Manchester United: Or, Watching Pre-Dried Paint

Man Utd are boring, aren’t they?

There have been a few comparisons with Barcelona recently, cries of “tiki-taka” dogging Utd’s every game. Not the good Barca, obviously; fans would kill to see a Messi-Neymar-Suarez axis at Old Trafford, or Villa-Messi-Pedro, and at this point would probably even settle for Jeffren-Bojan-Cuenca (anyone remember them?). Watching their games isn’t like watching paint dry; it’s like watching already dried paint, missing even the thin sliver of anticipation at some form of movement or motion or, frankly, any point.

And the cause of this isn’t the players. Any squad containing Martial, Mata, Herrera, Young, Valencia (yup, he still exists), Darmian, Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay should be able to play reasonably attractive football, at least some of the time; they are all good players, technically gifted and, in various ways, creative footballers. No, it isn’t the players. It’s what they’re being told to do.

Man Utd’s “philiosophy” isn’t tiki-taka, or even a reasonable interpretation of it. Tiki-taka is about drawing opposition players out of position with a series of short intricate passes, then exploiting that newly-created space. Utd don’t do that. They employ possession as a purely defensive tactic (which, in true tiki-taka, is only one aspect, perhaps even only a by-product, of the style of play), passing almost exclusively sideways and backwards. And this, often, results in fairly sterile games; fairly straightforward, really, but it doesn’t explain why Utd simply can’t look exciting in attack, ever.

Well, happily, and unlike Louis van Gaal apparently, I have the answer.

Man Utd are boring because they play almost exclusively in straight lines.

Hear me out. When a team attacks- a good team- it is, primarily, attempting to gain or create some space which it can exploit, whether out wide, through the centre or whatever. To do this, forwards make various types of runs in varied directions, hoping to pull defenders out of position and so create this space. It might be runs in behind, runs towards the ball, runs to the back or near post or down the sides- whatever. The point is, forwards don’t move in rigid lines, they curve around and cross over and change direction constantly. They move, interchange and overlap, creating fluid patterns which draw defenders into them like miniature whirlpools (when it works, obviously. Some just run around a lot).

Man Utd’s forwards don’t do that. They move in strict, regimented ways, either up and down a touchline or across lateral lines on the pitch. It’s not just the forwards, either; the fullbacks do it too. When does Darmian, for example, vary his runs, make diagonal movements, peel off to run in behind? For Torino, he did it often. For Man Utd, never- because he’s told not to.

The midfield are at it, too; each has a strict and rigid position that they are not allowed to break. Utd’s system has one deep-lying centre midfielder (who moves in a straight line between his centre-backs and the edge of the centre-circle in the opponent’s half), one “box-to-box” midfielder (who moves in a straight line between the centre spot and the opposition penalty spot), and one creative midfielder (who moves across the width of the pitch but rarely, if ever, is allowed to move vertically, say, into the penalty area). Which is fine for keeping possession; all the players know where the other players are, so can play passes without really having to look, and know exactly where their support is when they are in trouble. They don’t lost the ball often, and that, coupled with David de Gea and the still strange reluctance of teams to actually attack them, explains the defensive record.

But when it comes to, well, actually scoring goals, or providing some entertainment… well, any properly organised team can pretty easily defend, because they aren’t really being asked any questions by clever (or any) movement. It’s only a combination of the soporific effect of seeing a hundred sideways passes in a row and the sight of an animated beanpole with a giant afro warming up on the touchline that lets Utd score at all.

Actually, this is being unfair to Man Utd, because one player in the system does have a little freedom, and this player is usually Antony Martial.

And Martial is talented, no doubt about it. Quick, stronger than he looks, and an excellent dribbler, I’d quite like him if he hadn’t made a Faustian pact and sold his soul to the Red Devils. Recent criticism of him by, among others, Paul Scholes, was a little unfair- but it is also understandable, and comes about because Martial is being asked to do too much. Being the only player who is actually allowed to dribble, to make runs, to move away from his tramline and act like a careening out-of-control car flying off the sharp bend in the motorway- allowed, in other words, to actually be a forward- he is tasked with, basically, creating enough space for all the other straight-line people to exploit. And he’s 19, in a new league, with a strike partner who both looks and increasingly plays like a potato. Messi and Neymar wouldn’t look brilliant doing that, because it’s practically impossible.

You might argue that this doesn’t matter, given that Utd are third in the table and still in with a shout of qualifying for the next round of the Champions League. Football’s a results business, after all, and endless 1-0s are just as good as 5-0 thumpings…

Except that they aren’t, are they. Football is about entertainment, especially when a team has the quality and resources to be entertaining, especially when a team has the legacy of thrilling Champions League finals and fantastic (if annoying) attacking players and moves. I’m not a Manchester United fan- the most recent Arsenal-Utd game had me laughing for about three days afterwards- but at least it used to be that, when I did watch them, I was entertained. Annoyed, sickened, and often furious, yes, but entertained.

When that’s gone- when football really is about grinding out results, about rigid lines and results above all… well, then, it will be like watching dried paint. Unfulfilling, pointless… and boring.

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