Manchester United are boring and Louis van Gaal seems to have forgotten the importance of goals

Wayne Rooney is both symptom and cause of a drought. His return of two goals in 16 league games is miserable but reflects his decline in both pace and influence. Van Gaal’s willingness to leave himself short of attacking options perplexes, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, left, Wayne Rooney, centre, and Ashley Young before a scoreless draw against Middlesbrough. Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
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The message may have been passed down more than 50 years ago but it remains relevant now. “Sir Matt was always going on about not being boring,” Bobby Charlton recalled in 2011.

Sir Matt Busby imbued his Manchester United teams with an attacking ethos. He knew that nearby Trafford Park was Europe's biggest industrial park.

Thousands did physically hard, intellectually numbing jobs.

“He used to say that when Saturday comes, they expect to be entertained,” Charlton said. “That was the philosophy then and it’s the philosophy now.”

Or it was when he spoke. Much has changed. In post-industrial Britain, Trafford Park is no longer a hive and a hub of manufacturing.

United now claim to have 659 million supporters, spread across the world. Some, no doubt, are lured in by the prospect of reflected glory that picking serial winners entails.

Many more are drawn in by the expectation of entertainment. For long, under Busby and Alex Ferguson alike, United provided the promise of escapism from a mundane reality; not now, when the team can be as drab and dull as a working day.

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They have gone 325 minutes without a goal. They have a hat-trick of goalless draws. They have recorded a grand total of two shots on target in their past two league games. They departed the League Cup to a weakened Championship side, in Middlesbrough.

Some 36 hours later, in a display that was far more entertaining than his team’s, but utterly nonsensical, Louis van Gaal denied United were boring by citing the numbers of supporters inside Old Trafford and their refusal to boo.

It was warped logic, conflating the size of a fanbase and the patience of the match-going public, which certainly is not mirrored on social media, with the idea they were excited.

Tickets were not purchased in anticipation of a sorry cup exit. To extend Van Gaal’s powers of argument, perhaps Wrexham let their faithful down on Saturday in the National League, the fifth tier of English football. They may have beaten Barrow 4-1 but the Racecourse Ground was two-thirds empty and fewer than 3,800 turned up.

That may be by the by but Van Gaal’s questionable definitions of entertainment and excellence are at heart of the issue. Eleven days ago, in the quest to find a performance that had pleased him particularly, he alighted on the first half of a 0-0 draw at Tottenham Hotspur.

He claimed United produced their best display of last season in a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea when they had 70 per cent of the ball but barely any threat. The pragmatic Jose Mourinho prized points over possession and made off with the win.

The common denominator is that United did not score. Van Gaal seems to have forgotten the importance of goals. His side did not come close enough, against Crystal Palace on Saturday or over the year as a whole. Only Sunderland have had fewer shots this season.

Wayne Rooney is both symptom and cause of a drought. His return of two goals in 16 league games, stretching back to the end of last season, is miserable but reflects his decline in both pace and influence.

Van Gaal’s decision to install his captain as his premier centre-forward has made United less potent, especially when the pacier Anthony Martial, a rare crowd-pleaser in the club’s truest traditions, is exiled to the left flank.

Van Gaal’s willingness to leave himself short of attacking options perplexes and if Robin van Persie has done too little for Fenerbahce to suggest his sale was a mistake, the sharper Javier Hernandez has struck six times in four games for Bayer Leverkusen.

It was an indictment when Palace manager Alan Pardew suggested that quietening Martial equated to stopping United, especially as Van Gaal has spent some £280 million (Dh1.5bn) on players.

Yet it is not merely a matter of individuals. Explanations of Van Gaal’s much-mentioned philosophy are elusive but fans may describe ponderous passing, seemingly going nowhere, which is the opposite of the ethos summed up in the chant heard at Selhurst Park on Saturday: “Attack, attack, attack.”

That was Busby’s philosophy, though few used such pretentious words then, and Ferguson’s preferred instinct. But while Van Gaal remains a charismatic, compelling quotable presence, United have been boring for too much of his reign.

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