Van Gaal’s oddest tactical decisions as United manager

April 11, 2016 Tags: , Reads 27 comments
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It was, perhaps, the absolute nadir of Louis van Gaal’s miserable two-year reign as Manchester United manager. The Reds’ devastating loss at Tottenham Hotspur probably excludes Van Gaal’s team from next season’s Champions League competition, although by then it certainly won’t be the Dutchman in charge. It was, however, the manner of Sunday’s defeat that shocked most. Disjointed to the point of chaos, disfigured beyond horror, this was a United side utterly blown-away by Spurs – the same team Sir Alex Ferguson used to so pithily dismiss. The real horror came not with defeat, though, but Van Gaal’s baffling approach to it.

By the end Van Gaal had deployed seven, yes SEVEN, players out of position at White Hart Lance. Only the Dutchman was surprised by the chaos that followed. After all, three of United’s back four were out of position: Timothy Fosu-Mensah, a central defender, at right-back; Marcos Rojo, a central defender, at left-back; and Daley Blind, a left-back, in the centre. In more attacking areas Jesse Lingard, a right-winger, played at number 10, Juan Mata, a number 10, played on the right-wing, and Anthony Martial, a striker, was deployed on the left-wing. The pièce de résistance, though, was Van Gaal’s mind-bending decision to bring on Ashley Young, a left-winger, for Marcus Rashford, a striker, up front.

Much like Brian Clough in his final season as Nottingham Forrest manager, Van Gaal is a former great in terminal decline. Retirement is long overdue. Yet, the true sickener is not that Van Gaal suffered a bad day off his meds, but that the Dutchman’s performance in north London was very much the norm. From the bizarre to the ridiculous, the Iron Tulip makes tactical decisions that few can comprehend…

Ashley Young as a striker
The aforementioned half-time substitution was possibly Van Gaal’s greatest attempt at trolling yet. The Dutchman claimed to want “more running in behind” – but, apparently, not from the effervescent Marcus Rashford. Instead, the former Aston Villa player, who has spent much of the season injured and hasn’t scored in the Premier League since 2014, joined the game at half-time. Young spent some of his teenage years as a striker at Watford, while he played up front for United’s under-21 side last week. It’s a far cry from the cutting edge of the Premier League though, with United desperate to secure a place in Europe next season. Predictably, Young scored no goals, made no assists, and enjoyed no shots on target at White Hart Lane.

Nick Powell for Juan Mata at Wolfsburg
With Van Gaal’s team trailing 2-1 to Wolfsburg in Germany, and heading out of the Champions League, the Dutchman pulled off a masterstroke of tactical genius – albeit only in his own crumbling mind. Mata, having already secured an assist as Anthony Martial fired United ahead at the Volkswagen Arena, was substituted for … Nick Powell. The 69th minute change was the youngster’s first appearance for Van Gaal’s team, or any United first team, for 16 months. United’s players were said to be “bemused” by Van Gaal’s decision. Not only the players. Yet, it would not be the last time the Dutchman appeared to self-destruct in the name of tactical fuckwittery. Van Gaal repeated the trick days later, pulling off Marouane Fellaini, for once having a solid game, for Powell as United lost at Bournemouth in the Premier League.

Nick Powell, Juan Mata

“Genius” – Van Gaal brings on Nick Powell for Juan Mata, hilarity follows

Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in midfield
One of the more bizarre sights under Van Gaal was that of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney occupying midfield roles against West Bromwich Albion in United’s 1-0 defeat at home last season. Exactly the position a genius manager wants his two leading strikers. To cap off the tactical innovation, Van Gaal deployed the aforementioned Fellaini up front to ensure that, while there was little in the way of subtlety coming from midfield, at least the Reds could ‘hoof it up to the big man’. Defeat came as inevitably as Van Gaal bemoaned West Brom “parking the bus.”

