Author Thariq Amir

Author Thariq Amir

Striking woes

December 7, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments
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“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.

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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.

Attack! Attack! Attack?

November 30, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 4 comments
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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.

Transitions

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.

Data: Squawka, Transfermarkt, BBC

Blind ambition

November 22, 2015 Tags: Opinion 2 comments
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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.

All data, Squawka.

Louis van Gaal – the end game

November 14, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments
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“¡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.

Sources: Footstats, Opta

Rojo’s redemption

October 22, 2015 Tags: Opinion 4 comments
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“#RojoIsRed!” reads the regular hashtag from Marco Rojo’s Twitter account; a statement of the Argentine’s affinity for Manchester United or a lesson in Spanish? Language aside it’s fair to say that Rojo’s stint at Old Trafford thus far has been far from smooth. Injuries, bouts of unprofessionalism, and a reported falling out with Louis van Gaal, appeared to indicate at one stage that the 25-year-old’s future lay away from United.

Rojo returned to the club this summer seemingly overweight after failing to join up with Van Gaal’s squad for the pre-season tour of the United States because of a failure to renew his work permit. Rojo apparently also angered Van Gaal by not revealing the extent of an injury that forced the player off in his first game of the season against Southampton.

There was even talk of Rojo being offered to Monaco as part of the deal for Anthony Martial, and rumours have surfaced of a potential departure in the January window, with Bruno Martins Indi tipped as a replacement.

Dark clouds, then, over the £16 million defender’s future. Yet, the outlook has been brighter for Rojo more recently. After United’s comprehensive defeat at Arsenal, where Ashley Young played at left-back, Rojo was restored to the first team for the trip to Goodison.

It was an impressive outing in a fine victory over Everton. He linked up well on the left with Martial, passing the ball to the French teenager on 17 occasions, as well as providing a sumptuous cross for Ander Herrera to head home. In fact the Rojo’s return – together with Phil Jones – gave United a solidity at Goodison that was so lacking at the Emirates.

Rojo even earned Van Gaal’s praise, with the United boss stating that Rojo has “great potential in him to become a very good player,” and that “when he improves and he can reach a very high level.”

The Dutchman, along with captain Wayne Rooney, even defended Rojo when the Russian press ridiculed the defender this week. Rojo suffered an unsuccessful stint at Spartak Moscow, with local journalists pointing out that the Argentinean “wasn’t very good” before asking Rooney “how regularly he went past Rojo” in training “because everyone was doing it in Russia.”

Rojo couldn’t quite ram his critics’ words down their throats as United battled to a 1-1 draw in Moscow on Wednesday night. In fact the defender was subbed off on the hour for Daley Blind – perhaps not too much of a surprise given this was only his third start of the season and a second game in the space of five days. In Van Gaal’s philosophy Rojo still lacks “match rhythm” and of course his fitness too.

Given Rojo’s pace, strength, ability in the air – and his left-footed distribution from the back – the fact that he hasn’t established himself sooner is a source of consternation. The tools are there for the Argentinean to develop into a fine defender, but that transformation from potential star to first team regular is proving to frustratingly slow.

However, the benefits of a fit, consistent, Rojo at left-back are significant – if he can stay in van Gaal’s good books. After all, there is a Luke Shaw-shaped hole in United’s defence that cannot be fixed with multi-functional players, no matter how hard Young tries.

Then there’s the fact that Rojo has had over a year’s worth of van Gaal’s philosophical indoctrination, which places the 25-year-old ahead of any potential January recruit, including Martins Indi. Rojo must know by now what his manager’s demands are and his role in the system.

Rojo also seems to get what it ‘means’ to be a United player and is willing to work for his right to play for United, as opposed to his more illustrious compatriot Angel di Maria, who took flight to Paris with little hesitation.

That quality counts for much with the Manchester Derby up next. Rojo will no doubt be seeking a better performance this time around compared to his previous outing against City, where he managed to damage his shoulder after diving in rashly to win the ball. Though, in truth, it wasn’t a good day to be a United centre-half. The defender’s pace is required to counter City’s nippy frontline, even if it’s shorn of Sergio Agüero and possibly David Silva. The horrors of the Emirates are still fresh in the memory.

Indeed, there is an opportunity for Rojo to establish a foothold in the first team, although that is now firmly up to the player to make it happen. Rojo has few chances left and certainly cannot risk antagonising his manager once again, especially after the Dutch coach sang the player’s praises this week.

“#RojoIsRed,” he proudly proclaims. It’s time for the defender to prove it and if he does that then Rojo will find himself on the red road to redemption.