In many ways, Manchester United have always been trailblazers in the world of football.
In the 1950’s, for example, the Red Devils defied instructions from the FA to represent England in Europe, forging a path for others to follow suit.
They are also the club that heralded the dawn of terrace fashion football, when the iconic and incredibly gifted George Best made his debut at Old Trafford on September 14, 1963.
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In addition to being trendsetters in English football, United have also forged a global brand and footballing identity synonymous with style, panache and attacking abandon.
Cultivated in the 1960’s and developed further under the successful reign of Sir Alex Ferguson, fans at Old Trafford have become accustomed to swashbuckling attack and demand nothing less from their players.
How Louis van Gaal is changing the United style
Since Ferguson’s departure, however, United have lost some of the unique style that made them such a feared side around the world.
The side with no discernible pattern of play at all under the troubled stewardship of David Moyes, for example, and while experienced Dutchman Louis van Gaal has helped to revive the club’s fortunes, he has also integrated a style of play that is possession-based, mechanical and lacking creative flair.
While a sparkling run of form at the end of last season saw players such as Ander Herrera and Juan Mata released to deliver some much-needed guile, the club appears to have taken a backwards step this year.
Despite reaching the top of the league for the first time since August 2013 in early October, Van Gaal has adopted a rigid 4-2-3-1 system lacking in forward movement and genuine pace.
The poor form showcased by Memphis Depay has hardly helped, while a string of underwhelming performances from captain Wayne Rooney has disrupted the Red Devils' forward rhythm.
This has created a significant imbalance in the team which, despite being defensively well-drilled and organised, lacks any semblance of unpredictability.
The clubs’ form in October has underlined this, going three consecutive games without scoring and registering just a single goal-bound shot in the 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
The performance in the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal provided even more cause for concern, as the fast and fluent Gunners overwhelmed the previously excellent United back-line to earn their first league victory over the Red Devils since May 2011.
Is Van Gaal the man to restore United’s identity?
This performance proved that, while a solid defence should provide the foundation for any successful team, it cannot compensate entirely for an imbalanced and misfiring attack.
It is, therefore, crucial Van Gaal finds the right balance to unlock creative talents such as Mata, not from an aesthetic perspective, but in order to increase his side’s goal return and achieve Champions League qualification.
Whether this involves sacrificing the cumbersome and immobile Rooney is yet to be seen, although, perhaps a more pertinent question is whether Van Gaal is the actually right man to restore United’s fragmenting identity.
He is a man driven by success, trusting his own methods and possession-based philosophy that enables his teams to control games.
If the Dutchman achieves success within the remainder of his 18-month contract, United fans may need to tolerate this transition and wait for a new coach to take the club forward in a more familiar style.
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