At present, Manchester United are not a very good team. They are perfectly adept at retaining possession with a series of short passes in midfield -- which in Louis van Gaal's own bizarre words, constitutes the 'control' of matches -- but the problem comes when they try to move the ball forward into the final third of the pitch. The players are too static to create space, and the passing too slow to do the job for them.
That hints at the big problem: United are badly lacking in pace. That isn't just to say players that can run quickly: there's no use running straight at packed defence, no matter how speedily you can do it. Rather, United need more pace in everything they do.
Despite a promising pre-season, Van Gaal's formation is as rigid as ever. That in itself isn't a problem -- United were hardly Barcelonaesque in their positional freedom under Alex Ferguson -- but if the players aren't allowed to roam, then United need to be ruthlessly efficient, moving closer to the lethal counter-attacking that characterised many of their historical best performances.
That may mean showing a willingness to allow the opponent to see more of the ball. What Van Gaal doesn't seem to have realised is that control of the ball isn't control per se; as José Mourinho, Diego Simeone and -- you may be surprised to hear -- Pep Guardiola all understand, it's controlling space that is the key to winning football matches. Guardiola's teams are more reliant on their own invention to create space, though as the amusing clip of his yelling at Arturo Vidal for passing sideways illustrates, he understands timing is key. It's impossible to imagine one of his teams stroking it confusedly around the back, as United have done so often over the last year.
If Guardiola's teams create the space for themselves, Mourinho and Simeone's wait for the space to be created for them. They're quite happy to let their opponents them have the ball, before attacking with such speed that their opponent's defensive structure is critically compromised. It's the most cynical approach, but one that has proven undeniably effective.
It's a style Louis van Gaal would probably criticise as unattractive, and yet one in which he seems to have more in common than he'd like to admit. For at present, he's neither part of the Pep School or the José School; he's an ugly and inefficient blend of both -- he's got Pep's possession and pressing fetish without his creative ingenuity, and José's love for discipline without his brutally efficacious counters. For a man that claims to put entertainment before results, it's a baffling situation.
The good news is that the way out is fairly simple. Van Gaal is stubborn enough that he'll never let his players have the creative freedom of Guardiola, meaning playing more cynically is the only way for United to be more effective at creating space for their attackers. That may mean sitting a little deeper and letting their opponents have more of the ball, and it certainly means taking greater risks when they win it back. As it is, United look frightened to play the ball in behind opposition defences.
That makes even less sense when you consider the improvements they've made in the transfer window. Memphis Depay is the quick, direct sort of winger that United were crying out for last season, and the addition of Anthony Martial probably isn't as ridiculous as some would have you believe. He's still only 19 years old, was very highly regarded in France, and is perfectly adept at playing both out wide and through the middle. He also has the pace to suggest he'd be more useful than Mata if deployed out on the right flank.
United are also much stronger in midfield, and a trio of Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera looks one of the strongest in the division. It carries right balance of defensive steel and offensive ingenuity, and unlike when Michael Carrick featured in the centre, there are no passengers. It's energetic and powerful, and would be utterly reliable if asked to sit back and protect the defence.
Though there's always space for more quality -- especially if Rooney's going to keep his place up front -- and greater depth is an absolute necessity, United don't seem too bad when it comes to personnel. The only problem now is Van Gaal himself. It's clear that his strange understanding of 'control' and the significance he affords it isn't helping United, it's holding them back.