Misery, so the saying goes, loves company. If that’s the case Manchester United fans can take solace that theirs isn’t the only sporting entity being mismanaged by the Glazer family. Stateside, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise is going through a period of turmoil too, after firing the head coach in rather haphazard circumstances. Read More
“I changed Herrera because I wanted to waste time – what Swansea were doing the whole match,” admitted Louis van Gaal after his side’s 2-1 defeat of the Swans. Manchester United’s was a welcome, if nervy victory on Saturday, but lost among all that was the fact that Michael Carrick, the Spaniard’s replacement, was making his 400th appearance for the club. Read More
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Another match, another game without a win, another non-performance. Mediocrity is now the new normal at Manchester United. In truth, defeat to Norwich City at the weekend should not have come as a surprise. Nothing in recent displays suggested that Louis van Gaal’s team is on the cusp of ending an uninspiring run. And true to form, bereft of guile and confidence, the team went down to an opponent whose solid, if predictable, game plan worked.
The visitors made limited possession count at Old Trafford; United once again looked blunt up front despite hogging 70 per cent of the ball. It is no surprise that the home side enjoyed only two shots on target, and its perhaps fitting that the under-performing Red Devils should be led out by a sub-par captain who marked his 500th game for the club with a loss.
Yet, with another defeat comes a new set of questions. Some with no obvious answers.
Keeping the faith
“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you the dawn is coming” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight.
Van Gaal’s United tenure is now in its darkest hour. No wins in six, three defeats in succession, back-to-back defeats in the league to promoted clubs, and a first loss at Old Trafford to a promoted team since 2001. Yet, the greatest concern is not just poor results, but also the manner in which defeats are coming. United’s lack of cutting edge is astonishing and Van Gaal’s football ‘philosophy’ has clipped the team’s wings. So much so that the club’s style of play now resembles one famously epic encounter between Portugal and Mexico in … The Simpsons.
Van Gaal knows more than anyone that this iteration of United will struggle to challenge for a Champions League spot, let alone make a charge at the title. The Dutchman admitted on Saturday to being “worried” about his future as manager and so he should be.
Optimists can point to the nadir of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, which culminated in the infamous banner declaring that it had been “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie.” The Scot turned it around, of course, leaving some evidence that a coach of Van Gaal’s stature is not yet finished at Old Trafford.
Then there’s the January transfer window and the opportunity it brings to strengthen a squad in need of high quality attacking and defensive reinforcements. That said, given supporters’ frustrations and rumours of discord among the players, it will take an investment of faith from the board to back Van Gaal in January. And to push the analysis to its cynical extreme, perhaps the only positive in keeping the Dutchman – for Ed Woodward and the Glazers at least – is that the focus of supporters’ ire remains on the 64-year-old and not the board.
Van Gaal may hope that the dawn is coming, but as Harvey Dent once noted “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Van Gaal has become more a villain with every passing game.
“Jorge, get me Jose!”
“Mourinho,” wrote journalist Diego Torres in Prepare to Lose: The Mourinho Era, “thought that Ferguson was, besides his ally, also his friend and godfather. He was convinced that they were tied by a relationship of genuine trust.
“He thought that his fabulous collection of titles constituted an ‘endorsement’ unreachable to any other contenders. When he knew that Ferguson had chosen Moyes, the Everton coach, he was struck by a terrible disbelief. Moyes hadn’t won absolutely anything!”
It is the story of a man who feels that it is his destiny to manage United. It is also the story of United’s board who, despite all reassurances to the contrary, completely botched the post-Ferguson transition.
Mourinho’s character and style of football is not to everyone’s liking, but to overlook the Portuguese in favour of a manager who had no experience winning trophies, let alone managing a super-club, smacks of negligence. To miss out on Mourinho once is sloppy; to let him slip by again would be incompetence. Mourinho may be tarnished after a turbulent third season in his second stint at Stamford Bridge, but he is still a winner.
Given United’s relationship with Jorge Mendes getting a hold of the two-time Champions League winner should not be difficult. It’s a question of how much United’s hierarchy wants Mourinho at the club. After all, with the success comes the baggage. Mourinho’s ‘scorched earth’ approach brings trophies, but at the expense of long-term development.
Moreover, the former Real Madrid manager’s innate desire for conflict does not sit well at United. The 52-year-old should be under no illusions that a higher standard of behaviour is required at Old Trafford. Could Mourinho could keep his cool if Pep Guardiola turns up at Manchester City? He would certainly relish the battle.
There are potential gains for the manager too. If he takes over from Van Gaal and contrives to win the title this season he will become the “genius” of Woodward’s folklore. Whether he could deliver the Premier League with panache is another question.
Yet, it is no secret that Mourinho want the United job. Maybe the stars have aligned. United has an opportunity to recruit the manager the club once rejected. This time Woodward may just take it.