Marcus Rashford deployed at right wing-back against Liverpool
Pop quiz Ranters. When the club’s star teenage striker is on a hot-streak and the team is facing its fiercest rivals on a big European night what’s the correct tactical approach? Trick question! While “play the kid up front” is the obvious answer, only genii such as Van Gaal would think to use the player at right wing-back, completely destroy your team’s shape, and eliminate any hope of scoring that vital away goal – all in one go. Trolling? Check! Tactical destruction? Check! Lose a crucial game? Check Check Check!

Two full-back substitutions versus Liverpool
But why stop at one oddball decision in a two-legged European tie when you can BOGOF! With United out-of-sorts, creating little of note up front, but desperately needing goals to go through, Van Gaal’s £7 million-a-season contract was put to good use – by wasting two substitutions on full-backs. And they say you can’t put a price on genius. It’s £7 million. Not only did Van Gaal bring off Marcos Rojo and Guillermo Varela for Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia, but he also managed to switch the full-backs around. Three for the price of two, you say?

Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Morgan Schneiderlin taking corners
What is it with United and corners? One would think that among a group of fabulously wealthy and reasonably talented Premier League footballers that one, perhaps even two, might be able to take a decent corner? Van Gaal hasn’t worked it out though, with a series of bizarre set-piece takers having the honours at Old Trafford under the Dutchman. On Sunday Morgan Schneilderlin had a go – to unsurprisingly poor effect. For most of the season Daley Blind has shanked, hacked, sliced and scuffed various attempts straight at the first defender. The nadir of this bizarre policy was Van Gaa’s decision to let Phil Jones take corners. Not for a one-off game though, but several. Good times. Almost as good as the time Jones tackled Olivier Giroud with his head.

Phil Jones header

Top Headerererer: there is no good reason to display this image, ‘cept for shits n giggles

World-class winger Angel Di Maria used as a striker, midfielder, wing-back, in-the-hole
Then there’s Angel di Maria, who was moved from role-to-role each week until he had started in five different positions in a solitary season with the club. As Di Maria’s value sank in Van Gaal’s estimation, so did the winger’s level of commitment to the cause. Perhaps the strangest of roles, however, was Van Gaal’s decision to deploy the Argentine as a striker alongside Robin van Persie during United’s 1-0 home defeat to Southampton last season. United failed to record a single shot on target. Perhaps Van Gaal had convinced himself, as some supporters also had, that Di Maria could play ‘the Robben role’ – Arjen Robben’s position as a striker with Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup. Di Maria couldn’t and another Van Gaal experiment had failed.

Wayne Rooney as a defensive midfielder against Chelsea
There was a time when Wayne Rooney offered many things – once a world-class striker, with a flexibility that allowed, on occasion, Sir Alex Ferguson to deploy the scouser in midfield or on the wing. Defensive midfield? Not so much. Yet, Van Gaal saw fit to use the erstwhile striker in a deeper role as United faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last April. All too predictably it was a game United lost, although the striker-cum-midfield ratter did manage to place a shot wide from Luke Shaw’s cross when it looked easier to score. The away support briefly celebrated. It’s the little things that hurt.

Jesse Lingard as a playmaker
It takes a leap of imagination as marvellous as Van Gaal’s to envision Jesse Lingard as a playmaker. It’s not that the Mancunian isn’t a willing midfielder, nor that his pace, off-the-ball work, and directness aren’t valuable. It’s just that, well, he’s not that good at number 10. Lingard averages just under 0.6 key passes per game this season, to league-leader Mesut Ozil at more than three. The coup de gras of this tactical innovation is Van Gaal’s insistence that Mata is shunted to the right, from where a genuinely creative player spends much of his time on the periphery of the game. It is a decision born in Van Gaal’s obsession with organisational structure: Lingard occupies the opponent’s defensive midfielder with runs ahead of the ball. Mata does not.

Jesse Lingard

Happier times: when Lingard wasn’t looking confused at number 10

Substituting Ander Herrera against Arsenal in the cup
With the match tied at 1-1 Van Gaal substituted the effervescent Ander Herrera for the far more laborious Michael Carrick. Danny Welbeck’s strike on the hour knocked Van Gaal’s side out of the cup as the tide turned in the visitors’ favour. While Carrick was not directly at fault – Jones’ poor chest control and Valencia’s soft back-pass can take the blame there – United lost much of the team’s momentum with the half-time change. Another example of unnecessary and counter-productive tinkering. Not for the first or last time.

