LONDON (Reuters) - The table suggests Louis van Gaal is making progress at Manchester United but winning matches has never been good enough on its own at the Theatre of Dreams.
Van Gaal’s team have lost only once in their last 18 games, are third in the Premier League, five points behind champions Manchester City, and are on course to rejoin Europe’s elite.
Yet the fans, who down the years have salivated over some of the world’s great showmen parading their skills at Old Trafford and beyond, are feeling as though they are watching a bunch of second-rate impersonators.
Experienced Dutchman Van Gaal has been reduced to waving around pieces of paper at news conferences to explain his team’s style of play after West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce said United were playing long-ball tactics against his side.
While Van Gaal may have steered the Old Trafford ship back in the right direction, he is yet to solve the identity crisis that coincided with the retirement of Alex Ferguson in 2013.
For the vast majority of Ferguson’s trophy-laden 26-year reign at Old Trafford, United played the kind of football the late Matt Busby craved.
“At Manchester United we strive for perfection and if we fail we might just have to settle for excellence,” Busby, one of United’s greatest managers, once said.
Fluent, expansive football, played with pace and panache was the United way.
The personnel changed during the Fergsuon era, but the blueprint stayed the same. “You score, we’ll score more,” was the ethos ingrained in the great United sides.
Thrill-seekers revelled in watching the likes of Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo blow away opponents.
Now, it has all become a bit of a grind.
After the fortunate 1-1 draw against West Ham which provoked the “long-ball” accusations, United beat struggling Burnley 3-1 on Wednesday but for large parts of the match were outplayed.
Wayne Rooney, reconstituted as a midfield anchor man under Van Gaal, was lost, striker Robin van Persie starved of service and Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao anonymous.
There was no real leadership on the pitch and two of United’s goals came from centre half Chris Smalling who did not even warrant a starting place.
Van Gaal is at least honest in his assessment.
”It was not good,“ Van Gaal said after the Burnley win. ”The fans were whistling at halftime (even though we were winning) and that’s the first time I hear that.
”I‘m happy we can win when we are playing not well. But I didn’t see any progression and that’s not good.
“Burnley were the better team, they played the ball along the floor and we didn‘t.”
United revealed a 12 percent drop in revenue for the six months to December on Thursday, the cost of finishing seventh last season and missing out on the Champions League.
So, providing Van Gaal achieves a top-four finish and United return to Europe’s blue-riband tournament, the first part of his remit will have been achieved.
Yet, with arguably none of the current team, Rooney aside, likely to appear in many fans’ best elevens from the last 30 years, Van Gaal will need a huge transfer kitty to restore United’s reputation as English football’s great entertainers.
editing by Justin Palmer