Guardiola to pep up United
The number of ‘big name’ coaches on the move this summer is significant. Guardiola is expected to leave Bayern Munich, with Carlo Ancelotti succeeding the Spaniard from the start of next season. United has already missed on Ancelotti; the club cannot afford to do the same with Pep.
After all, Guardiola has already admitted to liking the Old Trafford “atmosphere” in Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. “I could see myself coaching here one day,” he is said to add. If true, United should test that sentiment by attempting to steal the Spaniard from under City’s nose.
Guardiola may not have experience managing in the Premier League, but that is unlikely to be a barrier to success. Mourinho, Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini won the Premier League in their first season in the country. It’s no stretch to think that Pep could do the same.
The Spaniard inherited a mess at Barcelona, although had Lionel Messi’s genius to call on. The real credit is in fashioning the Catalan club’s midfield into one of the most efficient, ruthless and creative forces in football’s history.
Guardiola can also deliver the style of football United fans crave. Pep’s Barcelona, at the club’s peak, was one of the most spellbinding teams of the last 50 years. And Bayern comes close. Both clubs demand European success – and Guardiola’s remit at United would be to reestablish domestic dominance and return the Old Trafford club to the European élite.
Would Guardiola commit to a ‘long-term’ project or move on after three or four years? With the club having lost out on Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp it is surely irrelevant.
Give it to Giggs
The alternative, of course, is to appoint the man Van Gaal believes is his successor. Ryan Giggs would be a romantic choice if a risky one, although there is no doubt that he wants the post. Giggs’ march to the technical area, with United struggling to break down Norwich had, to use another movie metaphor, the sense of Darth Vader turning against the Emperor.
Giggs’ appointment would not come without precedent either. Barcelona took a risk with Guardiola and Juventus did the same with Antonio Conte. Yet, for every Guardiola and Conte there’s also Ciro Ferrera and Filippo Inzaghi. Club legends do not always make the grade as head coach.
Still, Giggs is being groomed for the hot seat and his appointment would offer a boost to the collective morale. The Welshman requires no guide to the Premier League and – forgive the cliché – is United to the core, including understanding the requirement for fast attacking football. Giggs would also command the respect of players and fans – commodities that Van Gaal has seemingly lost.
Super-coaches may bring back winning football but, as pretentious as it sounds, can they bring back United’s style? Giggs at least knows what that is.
Appoint a sporting director
United might well hire one of Europe’s super-coaches; the chances that they stay on for 26 trophy laden years is non-existent. If the club is set on a course of appointing a head coach every few years then the emphasis will remain on Woodward to secure the right players and coaches. It is a goal for which the club’s executive vice chairman appears ill-equipped, with his focus on marquee signings made for marketing purposes.
Appointing a sporting director will not solve all ills, but it is a move that promises expertise lacking in the current set up. Indeed, the role of manager is probably now too big for one person, especially if Woodward continues to act as the de facto director of football.
That the club is now looking to appoint full-time scouts and revamp the youth set-up is a sign that the hierarchy recognises some faults. Should the club also appoint a sporting director he will fill a gap on the administrative and recruitment side of the club.
Plan of attack
Whatever United’s move, Van Gaal knows that he is on borrowed time. The Dutchman recently told United fans not to live in the past. If he knows his history Van Gaal will understand that the roots of mediocrity were sown when the Glazers acquired the club in 2005. The family enjoyed the good fortune of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management – and maximized growth with minimal expenditure. Now they’re feeling the pinch after years of under-investment forced a splurge over the last two seasons in an attempt to rebuild the team.
Yet, the Glazers can no longer rely on genius. If only to protect the bottom line the next move is critical if the club is to remain challengers.
Will the force awaken or will the empire fall flat? At this stage the latter appears to be more likely.
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat away at Wolfsburg. There was, for instance, the slapdash defending, yet more players succumbing to injury, and some very odd substitutions. Perhaps the most galling of all is the illusion of hope, now shattered. After all, fate was a cruel temptress as she thrice teased United with the prospect of progress to the knock-out phase of the Champions League – only for belief to be dashed.
Anthony Martial’s clinical strike gave United the lead, albeit a brief one. Over in Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow went a goal up at PSV before the Dutch side levelled almost immediately. Finally, there was the farcical own goal by Wolfsburg’s Josuha Guilavogui that brought the match level at 2-2 and gave Louis van Gaal’s team a loose foothold in the knockout stages. Needless to say United slipped up and surrendered the advantage to the home side who deserved to win on the night.
To top things off PSV won 2-1, meaning that even if United had contrived to draw Europa League football was inevitable. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic; Thursday night football is on the cards and, in truth, Van Gaal’s side deserved everything it got.
In the wreckage of Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat it will be hard for Van Gaal’s men to take away any positives, although the result could prove cathartic. Defeat puts to rest the pretence that has overshadowed United’s season, exposing Van Gaal to some very basic analysis. That, in effect, this is a team ticking over, coasting through matches in a fashion that achieves little at an élite level.
