Pragmatic Van Gaal seeks points ahead of philosophy

November 23, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 14 comments
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Manchester United’s bench said much. The list of those who didn’t feature speaks even louder. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj – three of United’s most technically gifted players – were used for not a second of the Reds’ diligent 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday night. This was Louis van Gaal’s first win on the road this season; it also came in a manner that the Dutchman has rejected for much of his career.

The veteran coach has long been more than a tactical innovator or training ground dictator. For the best part of 25 years Van Gaal has been a man firmly wedded, if not to any one tactical system, then a “philosophy” built on front-foot-forward possession-based attacking football. After this summer’s World Cup, and United’s smash-and-grab at the Emirates, it is tempting to conclude that there is a philosophy no longer. The Iron Pragmatist.

In Brazil Van Gaal’s late decision to implement a system based on three central defenders was controversial in his homeland, but drew nothing like the ire aimed at the Netherland’s sober ideology. In the spiritual home of o jogo bonito Dutch anti-football took a limited side all the way to the semi-final. Very little of it was beautiful as Netherland’s conceded possession and sought to attack on the break.

Similarly in north London United enjoyed just 38 per cent of the ball, while Arsenal created almost double the number of chances. Arséne Wenger called it “one way traffic” as United aimed to do little more than defend in numbers and then attack at pace through Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria. It wasn’t until Rooney’s 85th minute breakaway goal that United finally got a shot on target. José Mourinho couldn’t have done it better.

Few in the travelling camp were concerned with United’s style in the aftermath though. Amid a chaotic past 18 months expectations have been firmly reset both in the stands and the dugout. Points matter most even if style and victory are never mutually exclusive. Here, not for the first time it should be said, United was prepared to let the Gunners hog the ball while the Reds kept an eye firmly on the result. Little wonder Van Gaal was absolutely delighted with the outcome. So were 3,000 raucous away supporters.

“It was a fantastic result,” said Van Gaal on Saturday evening. “We had a lot of injuries and in spite of that we have won. In an away match, it is very difficult. Arsenal are a very good team, an attacking team and that I knew in advance. That is why I chose this strategy and at the end I can laugh, but at the same time, you can imagine that if Arsenal could have scored one of the four or five chances in the first half then maybe this would have been another game.”

Indeed, United’s back-three of Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair appeared anything but a unit for much of the opening half. If Van Gaal had drilled the new system into the trio over the past four day’s training little showed on the pitch. It was period in which former Red Danny Welbeck and midfielder Jack Wilshere should each have scored for the home side, possibly placing the tie out of United’s reach long before half-time.

Arsenal’s profligacy cost the hosts, but as the match wore on it was United that increasingly gained control even if Arsenal continued to monopolise possession. Ridiculous though it might have been, as Di Maria raced clear seeking to score United’s third, the only shock was the inevitability of it all.

“We weathered the storm, especially in the first half, and then we knew we could hit them on the counter attack,” said Rooney.

“We knew they were vulnerable on the break and we did that. Our goalkeeper was fantastic but we hit them with two good goals. We knew we had to get as many players into the defence as we could and we did that by putting five at the back. We also knew we had the legs on the break, which we saw to good effect in the second half.”

Yet, for much of the past two decades Van Gaal has preached a philosophy of victory with style; the Dutch school codified only for local tastes at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Amid all the silverware the 62-year-old has claimed, very little of it was secured at the hands of pragmatism.

Even in north London this was a brand of prudent football in the extreme. United’s defensive injury crisis is profound – Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans missed the trip south – but there is no shortage of attacking talent. Mata, Januzaj and Herrera sat on the bench; a trio that would have offered greater midfield control than United enjoyed on Saturday. In fact the Spanish duo now seem further away from Van Gaal’s preferred team than at any point this season.

But there is little argument to brook with the result. Van Gaal, as he claimed post-match, was completely right. Yet, in the wider picture Saturday’s performance also recalls a question about Van Gaal’s long-term plan for United. Is this the Dutchman of old in crisis mode, choosing to eek out results despite himself, or has the attacking zeal seeped away with the pressure bearing down at Old Trafford?

