Louis van Gaal says a lot of strange things, so when he absolutely nails something, he should probably be given his due. Following Saturday's nil-nil draw against West Ham United — United's fourth blank game in nine — Van Gaal went on the radio to pose himself a tough question:
The question is would Luis Suárez or Sergio Agüero score if they were here? That is a question mark. You never know. I think they would, though. We've created enough chances to score, so that was not the problem.
We think they would, too. They would because while neither player is perfect — Sergio Agüero's hamstrings are Cheese Strings, while Luis Suarez still hasn't apologised to a man he racially abused — both are among the best in the world when it comes to the business of kicking the ball into the net. Give them a chance, they'll probably score. Give them half a chance, and they'll likely manage that too. Agüero's last goal in the Premier League wasn't even a chance, really, since he was outside the box and palpably unfit. But he got bored of watching Liverpool embarrass his defenders, so decided to slap one past Simon Mignolet.
Of course, it's not a difficult question that Van Gaal's posed himself; those two would score goals in any team. It's also not a relevant question. Neither Agüero nor Suárez were in United's squad at the beginning of the season; neither will be arriving in January. Nor, most likely, will any other similarly outstanding finishers, for the simple reason that forwards that good tend not to be for sale in the middle of a season.
You'll of course be familiar with the saying: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." But you may not know that it continues: "And you definitely can't make an omelette if you don't actually have any eggs. I don't care what else you've got lying around. You can't just throw a couple of lemons, some sprouting broccoli, a pair of socks and an old box of embarrassing love letters into a pan, pour in some milk, crack some pepper over the top and call it an omelette. Nobody's breakfasting on that. Take those socks off the heat, they'll burn."
Part of being a football manager is working with the players available. Another part is constructing a team to take maximum advantage of those players. If United lack a striker of Agüárez's ability — and given that the options here are the young Anthony Martial, the on-loan James Wilson, and the superannuated Wayne Rooney, it's fair to say that they do — then they need to play football in a manner that recognises and attempts to obviate that lack. There are, after all, ways to compensate for not having a thirty-goal-a-season striker.
Maybe the solution is to get more midfielders into the box. Maybe it's to abandon the principle of possession above all else and actively look for riskier passes forward. Maybe it's to recognise that a stable of not necessarily brilliant [yet/any more] strikers, well-rotated and cleverly deployed, can fill that void, all chipping in here and there. Here we remind you that when Manchester United won the Premier League in 2000-01, only two players scored ten or more league goals, and Teddy Sheringham top scored with a mere 15.
We don't know; that's not our job. However, we refuse to believe that this squad, at least once the injury crisis lifts a touch, can only play this way. And we know that the solution definitely isn't to spend a game creating chances that a thirty-goal-a-season striker would tuck away, then lament: "Oh, dear, we don't have a thirty-goal-a-season striker. Whatever is to be done. Woe." We learned this week that Ed Woodward, at least when he's (allegedly) in his cups, views Van Gaal as "a genius manager". You'll forgive us if we don't think that crossing to a striker who doesn't play for the club isn't quite worthy of that description.
The question of style is a persistent one this season, and rightly so; you don't have to believe in the mystical properties of The United Way to recognise that football teams, particularly the ultra-rich and ultra-expensive ones, should at the very least make a gesture in the direction of entertainment. But four nil-nils in nine games and this mess of a Champions League group campaign shows us that the problem isn't just that United are boring. It's that they're not very good at being boring. The striker to tuck away the one tricky chance per game isn't there, and isn't going to be.
It is human nature, perhaps, to pine for what is missing when things don't go to plan. But ultimately, Van Gaal will not be judged with reference to the players he doesn't have. Trophies have to be the goal, of course, but if they don't come, then the relevant question will not be: "Where is our Agüero?" It will be: did Van Gaal set the team up to make the most out of who he had? And then: did he enable those players to play at their best? Two positive answers, and a manager probably deserves to keep his job. Even if the season's trophyless. Maybe even if the football's joyless.
Yet by highlighting what he is missing, Van Gaal is inadvertently drawing attention to his failure to satisfy the first of those questions. And given that United's goalscoring players seem to be utterly drained of confidence — apart from James Wilson, who scored a lovely goal on his Brighton debut — then he might also be doing serious damage to the second. Nobody is accusing Van Gaal of wasting a perfect squad. But it looks increasingly like he doesn't have the right solution to the problems of this imperfect one.
We know Van Gaal isn't going to change things on aesthetic grounds. At some point soon, however, he's going to have to try something else for reasons of simple pragmatism. Only the inadequacies of those around and below them have kept United in touch in this deeply weird Premier League, and they may be about to slump out of the European competition for which he was so delighted to have qualified. At this rate, he's going to end the season looking very little like a genius. And he'll have ruined a perfectly good pair of socks in the process.