Since United’s heavy defeat at The Emirates in October the team has gone on an uninspiring, but unbeaten run, winning just three of eleven games in all competitions before the dispiriting defeat in Germany. It was a run that papered over far too many cracks.
In fact, the reverse at Wolfsburg exposed a team stumbling to find an identity, even with injuries taken into account. Most importantly it is a team incapable of discovering a winning formula. Now 18-months into his tenure at Old Trafford, Van Gaal is yet to demonstrate his grand vision.
Tuesday’s loss, in what Van Gaal admitted was his biggest match at United to date, must serve as a wake-up call. The Dutchman failed the test when evidence that his philosophy has value is in scant supply.
The sequence of events that led to United’s exit from the Champions League, and inspired the fans to jeer after the Reds’ scoreless draw against West Ham United at the weekend, has stemmed from a deeply conservative mindset. It is one that has slowly and inevitably heaped pressure on the team. Indeed, the safety-first approach throughout United’s Champions League campaign paradoxically forced Van Gaal’s side into a change of strategy at Wolfsburg in a winner-takes-all match. The more open approach has become alien and the result, as at the Emirates, was all too predictable.
United’s injury situation is a mitigating factor, of course, but it is unfair for Van Gaal to expect raw youngsters, such as Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard and Nick Powell, to deliver in such a high pressure game. Van Gaal’s lads deserved better and this season’s exit in Europe’s premier club competition could have been avoided.
If United’s 5-3 reverse at Leicester City last season forced Van Gaal to adopt a defensive approach, then defeat against Wolfsburg surely amplifies the need for United adopt a more fluent, pacier, sustained attacking outlook.
After all, the tools are there. An attacking quartet of Lingard, Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay provides a dynamic and fluid front four that, if given time to gel, could provide a genuine attacking threat. United’s opening goal against Wolfsburg offered a small glimpse of what could be achieved with incisive passing, leading to a clinical finish.
However, the Reds’ midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini were found wanting. If Van Gaal is after more enterprise from the middle of the park then Ander Herrera is a a must-pick alongside one of Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin. While Herrera is sidelined with injury, Van Gaal’s relative lack-of-faith in the Spaniard has disturbed many supporters.
Moreover, the club’s hierarchy, together with Van Gaal, now need to map out a coherent strategy on and off the pitch. Whatever the briefing emanating out of Ed Woodward’s office in recent days, a long-term plan to reestablish the club at an élite level, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of success on the pitch, is necessary. United is an institution that can lie ‘in transition’ for only so long.
Yet, plenty has already been invested in Van Gaal’s plan to overhaul United’s squad. More is seemingly promised. No figure will enough, even with all the talk of stellar names joining, unless a post-Ferguson identity is established. The suspicion is that A-list acquisitions will be made with an eye on making United even more marketable, rather than with the balance Van Gaal needs.
The gossip suggests that United is now a club that seeks out established stars in the model of Real Madrid; a break from a time when the club sought the best young talents, fashioning them into superstars. Van Gaal has offered plenty of youngsters a taste of first-team football, but the scattergun approach to the transfer market in the wake of Ferguson’s exit suggests a make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy that offers little in the way of long-term identity.
With each week and every disappointing result there’s a growing feeling that a difficult situation is likely to come to an ugly head at Old Trafford. United’s result at Wolfsburg may not be a watershed, but it might not be far off. In the aftermath of Wolfsburg Van Gaal’s immediate goal is to chalk up victories in the Premier League, preferably convincing ones, to stem the growing tide of negativity.
Then, the club as a whole must figure out how it is going to achieve its larger objectives. Supporters will be patient as long as progress is visible, with a trajectory of development heading in the right direction. For that, however, there also needs to be a modicum of hope. Supporters cannot repeatedly witness it snatched away in, frankly, tragi-comic circumstances.
Tuesday’s result will prompt a significant amount of soul-searching, but if United’s manager reaches the conclusion that a change in tack is required, and a more incisive approach taken, then maybe some good can come from the club’s Champions League exit.
For Van Gaal’s sake the narrative must change; he has to prove all over again that his philosophy can take United forward. Right now his team looks like it is running to stand still.
“Quality,” read the motto framed in Louis van Gaal’s office at Ajax, “is the exclusion of coincidence.” If anything it sums up the Dutchman’s philosophy: every eventuality is covered in the minutest detail; nothing is left to chance. If that’s the case then Van Gaal must be under few illusions that United’s current striking troubles are the result of bad luck, but of a system and ethos that doesn’t prioritise playing with pace.
Much has been said about the Reds’ performance against West Ham United at the weekend, where Van Gaal’s side enjoyed 21 shots in total, albeit with only one on target – in the 60th minute. True, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial spurned presentable chances in the latter stages of the game, but those opportunities were carved out as United became more frantic in search of an elusive goal. The total number of shots, in the context of the season, was probably a outlier.