“We have to wait and see,” concluded the Dutchman. “It is the first away victory so the players were very excited in the dressing room but it is only one victory. We have to confirm that with victories in the next two games that we play at home.”

Those fixtures, against Hull City and Stoke City should bring a further six points and with it five Premier League victories on the spin. That’s momentum whatever United’s style and a genuine platform on which to build. Confidence, at a low ebb for months, now means so much.

Beyond the immediacy of victory, however, there is a rich attacking tradition at United that one suspects Van Gaal would like to emulate, even if Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter years and then David Moyes did much to airbrush the mystique. Van Gaal’s legend says he is at one with 130 years of United’s history. The past six months have demonstrated something very different. One will win out before the Dutchman leaves Manchester.


Red Dave - November 23, 2014 Reply

It’s should be one optimistic rantcast, looking forward to it.

greg - November 23, 2014 Reply

fantastic as ever

Dale O'Donnell - November 24, 2014 Reply

Excellent read, Ed. Confidence is huge and as it grows I’d like to think we will become more ballsy and comfortable in possession.

giggyjon - November 24, 2014 Reply

Massive result. Brilliant tactically and not surprising we played as we did in the circumstances, considering the options available to the manager at the back. “Great save Dave” was absolutely faultless and is increasingly looking a world class goalkeeper.

Games against the top four are the matches that decide Champions League places and League titles. We have done Arsenal over big time and that is something to really celebrate. Has Rooney suddenly found 1/2 a yard again? Go on Ed admit it.

Ed - November 24, 2014 Reply

Thing is we are talking about three good Rooney games in a row. If it ever gets to 10 then we might have a player 🙂

denton davey - November 24, 2014 Reply

Over the past five/six years, TheLads have beaten TheArse with this same game-plan. Rope-a-dope. SAF did just that playing LittleRedRafa in midfield, ThreeLungPark scoring/dominating, Nani going-off all-world. Here’s a statistic to consider:

Arsenal’s record playing Manchester United since 2009:

Yesterday it was deja-vue-all-over-again. For all TheArse’s possession/territorial domination they really only had two chances – and one of them was there for DannyTheLad and we all know that that wouldn’t amount to much ! On the other hand, it could be argued (“could be argued”) that with better finishing TheLads could have had five. TheWayneBoy scored one, TheLads got a deflection for another – but let’s not forget that Smalling whiffed a close-in gimme, Di Maria fucked up an open goal, and there was a ludicrous off-side call when TheWayneBoy/Rvp were in on the last defender.

The old saying is that “goals change games” and this was true yesterday – and today, too. LiverPoo lost again = three in a row. I’m hoping that they can get the kiss-of-death: a Europa League spot after they crash out of the CL; ditto for TheArse.

Lucas - November 24, 2014 Reply

Very good article, Ed. My two cents below…

How much of the pragmatism over philosophy do you think can be attributed to our ever-growing injury list? With Smalling the only senior defender available, I think it made sense to have both our young defenders rather than one alongside him. But against Hull and Stoke, I would like to see us revert to a back 4. With Shaw and Blind injured, I think Blackett will come in at LB.

However, I don’t understand LvG’s stubbornness to play a left-footed defender at the left side of central defence. Not many clubs do that, do they? You do that when you want to bring the ball out of defence, but we hardly do that anyway. If you noticed against Arsenal, Blackett was extremely nervy initially and the nervousness spread throughout the team, and that could have cost us. I would play Smalling and McNair against Hull. Blackett needs to be sent on loan in Jan or next summer. Wonder how our friend Recce James is coming along. He is another option we have at LB.

Coming to our midfield, I can’t believe that with LvG fussing over his philosophy constantly, he picks Fellaini over our best midfielder Herrera, who can keep the ball, pass, create chances, tackle, and has scored twice already! I like the fact that Fellaini brings physicality that is required in the premier league, but Herrera is the one that subscribes to LvG’s philosophy, not Fellaini. Unless that philosophy has now changed to long-ball tactics.