Half-time substitutions
Talking of half-time substitutions, Van Gaal has made 19 this season in all competitions. It is a policy that reeks of selection error and indecision, with many changes being those aimed at securing United’s porous defence ahead of those that could impact the game in United’ favour.

Full-back substitutions
What. The. Fuck. Or WTF as the kids say. By one count Van Gaal has substituted a full-back 30 times this season, wasting valuable changes that could be used to turn a game in United’s direction. By why go for victory when one can glory in 70 per cent possession, two shots on target, and a brace of neatly timed defensive substitutions?

Anthony martial pulled-off against CSKA
It was the game Old Trafford threatened to turn feral – an angry mob baying for Van Gaal’s blood on a night when the Reds finally broke a six-hour goal drought. With United desperately in need of a goal, Van Gaal brought off world-class star-in-the-making Martial for Belgian lump Fellaini. Old Trafford wasn’t happy. Not at all. Martial’s substitution was greeted by a chorus of boos, although in fairness Lingard and Mata combined well to set up Rooney for the winner. It proved to be a false dawn.

Anthony Martial, Marouane Fellaini

Stimulating the mob: this one didn’t go down well at Old Trafford

Playing Sergio Romero when David de Gea was desperate to play
Not once, bar for Van Gaal’s inference, has there been any evidence that De Gea is less than professional in his approach. Yet, as the drama surrounding De Gea’s prospective move to Real Madrid played out last summer, Van Gaal thought it wise to drop the Spaniard for the hapless Romero. The Argentine lasted four games in the first team, including making a howler against Swansea City that cost United a point. Food for thought should the Reds miss out on Europe by a point. De Gea, meanwhile, was happy to let it be known, via his agent, that he wanted to play all along.

Using Adnan Januzaj and Jess Lingard as full-backs
Remember the one where Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard featured as full-backs against Southampton? Classic Van Gaal tinkering, with both formation and personnel, when none was needed. Not for the first time Van Gaal’s changes backfired, with Januzaj making a foul from his new role at left-back – where Southampton scored the winner at the Scoreboard End from the resulting free-kick.


David Slone - April 11, 2016 Reply

spot on – well said that man

James Kenny - April 11, 2016 Reply

the only reason there is a positive this season is due to bad luck with injuries and youth got a chance

Subterranean Steve - April 11, 2016 Reply

Whilst the fictional Dr. Frankenstein managed to get the right body parts in the right places on his ugly creation, United’s footballing equivalent can’t even do that.

Paul Boneham - April 11, 2016 Reply

it’s embarrassing when you read it like that !!

Gareth Evans - April 12, 2016 Reply

outstanding picture. As a wise man once said…

leicester24 - April 12, 2016 Reply

made a fine decision with his hair, though. Great texture and look about it these days

RedG - April 12, 2016 Reply

Ah jeez I had forgotten about a couple of these. Now I’m even worse off than before the article. Good one though, thanks, love the site. ☹️

bobbynoble - April 12, 2016 Reply

There have been plenty of square pegs in round holes but the worst ones are LVG as football manager and Ed Crud Crud as the boss of everything.

Opti - April 12, 2016 Reply

It really doesn’t make any sense anymore… United are experience a Monte Carlo selection mechanism in the worst possible sense.

To make it more odd, LvG mentioned how during one of Rashford’s first couple games, LvG at halftime had to inform Rashy of running in behind. Supposedly, this is what led to his improved performance… now the opposite is happening: Rashy gets taken off at halftime.

Are we being sponsored by now? Because I would love some fooking answers!

Thorsten Soentjens - April 12, 2016 Reply

seems like Mr United Rant is more than fed up with Gaal

Nati - April 12, 2016 Reply

Sending Januzaj to DORTMUND to get more game time?????