In all likelihood had United scored the team would have sat on the lead rather than look for a second. After all, Van Gaal’s side was let off the hook more than once; had West Ham been more clinical the Dutchman would have been left to contemplate a painful and potentially damaging defeat.
Indeed, the frustration many supporters feel is precisely because Van Gaal possesses enough players for the side to play on the front foot all the time – and, on occasion, the team has demonstrated this ability when trying to rescue victory from the jaws of another mundane stalemate.
It doesn’t help Van Gaal’s case that Javier Hernández, James Wilson, Will Keane and Shinji Kagawa all conspired to score over the weekend. Even Angel di Maria weighed in with an assist for Paris Saint Germain.
Yet, the raw data doesn’t make for encouraging reading. Compared with United’s contemporaries in the Premier League Van Gaal’s side comes up short in key attacking metrics. Or, in other words, United’s league position is down to possessing the meanest defense in the division.
Responding to criticism after drawing another blank against West Ham, Van Gaal complained that the fans “want to score every minute of this game.”
“I don’t understand,” he continued, “why they are shouting ‘attack, attack, attack’ because we are the attacking team, not West Ham, and it’s the same in every game because we are dominating more.”
Of course, to use an Obi-Wan-ism, Van Gaal’s observation is true ‘from a certain point of view’. Once again United bossed possession at Old Trafford, out-passing West Ham by almost four passes to one. Once again United failed to turn this ‘domination’ into goals.
Even in taking 21 shots against the Hammers, the pace of United’s attack was too slow. It is an observation that strikes at the heart of Van Gaal’s challenge. On the occasions when his team has played with tempo, the side look dangerous, but it is as if a hand is holding United back from playing at full pace all of the time.
United’s conservatism is heaping pressure on the players as well. Michael Carrick looked to force the issue when he came on for the injured Morgan Schneiderlin on Saturday. Yet, Carrick was often forced into attempting difficult eye-of-the-needle passes. Behind each pass was a desperation to spark United into life.
Memphis Depay offered another instructive example when the Dutchman had to motion Matteo Darmian into making an overlapping run. The result: Darmian got into a decent area and fizzed a dangerous cross in front of the West Ham goal. It was a moment to summarise the clash between a ‘philosophy’ and the ‘practical realities’ of United’s situation.
The solution may not be easy. Van Gaal believes that if United acquired strikers of higher quality, such as Sergio Agüero or Luis Suárez, they would score in this current set-up. Maybe so, although it is not really the point. For all the major squad surgery that Van Gaal has overseen at Old Trafford his only real striking options are Wayne Rooney, who is on the wane, and a talented but raw Anthony Martial.
Once again the print media is full of stories linking United to the acquisition of stellar names, with a huge budget to go with it. It is an admission that the Dutchman cannot coach the players at his disposal to be more clinical or attack with greater fluency. That, if you will, the philosophy can only be fulfilled in the transfer market, with a player who can produce something out of nothing in an otherwise no-risk approach.
If that observation rings true then the brand of attacking football United supporters crave is likely to be in short supply for as long as the Dutchman is at the helm. After all, the Glazer family is reportedly happy with the progress that Van Gaal has made – outside opinions matter little as long as the Dutch coach is meeting his basic targets. No change of style is on the horizon.
This, of course, is the greatest danger of all. For all the club’s traditions and history it is owned by a family that cares little for much but the bottom line. There is little concern over style in the Old Trafford boardroom so long as the ‘brand’ remains strong and a minimum level of success is achieved. In that the club’s hierarchy has appointed the perfect coach – one that will bear the brunt of any criticism and steer attention away from the owners.
Of course, Van Gaal’s ego dictates that he must win a trophy at United. But he also is safe in the knowledge that his paymasters are content with his work. It leaves just one question: whether the Dutchman most seeks to please his employers or the fans? If it’s the former, then supporters should expect little change in the team’s style any time soon.
After a hard fought, if uninspiring draw against Leicester City, Louis van Gaal’s team – make no mistake this is a side in his own image – sits close to the summit of the Premier League, with a relatively kind fixture list ahead. It is not inconceivable that United could be top of the pile by the time Chelsea visit Old Trafford at the end of December. Yet, there’s a growing unease. Under Van Gaal’s leadership United has become the footballing equivalent of Dorian Gray, albeit a sadistic, rather than hedonistic version.
The outlook appeared fine, if fleetingly, with the team setting up for a title bid that is built on a solid defence, with qualification into the last 16 of the Champions League still in the team’s hands. Dig a little deeper and a more forensic examination points to evidence of a side compromising its attacking traditions for the sake of pragmatism. If there is a portrait of United’s soul locked in the vaults of Old Trafford it might not be pretty.
The irony of Jamie Vardy’s Premier League record-breaking goal at the weekend wasn’t lost on the United faithful. “Manchester United used to counter-attack like that,” Gary Neville ruefully observed. For all Van Gaal’s determination to preach a patient, possession-based style, his team was undone by a counter that consisted of just two passes.
