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Time for Van Gaal to embrace the United way

hi-res-61ae1517d7ebebebdfc50f4d2d84c026_crop_northNorth London, 28 April 2013. Manchester United travel to the Emirates having already clinched the title and they are welcomed onto the pitch by a guard of honour, while Sir Alex Ferguson prepares to face Arsene Wenger for the last time in his career.

In the away end’s concourse, travelling United fans have been bouncing long before kick-off.

“20 times, 20 times Man United, 20 times, 20 times I say,20 times, 20 times Man United, playing football the Busby way,” they chant over and over again, as they celebrate their 20th title in the backyard of one of their main rivals.

United had not exactly played football the “Busby way” throughout the season, in fact they had not done so in a while, but nobody seemed to care, for football is ultimately a result-driven business and holding the Premier League trophy aloft was what mattered most.

On Sunday, the same chant could be heard again, a few miles east of the Emirates, as the fans packed in the away end at Upton Park urged their side to “attack, attack, attack”.

Daley Blind’s late equaliser proved that the current United are side are slowly rediscovering some of the good old habits but they remain woefully short of expectations, not so much in terms of results, but in the way they’re getting them.

Football is a result-driven business, but at Manchester United things are slightly different.

“Philosophy” has been Louis Van Gaal’s buzzword since he arrived at Old Trafford in July, but it’s hard to pinpoint what the Dutchman is exactly trying to achieve. Van Gaal’s spells at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich told the story of success achieved through attacking, inspiring, football and the 63-year-old seemed a perfect fit for his new club.

Did United fans get carried away with expectations and underestimated the task awaiting the former Holland manager, or did he miscalculate the challenge he would be facing in the Premier League?

Has Van Gaal lost his touch or has he simply decided that pragmatism is the best way to lead United out of the doldrums they plunged into last season?

A quick glance at the table suggests that the latter might be the answer, for United have lost once in their last 17 games, they remain on course to achieve a top-four finish and have as good a chance of lifting the FA Cup as they’ve had in years.

However, as United found out towards the end of Fergie’s reign, pragmatism can only paper over a certain number of cracks.

It’s easier to win games when the team is creating chances and fans are more inclined to forget the disappointments if they’re treated to an attacking and entertaining brand of football.

Few clubs in world football are as romanticised as Manchester United. The game has changed beyond recognition from the 1950s, but the attacking ethos of the club is as important to the fans as the crest on the shirt itself.

Real Madrid fans demand to be entertained as if they were in a theatre, United fans see attacking football as a continuing tradition as much as an act of defiance. The sort of attitude that drove the club to challenge the FA and enter the European Cup and that saw Fergie conquer the league with a team built upon the Class of ’92.

At other clubs, attacking football might simply boil down to have an additional striker on the pitch, at United it runs deeper than that, it shapes the club’s philosophy as much as it is shaped by it.

Whether Louis Van Gaal’s philosophy is the Manchester United’s philosophy remains to be seen, but the Dutchman’s pedigree and last summer’s world class signings suggest that finding the point where the two intersects should be easier than it has been so far.

The fans, particularly those who travel up and down the country to follow the club, know Van Gaal needs time and are prepared to stick by him but the first seven months under the Dutchman have been underwhelming.

At the Munich memorial last week, Van Gaal spoke of his intention to play football the way Sir Matt Busby’s teams did but United are way short of it at the moment.

To achieve his vision, Van Gaal might have to embrace the Manchester United’s philosophy more than he wants Manchester United to embrace his, or “playing football the Busby way” might soon become nothing more than a nostalgic reminder of what United used to be.