Regarding our strikers, it’s imperative LvG drops RvP for the sake of the team. He looks jaded and woefully out of form. When Wilson replaced him, we attacked with pace and verve that was missing earlier. Falcao has to start if fit, or we should start with Wilson in front of Rooney, or Rooney in front, with Mata and Herrera behind. We still haven’t seen the kind of through passes to our strikers that Herrera made in preseason. With Fellaini in midfield, we can forget about playing one-touch, fast-paced, exciting football.

The last time we played real exciting football this season was against Leicester with a diamond-formation. But the collapse of our defence resulted in LvG becoming hesitant to play that formation again. If we could have a solid, regular back four, I think we can really spring forward this season. But unfortunately with the amount of injuries we have, pragmatism has taken over philosophy. But, if it keeps winning us 3 points every game, we should take that…for now.


denton davey - November 24, 2014 Reply

” Blackett needs to be sent on loan in Jan or next summer.”

Why ? I don’t see what a loan-deal will offer this kid – OK, he’ll play regularly BUT without his regular team-mates (or LvG’s “philosophy”) and unless he goes to a EPL team then he’ll be playing against weaker opposition.

My own two-cent’s worth is that Blackett played his first few matches on pure adrenaline but then got a bit spooked by the realization that he’d jumped from U20 to the first team and, so, has become a bit nervous. Unlike McNair – who seems to have ice-water in his veins – Blackett needs to calm down and carry on. The pair of them look very promising and, as I wrote last month, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them featuring regularly by the end of the season UNLESS the other defenders can overcome their perma-crock problems.

And, even if Jones/Evans/Rojo/Smalling/Rafael do find some kind of fountain-of-health it’s not apparent to me that the two kids are inferior. MrJones (as in, “you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones” – courtesy of Bob Dylan) is just too head-strong and risky to play as a central defender; I think he should be a defensive midfielder – even if THAT requires a loan move to give him playing time in that role !

Lucas - November 25, 2014 Reply

I am not saying Blackett is inferior, but he definitely seems very nervous. LvG wants the defenders to play the ball out of defence – McNair is able to do that, but Blackett is just wayward with his distribution. You can’t deny he was extremely poor in the first half against Arsenal. If we manage to get Evans and Jones fit for longer time periods, I think Blackett will have less chances to play, and rightly so. So, it makes sense for him to go out on loan.

TheEqualizer - November 24, 2014 Reply

would argue part of his philosophy is pragmatic…a pragmatic fundamentalism

Nallavan - November 24, 2014 Reply

Excellent article Ed. We seem to have issues in defence (lack of choices), midfield (dubious choice) and attack (wrong choice)!

Dayus D red - November 24, 2014 Reply

Do we really know what we want? When we were playing Herrera and Mata in the midfield i didn’t see any domination rather we were been over run in the middle and we all complained our lack of physical presence in the middle. Now that felliani is giving us that physical presence suddely everybody wants Herrera and Mata back. Considering the height and lack of presence of these two players, i think it will be sucidal for us to start both of them as results have shown.

subterranean steve - November 24, 2014 Reply

Is it about philosophy versus pragmatism? With van Gaal, it appears to be that pragmatism is the philosophy. Team selection, formation and tactics have been chopped and changed, so it is difficult to see any coherent footballing beliefs and attitudes being displayed from game to game. United’s terrible injury list has had a big impact on the season so far and on van Gaal himself, a manager who says he prefers to work with a relatively small squad. He has not been able to do this and the team is being picked week by week according to availability. Injury imposed personnel changes is one thing, but messing about with a back three, then a back four and now, at Arsenal, a back three again, hardly creates consistency, especially with young defenders. Indeed, throughout the team, only De Gea has regularly played his best football. All the outfield players have run hot and cold with their form, except RVP who has just remained frozen solid.

Interesting to note that of the starting eleven against Arsenal, only Di Maria was actually signed by van Gaal. The rest were already at the club when he arrived. That does presuppose that the Shaw transfer was pretty much done and dusted before van Gaal’s arrival. Quite different to a couple of months ago when all the talk was of the new signings.

Nina King - November 27, 2014 Reply

pragmatism is my kind of philosophy.

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