Since the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, United has managed just four wins in 10 outings across all competitions. There have been six clean sheets in that run, but only 10 goals scored, with three of those coming against a below-par Everton. It leaves the question of quite why Van Gaal’s team is so blunt up front?
Possession is nine tenths of what?
It’s no secret that Van Gaal treasures possession. The smile he flashed, in a post match interview, describing the 45-pass move that led to Juan Mata’s goal against Southampton said it all. A philosophy vindicated.
On a very basic level the theory is sound. Keep possession, wear down the opposition and look to exploit gaps as a result of constantly circulating the ball. “Dominance” as Van Gaal likes to call it. At its finest the philosophy manifests itself into performances such as that during the first half of United’s fixture against Liverpool at Anfield.
Henny Komerlink and Tjeu Seeverens, authors of The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches, offer more detail into how the Dutchman sets-up the attacking side of the game.
The authors note that numbers 7 and 11 – in the Ajax system at any rate – are wingers, with the number 9 a centre forward. If a ‘long ball’ from the back into the number 9 is not available then the next option is to deliver it to the wings. Midfielders must make forward runs, holding a position in order to play a potential one-two with his winger. The wide man has a choice of whether to pass the ball off, cut in towards goal, or get in a cross.
The defensive scope of the role expanded, with wingers required know when to press, when to get back into position, and when to cover. The wide players must also be ready to transition into wide areas when possession is won.
In this system full-backs are expected to play a low-risk game, which explains the Dutchman’s faith in Antonio Valencia. Luke Shaw is an exception, so it remains to be seen whether the Englishman’s attacking instincts will be encouraged or coached out.
Even more interesting is how the number 9 functions in Van Gaal’s system. When he took over at Ajax strikers Stefan Pettersson and Ronald de Boer saw their goal return drop. The pair was required to offer themselves for a pass and were tasked with creating space for others. Later, Ajax integrated Patrick Kluivert into the team, as he was able to fulfill the functions demanded by Van Gaal, while also scoring regularly.
The number 10 position is categorised as a midfield role, but nonetheless it is key in any Van Gaal system. The goal-scoring burden rests on the number 10, and he must put in a defensive shift too. Jari Litmanen is Van Gaal’s archetypal number 10, due to the Finn’s selfless defensive workrate, coupled with his attacking prowess.
The explanation offered by Komerlink and Seeverens is a brief summary as to what Van Gaal expects. Yet, even in it’s condensed form, the Dutchman’s methods are a lot to take it – it points to just how much information his players must process.
Theory into practice
Without the genius of Rivaldo, or the equivalent of Arjen Robben at his pomp, nor the outstanding talent at his disposal at Ajax, Van Gaal’s ambition may be tempered. But there have been examples of his theory put into practice. In wide areas Martial, and to a lesser degree Memphis, have worked to create one-two opportunities. The teenage striker, in particular, has adapted to his coach’s requirements well, creating chances as well as scoring important goals.
At 10 the story is different. At the peak of his powers Wayne Rooney might have been well suited to Van Gaal’s requirements. The contemporary model falls well short of the standard. Perhaps the closest that United can boast to a Jari Litmanen-type player is Ander Herrera. The Spaniard, who has been used on occasion at 10, offers the balance of defensive work rate and attacking dynamism that United craves so much.
Meanwhile, on the wing Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are currently in possession of the nominal number 7 and 11 births. Mata does not fit the textbook definition of a Van Gaal winger, though there is recognition that without the Spaniard United lacks a real creative presence in attack. Lingard, on the other hand, is far more in sync with Van Gaal’s orthodoxy.
The book highlights the importance of shape, roles, responsibilities and moving the ball at speed. That latter facet is glaringly absent from United’s play. Van Gaal is still seeking more pace in wide areas, with paper-talk of a bid for Sadio Mané or others consistent with the Dutchman’s philosophy. Yet, to date, his side has remained one-paced – a team that is unable to smoothly transition from defence to attack.
In this United’s most adept player at turning defence into attack is also Herrera. It was the Spaniard’s ball that released Rooney to score against Everton and Herrera also delivered the killer pass that led to Martial winning a penalty against West Bromwich Albion.
Transitions are important because every time there is a turnover in possession there needs to be a willingness to take advantage of the opponent’s confusion. United’s fixture against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season was a perfect demonstration. United ‘dominated’ the game in Van Gaal’s theorem, but it was a quick turnover, and a series of rapid decisions that allowed Eden Hazard to score the winner.
If the roles were reversed Van Gaal’s team would have more than likely have played the ball back, to rebuild the attack rather than take advantage of any momentary chaos.
The pressing issue
Pep Guardiola’s name has been linked with the Old Trafford hot seat in recent days. Such is the concern with United’s turgid performances under Van Gaal that speculation is mounting that the Spaniard could come in in the summer, cutting short the Dutchman’s stay.
