In fairness to Louis van Gaal, amid all the scrutiny of his team's performances and Wayne Rooney's diminishing output, he was not being wildly disrespectful to Alex Ferguson when he pointed out the club had endured difficult periods in the past when Old Trafford had not "always been the big Theatre of Dreams".
Van Gaal might not have realised it but he was speaking 10 years to the day that the details were leaked about what Roy Keane actually said in the infamous MUTV interview that had to be spiked because of its content. Keane never played for the club again but his dissatisfaction with the team was far from unique given the level of debate around the team's tactics at the time.
Carlos Queiroz, Ferguson's assistant, had been entrusted to set up a new 4-5-1 system and, looking back, it is astonishing to see how what is considered the norm now encountered so much opposition back then.
"Four-four-two", a mutinous crowd chanted during a 2-1 home defeat to Blackburn Rovers. Ferguson suffered more abuse that day than possibly at any time since the trophies started arriving and at least Van Gaal, for all his deflection techniques, has not resorted to the same press-conference etiquette just yet. "I'm not explaining anything," Ferguson said to questions that day. "You've got your own ideas of the game so, please, carry on. I wouldn't want to blunt your imagination with the facts."
The modern United are accustomed to playing with only one centre forward and one of the questions for Van Gaal, preparing for his team's Champions League assignment against CSKA Moscow, was whether Rooney had done enough to justify being that man. His reply, emphatically, was that Rooney is still a mandatory first-team pick.
“He gives us more than only scoring goals,” Van Gaal said. “He is our captain but also an example for the whole team. He has more credits than any other player.”
Van Gaal is clearly weary of the Rooney issue and United are probably entitled to think Greater Manchester police might have better taste than posting a “missing persons” message – now deleted – on its official Twitter account for someone “last seen in the Trafford area wearing a red shirt”. Rooney might not be the player he was but it is also true, as Van Gaal accepted, that a striker relies on service and part of United’s problem has been their creativity around the penalty area.
To that effect, Memphis Depay’s struggles in Manchester have led to him being left out of the latest Holland squad and Van Gaal was being generous to say the 21-year-old Dutchman is the “greatest talent” of his age in the sport.
Van Gaal undoubtedly wanted to soothe the player's confidence, but the national coach, Danny Blind, was not so kind, criticising Depay for not comprehending "you must function in a team".
Van Gaal’s point was that Depay was talented enough to flourish again and the same, presumably, will apply to his team at some point after their run of three successive 0-0 draws, the first time that has happened since 2005 and, before then, 1921. If United were to fail to score against a CSKA side who have gone a club-record 21 games unbeaten in the Russian league, it would be the first occasion since 1992 they have gone four games without a goal. As such, it was difficult to know what Van Gaal meant when he said “we are improving every day and you can see that in the results”.
Resting his captain
The manager made more sense when he talked of seeing Anthony Martial as, ultimately, a centre forward, despite having moved him to the left recently while he persists with Rooney. Would he ever consider resting his captain? "Yes, but not only Wayne," Van Gaal replied. "I have done that for all my players. It is not a big issue for me because even when I was a very young trainer-coach I did it with Jari Litmanen [at Ajax]. "
For now, all that is clear is that United, with a win, a draw and a defeat from their opening three Champions League games, need to rediscover their scoring touch against a CSKA team who have exactly the same record in Group B. “Football is about scoring goals,” Van Gaal said.
“We have stood first in the Premier League but now we have a had a bad period. We have to improve.” Guardian Service