Five ways Louis van Gaal can save his job
Louis van Gaal. For the moment it seems more like Louis van Gone. There’s a certain sense of inevitability that the Dutchman’s time in Manchester is coming to a close. If not for Ed Woodward’s foolish pride, Van Gaal might have been given his marching orders already. Following last weekend’s home defeat to Southampton Van Gaal could be at the point of no return. Lose at Derby County in the FA Cup and Woodward’s hand may be forced.
Comparisons to David Moyes are not entertaining and are, of course, pointless. In reality Manchester United has never been so precariously placed in the Premier League – fifth and well adrift of a comfortable place in the top four. The team is no longer part of any title projection, and even the most optimistic of fans have long since given up on dreaming about celebrating come May. Most are now uneasy about a place in the top. The analytics, says stats nerd Michael Caley, aren’t kind on that front either.
Further projections have United finishing the campaign on 62-63 points, which could be far from the likely fourth place finisher, Tottenham Hotspur, with Maricio Pochettino’s side on pace to finish on 68 points. Given United’s form since December, even 63 feels like a stretch, while there is no longer any promise of an improvement. Van Gaal’s side hasn’t been unlucky in recent weeks, it has simply been bad.
The side is a long way from the point, six months in, when Van Gaal claimed that he should be judged “18 months” into his tenure. In retrospect that may not have been so wise – right now United’s situation does not look good and the judgement is harsh.
Yet, there is also support inside Old Trafford and a steadfast promise from Woodward that the manager will not be sacked, at least until there is time to take stock at the end of the season. Could the Dutchman also have time to turn United’s campaign around?
Become more tactically diverse
Van Gaal’s appointment brought praised for the Dutchman as a brilliant, attacking, tactical mind. It hasn’t worked out that way, aside from a brief phase in which Van Gaal used a 4-4-2 diamond and United won a batch of games last Spring. Instead, fans have been offered a tactically rigid team, devoid of creativity, in which control and defensive solidarity is placed above all else.
"In the hour of desperation now is the time though to show some diversity. After all, is it always really necessary for Van Gaal to deploy two defensive midfielders when United play at home?"
Morgan Schneiderlin was prised away from Southampton to protect the defence and has shown, for the most part, that he is one of United’s most important players. The Frenchman can do the job in defensive midfield on his own.
Now is also the best time to try a different tack in midfield. Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger have not appeared lately due to injuries; Van Gaal could gain much by pairing Ander Herrera with Schneiderlin in a more dynamic approach. Herrera’s energy alongside Schneiderlin’s industrious play appears to be a perfect match. It’s remains baffling why Marouane Fellaini continues to gain Van Gaal’s support – one of a series of bizarre tactical choices by the manager.
Stop alienating players
Van Gaal’s feuds are nothing new – it is a feature of his whole managerial career. Rivaldo and Johan Cruyff at Barcelona; Ronald Koeman at Ajax; Marc Van Bommel, Luca Toni and pretty much every key executive at Bayern Munich.
Now at United Van Gaal has courted a fight with Robin Van Persie – a longtime disciple – Javier Hernandez, Angel Di Maria, Rafael da Silva, and Victor Valdes. The list isn’t exactly short.
In fact it could play a huge role in Van Gaal’s undoing at United. As the divide within the club grows, eventually players might become a factor in the political in-fighting, as have Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton, and David Gill. Throughout Van Gaal’s tenure, but particularly this season, his relationship with his squad has been brought into question – not least when he was forced to meet with captain Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick to discuss the team’s style of play. Nothing has changed.
The players hardly look like a team that is truly United – more a group of individuals and not a highly functioning cohesive unit.
Van Gaal needs the players behind him without exception if he’s going to turn his fortunes around. It cannot help that rumours are still circulating that Ander Herrera and Juan Mata may have no future at the club.
Trade control for enterprise
It’s no secret that Van Gaal craves control. The Dutchman repeatedly preaches the need to keep possession, and even speaks about United’s ‘domination’ after bad results. Possession is, of course, useless unless United can turn it into chances created and goals scored – something his team is not doing at the moment. That the Reds have gone 11 straight home games without scoring a goal in the first half is not good enough.
The alternative is to trade-off a bit of the defensive mentality and control by taking more risks than the team has generally done this season. In fact United’s slow patient approach enables the opposition to overload defensively, getting every player behind the ball. Again, in home fixtures, the team rarely needs to field two defensive midfielders. The trade-off for more attacking impetus, when the team is clearly struggling in that area, is a good one.
Get the fans back onside
United’s once loyal fanbase is picking Van Gaal apart. Rightly so many will add. On social media the hashtag #LVGOut has been a staple for some time, with many fans now including it as a slogan in their profiles. The Dutchman’s interaction with the media has raised the ire of many too, morphing from entertaining to frustrating.
"Perhaps there was a warning from Van Gaal’s first press conference as Old Trafford boss when he claimed to be “confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative.”"
For the most part Van Gaal has been true to his word. They were qualities that fans warmed to in the Dutchman’s early days at United, but a lack of tactical innovation, with sometimes stale decision-making and illogical substitutions, have left a loyal fanbase irate. After all, while match-going fans have a long history of cheering on the team at Old Trafford whatever the circumstances, the echo of boos ringing round the ground is growing ever louder. The sound of “Glory Glory Man United” over the tannoy now seems to mock the team, not support it.
Van Gaal’s responses after too many shocking results haven’t helped his cause. The Dutchman talks about mythical chances created, where there were very few, and equates dominating possession to dominating a game. It wins few admirers and frustrates fans further in the context of the poor fare Van Gaal serves. United’s perfect 4-0 record against Liverpool under the Dutchman is all well and good, but Van Gaal must start winning back the fans if he is to save his job.
Stop Ed Woodward briefing the press
Almost as frustrating as the team’s style of play is Woodward’s penchant for briefing the press in the immediate aftermath of a loss. After another poor result brings back pages seemingly flooded with stories about United’s upcoming spending on Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and others.
Not only is the narrative hard to believe, but it is insulting both to the media and the fans. Woodward’s Galactico policy has not worked; signings that fit the mould of what the squad needs are better than those that will sell shirts. Angel Di Maria and Falcao were top of the shirt charts last season – perhaps that matters more to the moneymakers behind the scenes than results on the pitch.
This is not Van Gaal’s fault, of course, but is it another source of frustration among a supporter base already in uproar. Patience has run out; time may do so too. Van Gaal has limited opportunities to make changes, or his career will end in a way that is not fitting of his many achievements. The old dog needs to learn some new tricks. Fast.