It’s conjecture at this stage, of course, but while Guardiola is also a disciple of the possession game he does hold additional demands. Guardiola’s teams press high to win the ball back and there is a requirement for pace in the way his teams play. Guardiola teams focus on creating overloads and then exploiting them.
Pressing or counter pressing is not high on Van Gaal’s list of priorities though, with shape and structure taking priority. In fact, the last time he asked his team to press high up the pitch was against Arsenal and the result was a disaster.
Death by football
United leads the way in terms of number of passes attempted, with 7,728 attempted and 6,520 completed. The nearest challenger to that prize is Arsenal, with Manchester City in third. While on it’s own there’s nothing inherently wrong with a focus on possession and waiting for an opportunity to strike, United needs more speed, execution and a clinical edge for it to work. United’s conversion rate ranks highly in the Premier League at 18.2 per cent, but given the scarcity of chances created the pressure is on to be even more clinical.
The real frustration lies in the fact that United’s patient play falls flat when a pass is misplaced in the final third or a safety first approach is adopted. It’s one thing for a quick move to break down; quite another when a 20-pass extravaganza fails due to one loose ball. Patience needs to be rewarded and United isn’t delivering on that promise.
“Give them something they will enjoy”
Of course, for all the criticism aimed Van Gaal’s way, it is to the Dutchman’s credit that he has rebuilt the team, albeit at a cost, after the David Moyes debacle. And while United isn’t the easiest on the eye, Van Gaal’s team is hard to break down and possesses a resilient streak. The Dutchman is laying foundations for his successor despite the terrace complaints.
The club is in a strong league position, and if Van Gaal can navigate United to near top by New Year, the team might just launch a bid for the title in 2016.
Yet, the question lingers, whether Van Gaal will stick to a more pragmatic approach, or finally trust his players with more freedom. Fans remains concerned that the fare on offer is already the culmination of his philosophy; a robotic style that will leave little by the way of legacy.
In theory Van Gaal’s attacking ideals sound exciting. If United’s frontline functions smoothly, breaking down opponents through one-twos, scoring goals and truly dominating games, we might just find the zenith of Van Gaal’s vision. And yet United fans have become accustomed to Van Gaal’s more pragmatic instincts. He is yet to demonstrate the genius for which he’s was once reputed.
Or, as Sir Matt Busby once told a teenage Bobby Charlton, “all those lads you see going into Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday. You have to give them something they will enjoy”.
It’s a sentiment Sir Bobby might do well to whisper into Van Gaal’s ear.
Johan Cruyff is outspoken at the best of times, but when he does make a point, no matter how blunt, it’s worth taking note. The Dutch legend, who has enjoyed his fair share of run-ins with Louis van Gaal, described Daley Blind as “the only Dutch player left with a decent, proper pass that can create a goal.”
It is a backhanded compliment, reflecting Cruyff’s frustration with the quality of the current Dutch generation as much as it lauds Blind’s ability to pick a pass. Yet, it also neatly sums up the Manchester United utility man. Blind’s talent is there to be seen, but not to the point of unqualified praise. He’s capable of playing numerous positions, but can never quite hold down a specific position. Blind is the archetypal ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.
That’s an unfair summation of Blind’s abilities and, though he lacks pace, physicality and natural athleticism, he’s an intelligent footballer who’s technically gifted and tactically disciplined. Blind must have something about him if Van Gaal and Cruyff can share a similar view of the player.
In the summer there was talk about a bid for a top quality centre-back, with Mats Hummels or Aymeric Laporte regularly mentioned as potential Old Trafford recruits. Instead fans and pundits were treated to the sight of Blind lining up in the back four. Cue the predictable outrage, bafflement and panic.
“Blind as a left-sided centre-back is just football suicide,” ranted former Chelsea-player-turned pundit Craig Burley “He’s too weak, he’s got no positional sense, he’s not very strong in the tackle and will be outmuscled.”
Burley’s assessment was the very definition of hyperbolic, and if Blind’s performances are anything to go by, pretty wide of the mark too. Blind isn’t muscular, lacks pace and isn’t dominant aerially, but the Dutchman is a clever player who actually fits into Van Gaal’s philosophy seamlessly.
The snappily titled The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches, by Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens, sheds light into the mindset of the United’s manager. There are parallels with what Van Gaal did back then with the Amsterdam giants and what he’s trying to implement at Old Trafford. Right down to using Blind as a playmaker.
Kormelink and Seeverens highlight that centre-backs have “really become the playmakers” in the modern game, bearing in mind their book was published in 1997. Daley’s father Danny was crucial to how Van Gaal’s Ajax operated too, functioning as the creative source of the team’s attack as well as being able to defend.
The book’s analysis of how van Gaal views his defence is fascinating; the pair highlight that Dutch ‘trainer-coach’ doesn’t like to select ‘pure defenders’ as centre-backs. The ‘number four’ is tasked with making the play too. He must know when to move forward into midfield to start attacks and when make the key passes. When the opponent has the ball the same player must know when to press, when to sit in front of the defence, and how to keep the unit compact.
