There's a very interesting interview with Nicky Butt in today's Times, and we urge those of you with access behind the paywall to go and have a look. Those of you without may have to use your imaginations a little bit.
There's a lot in there, but for our purposes, the most relevant bit comes right at the end, where he starts to talk about United as "the pinnacle of football". Butt cheerfully acknowledges his own bias, of course, and one of the most fascinating and beautiful things about football is the fact that everybody can believe their club to be brilliant, wonderful and special and everybody can be right. But he also takes his belief in this fundamental specialness of United to an interesting place.
He flags it up by saying "Old Trafford's where you go to watch fast, attacking football." Then, after spending some time lauding the "working class area", the "euphoria" of Old Trafford, the Stone Roses, the "old-fashioned stadium", and the justified "arrogance" that connects José Mourinho with Alex Ferguson, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson, he returns to the football:
There have been superstars who’ve come to this club and can’t live with it. Juan Verón comes to mind. Verón was the best player I’ve ever seen, except Cantona. In training he was like something I’d never seen. I was suspended against Everton [in 2001], he played and I sat there and thought: ‘I’ll never play for United again, that’s me done, I’ll have to get a move.’
But as much as Verón was a great lad, and an unbelievable footballer, he didn’t know what it meant to be a United player. He didn’t know the feeling of the club. He couldn’t handle the pace, the tempo. The fans didn’t want the little rollovers, the technical outside of the foot passes. They wanted blood and thunder, give it to Peter Schmeichel, throw it out to Giggs, attack, attack, attack. Players need to know that.
An echo there of last season's frustrated chanting — "Attack! Attack! Attack attack attack!" — and we can probably assume that these comments are as much directed at Louis van Gaal as they were Verón, even if it would be a little gauche for Butt to come out and say it directly.
The idea that a style of football or an on-pitch attitude comprises part of a team's identity is not limited to Old Trafford. Pass and move was the Liverpool groove; Spurs teams are supposed to dare (and then by doing so, do); and Barcelona have their whole Church of Cruyff thing going on. Nor is it limited to football's elite: towards the sharp end of last season, a few Dulwich Hamlet fans responded to another humped long ball by chanting, half-jokingly but half in exasperation, "We're Dulwich Hamlet, we play on the floor".
Though his full answer would probably be more detailed, Butt's basic vision of how United's football should work — get the ball to your winger as quickly as possible, then attack from there — isn't a bad first principle, and is one that most if not all of United's successful teams have adhered to, at least in part. Ernest Mangnall's title-winners had Billy Meredith on the wing and were captained by Charlie Roberts, a halfback unusual in his time for his ability to sweep long passes out to the flanks. Matt Busby won the FA Cup with Charlie Mitten, then titles with Roger Byrne (a reluctant but effective outside-left) and George Best. And Ferguson had plenty, including Lee Sharpe, Giggs and later Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed to play as both winger and striker.
So far, so football taught by Matt Busby. What's really interesting about Butt's concluding remarks is how he explicitly links them to Verón and to Verón's failure at United. How Verón's extraordinary gifts as a footballer weren't enough, even as lesser mortals — compared to Verón that's most footballers — found their niche and thrived. The suggestion is not just that United players and managers should try to embrace the "United way"; it's that if they don't, they will fail. They must fail.
Which sounds like — and may very well be — the worst kind of pseudish overinterpretation (from tBB, that is, not from Butt). After all, Verón wasn't quite a complete failure, particularly in Europe, and he was certainly capable of passing to Ryan Giggs when the situation called for it.
Yet it's a seductive idea. That if a player or manager arrives with ideas that grate against the fundamental nature of the club, then that club will reject them. Not maliciously, not even consciously, but instinctively, naturally, the way a body's immune system rejects an incompatible transplanted organ. That it simply will not work.
It is something of a shame that the ultimate test of this never came to fruition. Van Gaal's possession-centric football would seem to run counter to what Butt sees as the United way — "Attack! Attack! Attack attack attack!" — and certainly, there was much discomfort among supporters (and reportedly players) about the way he set his team up and how he wanted them to win games. But at the same time, they weren't winning enough games, and so we'll never truly know just how much of that aesthetic unhappiness was simply basic disappointment at losing, wearing a slightly more grown-up hat.
Would people have been converted to Van Gaal's philosophy if his United had won the league? Perhaps. Whatever Barcelona were before Johan Cruyff turned up, they are his now, and for all that some Arsenal fans might longingly remember the days of solid defending and 1-0 wins, theirs is now a Wengerian club playing Wengerian football in a Wengerian stadium, with all the good and bad and weird that entails. Success, in the right context and driven by the right person, can have a transformative effect on a club's character.
Yet as a counterpoint, there are United fans who still feel Ferguson was unforgivably defensive and not-United in the 2008 Champions League semifinal, when United went to the Nou Camp, elected to smother rather than thunder, and came away with a 1-0 win. And perhaps the late Ferguson years are instructive here, when we think about the wider question of style and the idea that there might be a United way.
After all, Van Gaal's frequently stultifying football was lambasted for not being in keeping with United's attacking traditions, despite the fact that Ferguson, towards the end of his career, moved further and further away from those traditions himself. Rob Smyth, writing for the Blizzard, pinpoints the 3-2 loss to Real Madrid in the 2000 Champions League as the moment Ferguson "lost his faith in the power of swash and buckle". Eight years later Ferguson's United defended their way through that Champions League semifinal, where perhaps they didn't need to. Yet seven years after that affront, the tradition had survived in the public consciousness (if not on the pitch) to the point that Van Gaal could betray it all over again.
All of which suggests that there is something to the idea of a United way, and to the resonance of attack, attack, attack. It may be nothing more than a story United fans tell one another about their club; it may not be a mysterious force that keeps the wrong kinds of player and manager from getting comfortable. It may at times go neglected and at others disappear completely. And, of course, it should be acknowledged that attacking and winning is basically what every other fan of every other club wants to see their players doing as well. All clubs are special, but a lot of that specialness looks very, very similar, at least from a distance.
Still, the idea that Manchester United should be fundamentally attacking, and it should be quick and direct in how it goes about that attacking, persists through managers that respect it and managers that don't, and as we can see from Nicky Butt's comments, still shapes the thinking of those that work there today. Ultimately, if we're talking about the fundamental feeling of the club, then Van Gaal's United never looked more like a Proper United Side than when they did this to Stoke City: