“I’ll take three points, however badly they play." So said my younger colleague to me, in the middle of a discussion about Manchester United and their travails in the current season. The point was this: Would he rather see United playing good football, or see them win? His reply was emphatic; it doesn’t matter how the points come as long as they are in the bag.

The matter arose because of a rather serious existential crisis I’d been facing, which involved my flagging interest in football (or Manchester United) in the past few months. You could put it down to many things, including an overdose of football; one school of thought put it down to United’s current inability to win any trophies, or show signs of doing so. “It’s not much fun watching a team that doesn’t have a shot at the big cups, is it? Welcome to Wenger’s World."

This obviously crude and simplistic jibe—drawing a parallel with Arsenal’s lack of trophies relative to their potential—hit home, and got me thinking. The start of live English Premier League football on Indian TV screens coincided broadly with the start of United’s period of dominance; though my support predated that, my entire football-on-TV life spanned unimaginable success for United. Could it be that I was really a glory-hunter, that my support was linked to success?

A bit more thought (and self-flagellation), though, and I’d found my answer. United were winning; in fact, they were doing reasonably well. They were just playing terrible, boring football. Instead of the fast, attacking style I’d been used to all these years, they were playing a slower, possession-based game—think Barcelona without the artistry and you’ll get what I mean.

United’s Louis van Gaal. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
United’s Louis van Gaal. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

The team’s style under Alex Ferguson, whose 27-year reign ended in 2013, involved an element of risk and the basic premise that however many you score against us, we’ll score one more. Current manager Louis van Gaal’s philosophy is to eliminate risk and (this is my supposition) to tell the opposition, “We’ll score one more than you and it will be the only goal of the match." It’s not just me in my armchair; the paying public, who fill up the 76,000 seats at the Old Trafford stadium every match day, break off several times from their songs of praise for their heroes into this one direct, pleading chant: Attack, attack, attack.

They have another chant, too, which brings me to the larger point (yes, there is one). The chant refers to United achieving their success “playing football the Busby way"—a homage to their first post-World War II manager Matt Busby, who started the style of attacking, exciting football that every one of his successors has been obliged to try and replicate. It is United’s culture—two fast wingers, one laser-footed playmaker, and swift passing. Van Gaal, sufficiently insulated by his CV and a reasonably thick skin, has come in and torn up the script; clipped the wingers, as it were. United have become deathly boring. Their style is unwatchable.

Style. It’s the reason I stopped watching tennis many years ago; after John McEnroe, basically. When the genius of the unpredictable American was replaced by a bunch of anodyne, largely interchangeable Swedes, I switched to watching the far more compelling women’s game, which was witnessing the ferocious generational battle between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf (and, no, I wasn’t watching it for Gabriela Sabatini). By the time Roger Federer came around, a decade later, I was out of reach.

It’s the same with rugby; in the 1990s, when it was occasionally shown on TV, it was a largely running game dominated by strong characters such as the Australian David Campese, England’s Jeremy Guscott, and that one-man demolition army, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand. There was lots for the part-time fan to watch and appreciate, not least the sight of a fullback flying down the middle, ball clasped to chest, evading tackle after tackle. Today it is a turgid, defence-oriented sport with too few tries (touchdowns) and too many penalties. I can’t even watch the All Blacks.

But I’m largely an armchair fan; what does a change of style mean for the committed, hard-core, ticket-buying punter? I got an idea of this in Brazil last year, where a country whose football is romanticized as the ideal had to come to terms with the fact that its football was pretty ordinary, and had been for some years. There was no guarantee, at the start of the tournament, that Brazil would do well—or, crucially, play well. I asked many people whether they would rather see Brazil play in the old, magical style or see them win the world cup anyhow. “Anyhow," was the unanimous answer; forget style, just give us the cup. Well, they got neither.

Back to that tasteless Arsenal joke. It has relevance because Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger has, in the past decade, built a series of teams which are capable of playing the most supremely skilful, attractive football—but which cannot sustain that brilliance enough over nine months to win the league. Arsenal’s fans have had to deal with those peaks and troughs and, though they might not admit it, I could say on their behalf that they would trade in those slick tricks for the silverware that matters.

I haven’t got there yet. I will happily (or so I say) trade in the points for the panache. Maybe I can take some comfort from the words of that ultimate Arsenal fan, Nick Hornby. “When you support a football team," he writes in The Agony Of Being A Fan, “misery is the only currency that can purchase real ecstasy." I await my turn.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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