Chris Smalling is developing along those lines in taking giant leaps this season, but it is Blind who fits the bill as the playmaking centre-back. Kormelink’s and Seeverens’ insight puts the United manager’s decision in context – indeed it makes sense that Van Gaal would opt to play Blind at the back.
There’s also the homogeneity of 4-2-3-1 as the formation of choice in the Premier League to consider as well. With one striker facing two centre-backs there’s both the license and space for a footballing defender to be included in United’s line-up, and to use the ball intelligently, rather than deploying two pure stoppers who can defend, but give up possession cheaply.
To buck the trend Watford used two strikers at the weekend. Hence Van Gaal restored Phil Jones to the centre of defence, shifting Blind to left-back. The redeployment didn’t stop Blind from playing a fantastic ball over the top for Jesse Lingard to run on to.
Then there’s the ‘bus parking’ factor. With lesser teams inclined to sit back and defend against United the onus is on the Reds’ defenders to make the play, as the final third is always compact, with space for creative players at a premium. Jones may provide more defensive solidity against tougher opponents, but against teams looking to sit, Blind’s ability to pick a pass is crucial.
One consequence of Blind playing as part of a back four is that it encourages the Dutchman to play more forward passes. Last season the Dutchman, who was used as a defensive midfielder and left-back, made 1540 passes with 32.1 per cent going backwards and 67.9 per cent going forwards. Gary Neville was critical of Blind last term and accused the Dutchman of taking too few risks with his passing.
This season Blind has made 649 passes with 77.8 per cent going forward. Contrast that with Chris Smalling who has made 620 passes, but forward 70.3 per cent of the time. Smalling may be the defensive leader in that partnership, but Blind is the playmaking lynchpin. Blind’s crowning performance came against Liverpool where he scored a smartly worked free-kick, cleared two goal bound efforts off the line, and marshaled the back four to cap off a Neville-approved Man-of-the-Match display.
Blind’s intelligence, coupled with the benefit of having Morgan Schneiderlin as a screen has, for most part, negated the Dutchman’s weakness. It’s no coincidence that Blind was exposed in United’s most chastening defeat – the 3-0 setback against Arsenal – but as a result of Van Gaal’s ill-thought personnel choices and poor tactics rather than the Dutchman’s performance.
Of course, pace and power is Blind’s kryptonite. Against Swansea City the Dutchman was bullied by Bafetimbi Gomis and he, together with the rest of United’s backline, was ripped apart by the pacey Arsenal attack.
“Daley is a slow arse, but he has a brilliant ability to read the game. Those kinds of players always survive,” said Van Gaal in typically blunt fashion. “It isn’t about how much pace you have, but whether you have the ability to spot what is going to happen quicker”.
Blind’s lack of pace prevents him from being the very best, but his football brain and game intelligence ensures that he’ll rarely let anybody down, save for the odd comedy disallowed own goal in the league cup of course.
Blind is a survivor too. The 25-year-old was nearly sold by Ajax to Groningen having spent time on loan at the northern Netherlands side. He was the target of the Ajax fans’ ire at one time, but soon got them onside in winning the club’s Player of the Year trophy in the 2012/13 season. Blind secured the Dutch Player of the Year trophy a year later to cap a remarkable comeback.
He’s steelier than most pundits give him credit for too, despite looking like he belongs in a 1990s boy band. It has led to some big-name fans too, including Paul McGrath, who knows a good footballer when he sees one.
“You need someone who can take the ball down and go ‘no, I’m not just going to lash it forward or play it square,’ and Daley Blind is a beautiful footballer,” said McGrath. “I would love to have played with someone like that, with someone who’d pass it across to you and say ‘you deal with it now and if you need to give it back to me, give it back to me.’ Daley Blind is one of those and, I swear to Christ, he’s going to be a huge United player.”
That’s overstating Blind’s importance, but the Dutchman is a reliable component of Van Gaal’s reinvigorated United side.
It remains to be seen if Van Gaal’s successor will continue to use Blind as a central defender or revert to a more orthodox stopper. Whatever the Dutchman’s replacement does, he’d be wise not discount the merits of a man who can make Van Gaal and Cruyff see eye to eye. A rare quality.
In the meantime, Blind is playing his part in United’s chase for trophies. Goodness knows he needs the practice.
“¡Siempre negativo, nunca positivo!,” posited Louis van Gaal in the face of critical Spanish press during his first spell at Barcelona. Always negative, never positive. It was a fantastic rant. Yet, they were words that would come to haunt Van Gaal, with critics using the phrase to sum up the Barcelona’s style under the Dutchman’s watch. Sound familiar?
Van Gaal’s Manchester United side isn’t adventurous either and, if truth be told, rather dull to watch. At the same time there appears to be an efficiency and steel that makes United, more often than not, difficult to beat. The contemporary United model, as Paul Scholes noted, isn’t one opponents like to face, but neither is it a team that the former midfielder would like to play in either.
