Neil Humphreys: United must get rid of Jekyll and Hyde mentality
LVG's erratic, confusing system must find consistency in Manchester Derby
The Arsenal debacle was supposed to be the great unmasking. That was the moment when the real Red Devils revealed themselves to the world.
They were pedestrians, one-speed machines with no chance of catching up.
But the Everton victory said the opposite.
The Toffees were overwhelmed by a blizzard of goals and guile. Manchester United had finally clicked. This was a new dawn after all that darkness.
But it proved to be another false one. CSKA Moscow exposed more cracks than an energetic plasterer as United's performances wobbled like an old Subbuteo player.
They were title contenders. They were clueless. They were moving forward. They were going nowhere.
The Manchester Derby will confirm their title credentials. The Manchester Derby will rubberstamp their mediocrity.
Tomorrow, the Theatre of Dreams will witness the best of times and the worst of times. It's not the tale of two cities, but of two Uniteds, a side struggling with a split personality.
From Ron Atkinson's pub crawlers to David Moyes' mutinous veterans, have there ever been a United team so unsure of themselves?
The erratic Red Devils endure an identity crisis, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Jason Bourne was fished out of the sea with bullet holes in his back.
Who makes the best back four? Where's the pace in central midfield? Who takes up which position in the front three? Who plays No. 9? Does Wayne Rooney's experience trump Anthony Martial's enterprise? What are United's tactics, formation and overriding philosophy?
From week to week, United's line-up is an ongoing riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma that is Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman pointed out last season that he wasn't God, just to clear up any nagging doubts, but he has created United in his own image - occasionally brilliant, sometimes baffling and always inconsistent.
Van Gaal's lauded possession-based system usually leads to United jumping out of the blocks with all the energy of a three-legged boar. They grow into games slower than a beard during puberty.
It was enough to rescue a point in Moscow and swat aside a sub-par Everton but, by the time they woke from their slumber against Arsenal, the game was gone.
The Dutchman has refrained from passing judgment. He has insisted that previous matches were not accurate gauges of United's standing. He watched without prejudice.
Louis van Gaal (above). TNP ILLUSTRATION: TEOH YI CHIE
The subjectivity comes in the Manchester Derby. That's the true barometer of United's progress, he said. By the final whistle, he will know if he is managing title contenders or not.
In truth, he should have some idea already, but United's schizophrenia is mirrored by the Jekyll-and-Hyde partnership in the dugout, both played by the same contradictory manager.
Van Gaal has more faces than Manchester's town hall clock.
He championed Chris Smalling's leadership credentials, calling him a future club captain, but has saddled the centre back with a carousel of partners. Phil Jones, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo have all had a go.
Bastian Schweinsteiger's surprising struggles in adjusting to the pace of the Premier League had already been noted before he kept his place against CSKA, a decision that almost cost United until it was rectified at half-time.
Juan Mata was celebrated and then relegated to the bench, joining the likes of Blind, Memphis Depay, Marouane Fellaini and even Ander Herrera as drifting Devils who are no longer sure where or when or how they'll be playing.
For all the rotations and rhetoric, a point was earned in Moscow by throwing on Fellaini and firing balls towards his afro. Moyes really was fired for less.
When van Gaal announces his ever-changing line-up, the dressing room must resemble a barn filled with hysterical chickens as the farmer wanders in with a blood-soaked chopper.
No one knows if they are coming are going, least of all Martial.
Sir Alex Ferguson had his vendettas, feuds and fallouts, but he never publicly called one of his players "stupid".
Van Gaal referred to Martial's handball as a "stupid reaction" and risked throwing a teenager to the wolves, a kid who is currently propping up United's facade.
One minute he's a saviour, the next he's stupid; the stick-and-carrot method could mess with a young man's mind. But that's van Gaal's United - a confusing, exhausting mix of contradictions.
The Dutchman has a point when he says the Manchester Derby will be the right occasion to judge United's potential.
But, if Old Trafford witnesses another inconsistent performance undermined by strange selections and disjointed tactics, the manager could find himself in the dock.
“There is no winter break and I think that is the most evil thing of this culture. I think you should change it. England haven’t won anything for how many years? Because all the players are exhausted at the end of the season.”
- United manager Louis van Gaal, calling for a winter break in the EPL
“I have a lot of respect for van Gaal, but I don’t agree with him. The whole of Europe comes to England to watch the game on Boxing Day. It’s a very important part of us being popular in the world, that nobody works at Christmas and everybody watches the Premier League.”
- Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, disagreeing with van Gaal
17 Manchester United have won 17 of their 23 Premier League home games under Louis van Gaal,conceding just 16 goals
MAN UNITED v MAN CITY
(Tomorrow, 10.05pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
- Aston Villa v Swansea (10pm)
- Leicester v Crystal Palace (10pm)
- Norwich v West Brom (10pm)
- Stoke v Watford (10pm)
- West Ham v Chelsea (10pm)
- Arsenal v everton (12.30am)
- Sunderland v newcastle (8pm)
- Bournemouth v Tottenham (10.05pm)
- Man United v Man City (10.05pm)
- Liverpool v Southampton (12.15am)
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