Van Gaal’s essential dichotomy places legacy at risk

November 23, 2015 Tags: , Reads 8 comments
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It is an inescapable observation. Louis van Gaal is no gambler. Not in the fashion Sir Alex Ferguson once professed to be. Faced with the necessity to tinker, Van Gaal’s DNA screams conservatism. Every time. It was never this way under the Scot whatever the changing nature of his tactical outlook during the end-game of 27-years at Old Trafford. When it came to the crunch Fergie always bet on red, even when the house looked certain to win on black.

Yet, Van Gaal has little compunction in bringing a swathe of youngsters into his first team squad. The latest, Marcus Rashford, is one of the most exciting attacking talents to come through United’s Academy in the past decade. Supporters can add Sean Goss, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe, Patrick McNair, Andrea Pereira, and Jesse Lingard to an ever lengthening list of kids in the picture. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis Depay represent youthful, if expensive, recruits.

It is a bifurcation without easy explanation. Faith in those who have little history on which to base it; and an adherence to a philosophy that, at times, sucks the fun out of a club built on attacking flair. And an observation that begs the question of how Van Gaal’s legacy is likely to shape up. One blessed with long-term health based on youthful vigour. Or on a culture of tactical fear?

Saturday’s victory over Watford brought consideration of both, but also hope that there is room to erode elements of the latter. After all, United’s average starting age, with Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Antonia Valencia on the sidelines, was just a touch over 25. The bench included two teenagers and two 20-year-olds.

And at times United attacked Watford without the fear so prevalent this season. Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay interchanged beautifully in a performance reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in the triumvirate’s 2008 pomp. If some way short of the same quality.

Yet, in recent weeks, Van Gaal has also come under fire for an approach that borders on negative, especially in the context of United’s rich history. In repeatedly deploying two defensive midfielders, opting for unambitious substitutions, with a mindset seemingly bent on marginalising some of his more creative players, Van Gaal has earned Old Trafford’s ire.

The observation is born out in the numbers. The Reds rank first for average possession, but 16th for shots-per-game. United’s total number of shots this season is 134 behind Arsenal’s and growing by the game. Inside the penalty area only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion have taken fewer shots than United.

It is a team that ranks 11th for assists, 16th for key passes and 14th for dribbles attempted. There is little flair to note. Van Gaal’s side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the league, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chance created than United.

Yet, if Van Gaal’s philosophy arcs towards the soporific, it also bends to the will of the club’s youth. It is an accommodation very much in the keeping with the traditions of the Babes and Fledglings. Far from breaking United’s record of calling up an Academy player for every first team match-day squad for more than 3,500 games, Van Gaal has baked in its existence for years to come. Rashford and Goss may not have made the pitch at the weekend, but their chance will surely come. And probably soon.

“It has always been part of my own philosophy and that of the club to give opportunities to youth players,” noted Van Gaal last month.

“With advice from Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, I regularly invite members of the development squad to train alongside the first team. It gives them a chance to step up their training and to improve their technical ability.

“A good example would be Paddy McNair. He trained with the first team, which helped him prepare so that it wasn’t such a big step when he was called upon to the first team.”

It is a balance of risk, in trusting those without experience, against long-term rewards that Van Gaal seeks. It also brings a choice: when to trust the young and, perhaps even more importantly, when to ditch the old.

The observation may be born of coincidence, yet Rooney’s absence was met not with the attacking impotence that may once have been expected, but with a brave and vibrant opening period. Terrace joy in the new order was dampened only by Ander Herrera’s injury. After all, it was the Spaniard’s weighted pass that set Memphis up for a neatly finished opening goal.

Saturday’s game was also one that offered a glimpse of a post-Rooney future. And it looked good. One in which Martial, Lingard, Memphis, Herrera and Mata could form the backbone of a flexible, creative, and – Mata aside – pacey attacking unit. In time Ashford and the brilliant youth team prospect Callum Gribbin may also join the group. The latter has already joined Van Gaal’s first-team training sessions.

“This club has always been famous for giving young players a chance and we have to continue with that policy,” notes Van Gaal. “When you see us in the Champions League with Shaw, at 19 years of age, Memphis, 21, and Anthony Martial, 19, it is clear we have the same aims.”

Indeed, the Dutchman’s career is littered with players blooded under his tutelage. At Barcelona Van Gaal offered a first team chance to Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta. The pair became “the backbone of the club and its culture.” At Bayern Munich there was “Thomas Müller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber.”

Rashford, Gribbins, Goss, Borthwick-Jackson, Tuanzebe, McNair, Pereira, Lingard, and the other youthful acquisitions will, in time, become Van Gaal’s “guardians of the culture here at Manchester United.” Far from destroying United’s culture of youth, through heavy spending on imported talent, Van Gaal is building for the future.

And yet United’s style matters too. Youth without flair, Champions League qualification, but a campaign short on silverware – it is a cocktail that will not mix in the Dutchman’s favour.