There’s a disconnect. Despite the side lying two points off the top and well placed to advance in the Champions League there’s an uncertain feeling at the club. Is this side about to take off or one that is bound to sputter out and fall away? Given the inconsistent way United has performed during Van Gaal’s tenure it’s a question with an uncertain answer.
On the surface, United is a team of contradictions. The team averages just 10.25 shots-per-game, with only Stoke City, Sunderland, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion making fewer attempts. Yet, Van Gaal’s team also possesses the best conversion rate in the Premier League at 20 per cent.
The side has not set the league alight, yet is placed fourth just two points off the Premier League summit. The team has not conceded a goal in 555 minutes, and though there is a defensive solidity, it is prone to heart-in-the-mouth moments.
The club is willing to spend big, but despite fears that it is ignoring youth development and “losing its soul,” Van Gaal found space to include Axel Tuanzebe in the match-day squad against Crystal Palace, gave Cameron Borthwick-Jackson a début at Old Trafford, while establishing Jesse Lingard in the first team. Throw Paddy McNair, Andreas Pereira and Tyler Blackett into the mix, and it seems that the notion of the Dutchman ripping out the club’s heart is fanciful.
But what is Van Gaal’s end game? After all, unless there’s a change of heart, the Dutchman will leave for his holiday-home “paradise” in Portugal once his contract expires at the end of next season. The three-year contract doesn’t appear to suggest a grand vision and, if anything, Van Gaal’s playing model suggests a focus is on the short-term – Champions League qualification and, with luck, a trophy.
Whether by accident or design the real fruits of Van Gaal’s influence may only be felt years after he has left the club. It’s already a bizarre set of circumstances – one that could potentially see two United managers retire, with a sacking sandwiched between for good measure. And given the Dutchman’s ego, it is doubtful that he wants to be known as the man who did little more at Old Trafford than stop the rot. It’s no kind of legacy.
Yet, history also suggests that the former Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AZ Alkmaar boss would revel in the glory of setting the club on the path to another trophy-laden era. After all, Van Gaal managed to credit himself for the Netherland’s shoot-out defeat to Argentina in last year’s World Cup semi-final by claiming that he taught the United number two, Sergio Romero, how to save penalties.
The Iron Tulip has not been a shrinking violet when it’s come to reshaping the team either. After two summers worth of transfer activity he has fashioned a squad in his own image and brought down the average age of United’s playing staff to about 25-years-old.
A title challenge isn’t beyond the current squad, but the remodelling has one eye on the future. Indeed, Van Gaal admitted that the purchase of Anthony Martial was effectively one made for Ryan Giggs, with the Welshman tipped by the Dutchman to take over the Old Trafford hot seat in 2017.
In a sense van Gaal has done much of the dirty work by removing big name players like Robin van Persie, selling high earners such as Nani, and finding new homes for Anderson and Bebé. There is still the issue of a certain under-performing Scouser, but perhaps Van Gaal can’t have all the fun.
Then there’s the player legacy. Van Gaal claims that he laid the foundation for Barcelona and Bayern Munich to develop, among others, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller. It is a reputation for development built on the 1995 Champions League winning Ajax side, which boasted the talents of Edwin van der Sar, Danny Blind, the de Boer twins, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Jari Litmanen.
At United Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw – before his unfortunate injury – are turning into high-quality players, while the emergence of Lingard and Martial’s excellence, point to a bright future.
Van Gaal’s successor is in an intriguing proposition. Giggs is the man he believes will take over the Old Trafford hot seat and, if van Gaal’s words mean anything, preparation for the next chapter is well under way. Van Gaal is said to be impressed by Giggs’ attention to detail. The former winger prepares presentations about United’s forthcoming opponents, for example, and then discusses it with the playing staff after the Dutch boss vets it.
Giggs is in the unique situation of having played most of his career under Sir Alex Ferguson, experienced first hand the failure of David Moyes, and now is learning his trade under Van Gaal’s tutelage. Success, turmoil, and the painful task of rebuilding, may turn out more valuable than any turn at a lower league club.
Again van Gaal is doing the dirty work, combatting a critical press, and bearing the brunt of supporters’ ire – deservedly on many occasions – for United’s less than impressive performances. The handbrake is on and it may be his successor’s role to release it.
If Ed Woodward and the Glazer family follows the script and appoints Giggs the hope is that he turns out to be as successful as some of van Gaal’s other protégés, including Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho.
So is this the end game? Van Gaal knows that he’s coming to the end of his coaching career. The Dutchman’s final challenge may not only be to bring trophies back to United, but to set the club up for a brighter future, with Giggs at the helm reaping the fruits of the Dutchman’s labour.
In this there is a whiff of long-term planning. If it comes off then maybe, in a few years time, Van Gaal will be relaxing in ‘paradise’ enjoying a glass of port, as United go marching on, safe in the knowledge that he was the architect of the post-Fergie rebirth.