it was a big blow to Louis Van Gaal’s faith in attacking football.
He could have decided that it was somewhat circumstantial as it occurred with a United defence that included Tyler Blackett at centre-back, an unknown young reserve, to cover for the injured Phil Jones. Marcos Rojo was given his away debut in the Premier League while Rafael had returned after an injury-plagued year. Long-time midfield protector Michael Carrick also missed out through injury.
He saw instead that the quickest route to victory with this United team was by playing safe football. Van Gaal’s tool of protection was not ten men behind the ball but of maintaining possession. The longer that his team had the ball, the less vulnerable they were in defence. The fewer mistakes they made in possession, the less likely they were to concede.
His style alienated certain attacking players and it was not long until players like Di Maria left the club after failing to adapt.
As a result, United finished the 2014/15 league season with 62 goals – two fewer than Moyes’ team the previous year and well behind the average goal tally of the Alex Ferguson years.
They achieved qualification for the Champions League but you could only say that they entertained the neutral in five or six games from that point onwards.
This season, it has gotten much worse on that attacking front. They have scored 22 goals in 18 games this season, which puts them on track for scoring a measly 46 goals this season.
Some of the damning attacking statistics from this season include 16th most shots per game out of 20 teams, 14th most dribbles per game despite having an average of 60% possession, according to WhoScored.com. Their top scorer in the league is Anthony Martial with only four goals, a turgid return for a team of United’s resources.
Playing with the safety net of unadventurous passing mixed with some good defending, United went on a run of 0-0s and narrow low scoring victories earlier this year. When a few injuries unsettled the defence, United had no attack to rely on to get results.
In the last few games, they look like team that is confused between the conservative instructions of Van Gaal and the jeers of the crowd where shouts of “attack, attack” are heard in Old Trafford on a regular basis.
As a result, they have been neither well-organised nor strong in attack recently. While they conceded some sloppy goals against Norwich and Stoke in particular, their struggles to score are a damning indictment of how things are fundamentally wrong with this side.
Fans watch as Javier Hernandez scores a goal a game for Bayer Leverkusen after he was told he would never play for United under Van Gaal. Fans watch ponderous attacks fizzle out consistently by players stuck in seemingly permanent rigidity.
This is not the attacking football that they were promised, a rea will essentially be Louis Van Gaal’s undoing. There are bigger problems at Manchester United than just the manager. Nevertheless, it is hard not to be underwhelmed by the man with the impressive CV who has promised so much and delivered so little.