Van Gaal may not be a gambler, not in Ferguson’s mould, but it is a wager of sorts. The Dutchman’s bet is that his faith in the vibrancy of youth breaks free of his self-imposed tactical straight jacket.

The stakes: a lasting Old Trafford legacy.


Collins Chinyanta - November 23, 2015 Reply


Count Jackson - November 23, 2015 Reply

Great piece Ed.

“Watford in Hertfordshire” 🙂

NazManUnited - November 23, 2015 Reply

Louis Philosophy is Bonkers

Johan - November 24, 2015 Reply

Great piece, though you may want to change Goss’ first name to Sean. 😉

Kyaw Swa Heinn - November 24, 2015 Reply

Brilliant read! I am becoming more and more positive about the future. Even if this season ends without any silverware, I will remain positive that, with some additions, our squad will be ready to take back the throne and keep it in the years to come.

Subterranean Steve - November 24, 2015 Reply

I’m stuck in a bed post-op, and have become prone to scribbling stuff in the guise of a keyboard warrior. Apologies in advance, blame it on the morphine drip.

What would have happened if the Moyes experiment/experience had not existed? Imagine if van Gaal had directly taken over a United side which had just won The Premier League by eleven points. Would he have built upon the success of 2012/13 (as Fergie would surely have done, if he had stayed) and just tinker around the edges with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it approach ….’ or would he have still gone about basically ‘reinventing the wheel’ as appeared to some, to be necessary post-Moyes?

If United fans had been made to suffer the tedious, possession-based, shot-shy football of the last fifteen months immediately after the Ferguson era, it’s questionable as to whether van Gaal would have lasted any longer than did Moyes.

If timing is everything, then van Gaal must have a Rolex on each wrist. Expectations were driven so low after Moyes, that Louis could get away with spending over a hundred million on players, serving up boring football and still getting us to believe that seventy points and fourth spot was the outcome of a successful season. Incidentally, seventy points would have got us sixth spot in the Moyes’ season.

In the podcast, Paul said that van Gaal is a progressive coach. He isn’t a progressive coach ( Klopp is a progressive coach). Van Gaal is yesterday’s man who flew high in the 1990’s, and thus developed a successful approach which he has been relying on for the best part of twenty years. Life in today’s Premier League has caught him out and he is actually playing catch-up. Three at the back, Jones taking corners, two holding midfielders, Wazza the Invincible up front, you’ve got to be kidding.

As you have said Ed, Van Gaal’s legacy is on the line. He can steer us to a comfortable Champions’ League spot this season and lay a couple of foundation stones for the future. Good stuff. But he can also untie the strait-jacket, give Bastian (the team’s true leader) and the younger attacking players their collective heads, let their football do the talking, and head for the summit. The current team is not the finished article but that doesn’t mean that winning the title this season is an impossibility. Who would have predicted that with a third of the season gone, Leicester would have been top and Chelsea down in fifteenth spot?

There were some signs against Watford of football played with tempo and with risk-taking. United’s risk-taking, to some degree, coupled with missed chances, let Watford back into the game, but the 90th minute winner was pure United. Time for van Gaal to trust his players, take some risks, and go for it. The fans will back him and he could end up with a legacy of which to be really proud. Of course, I’m not holding my breath, but well you never know.

Denton Davey - November 24, 2015 Reply

” blame it on the morphine drip”

I have no such excuses on which to blame my lack of clarity but I can see lots of reasons to be hopeful. First, of course, is the complete turnover of the defence – the base of any team’s success. Second, is the slow introduction of younger, faster attacking players. And, third, is the re-stocking of the central midfield with three “keepers” – Herrera, Schneiderlin, and – most of all – Schweini.

But, of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day and one has to hope that this is a process of transition that is being carried out with a medium-term plan clearly in mind. What I admire most about LvG’s rigidity is, in fact, its rigidity – he knows what has worked in the past and he’s damned-well going to do it again. There might be bumps in the road – and a lot of really turgid stuff to watch – but I have the sense that his remit was to turn around the Titanic that SAF stuck with post-2008. LvG has essentially created a new team with only three significant holdovers – MC16, TheWayneBoy, and DDG – and there seems to me to be every likelihood that all three might be somewhere else as soon as next summer, although why DDG would go to the BernabeuCircus is quite beyond me.

A couple of more strategic inclusions – the mooted transfer of Arjen Robben and another high-upside attacking player (Leroy Sane, please !) – and this will be pretty close to the finished article. But, then, I’m a glass half-full kinda guy – on some things (just not on Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia who can “do a job” but, alas, can’t do it well).

Michael Assefa - November 25, 2015 Reply

If I understand you correctly, you are saying wee Davey is a better manager than LvG. You are entitled to your opinion of course but if I were you I’ll have a family member check what meds you are on.
As Denton Davey said it might be morphine. But I suspect it is some bitter mixed with a whole lotta LSD. He seems to be on some bitter and LSD cocktail.
I just want to also appreciate Paul and his optimistic progressive outlook on Rant Cast. Good on you mate, keep up the positive vibes.

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