Rich - April 12, 2016 Reply

VG did say Dortmund was Januzaj’s choice and that he himself thought it was a bad idea. I think Van Gaals bold tactical choices are falling flat at United, because there is no solid foundation from which to make them. If we were winning games, scoring a lot of goals and defending tightly, then deploying a few players out of position from time to time… I don’t know, to educate them? To confuse our opponents? It wouldn’t be so bad.. We could smile about it and be a little smug knowing that our players are all total players. 3-0 up at Totenham we would belly laugh as Sergio Romero is brought on as number ten.

But we’re not winning and we are not well organised and we are not scoring goals.

Paul Hazell - April 12, 2016 Reply

Jesus there’s so many

SKW - April 12, 2016 Reply

It’s a joke.

As soon as I saw the formation, I said to myself this is 0-0 at BEST case scenario. And then we got blown out in the second half after not creating anything.

Rojo was truly awful at leftback and Lingard anonymous at number 10. There is absolutely no reason a sane person would not have swapped him and Mata midway through the first period. None. Zero. Except LVG is an abject fool. But the Ashley Young substitution? I haven’t got the words…

mongoletsi - April 12, 2016 Reply

Damn right. I was expecting Carrick to swap them, or Mata suggest it. Lingard surely could see the trouble Mata was having. Surely LvG could too. Giggs can’t have failed to see it. After about 20 minutes it was obvious to anybody watching either there or on TV.

I agree about Rojo. But I think Blind and Smalling are combining well

As an aside, Mata seems to be really getting tuck in these days, can’t fault him for effort.

mongoletsi - April 12, 2016 Reply

“Genii” is the plural of “Genie”. Sorry.

Plastic Ono - April 12, 2016 Reply

Great article Ed, but please don’t refer to Warrington born Jesse Lingard as a Mancunian, we need the publicity!

Josh Harris - April 12, 2016 Reply


Shailesh - April 12, 2016 Reply

*shakes head in disbelief* *facepalm* *Prays to god*

Shailesh - April 12, 2016 Reply

He’s nothing but an arrogant Moyes ! 😠

chrisjc - April 12, 2016 Reply

Mr Woodward, er, if you’ve got a minute, I know you’re busy sorting out our latest Noodling Foodling partner out and all that, but maybe you could ask that nice Mr Mourinoh to come and sort this fucking mess out. Thanks

Pete L - April 12, 2016 Reply

Spot on! Jamie Jackson has tried to write a version of this article in the Guardian today but his version is awful! : )

roger kelly - April 12, 2016 Reply

Great analysis Ed. I don’t know where United go from hear but LVG most be replaced soon. I particularly liked your reveiw of who has been taking corner kicks as Blind has been terrible all season and we never look capable of scoring from any. Do they not practice during training, so much for Mr Philosophy’s note chart he seems to make during games as any idiot could tell this is a real concern. Vidic would never have scored with this United team!!!

Opti - April 12, 2016 Reply

New words in the dictionary:
“Pulling a moyes” –> when you are utterly out of your depth and fail in front of everyone.
“Doing a Gaal” –> when no one understands your decisions or statements.
“Being a Jones” –> when you get sick or injured from limited to no interaction with other things.

pint vulger - April 12, 2016 Reply

changing your team at HT once or twice (tactically) tells me you dont know your team ,or the opposition springs surprise so big your foxed.19 times in such a short period is one of the most unbelievable football stats ever.

I watch Young give an admiral energetic enthusiastic u21 performance where the young Chelsea defender had Young in his pocket (btw I like Young)

Surely Giggsy said to LVG ‘Boss Young couldnt play Centre crash as long as he has n hole in his arse.

Dont forget the astonishing tactic when he had nobody at all defending from corners ,West Ham springs to mind.

SKW - April 12, 2016 Reply

If he wanted Young on there is absolutely no reason he could not have gone left, pushing Martial up to No. 9. Christ we needed a goal, doesn’t that make the most sense?

But no, nothing under him makes sense. As Ed pointed out, the entire team was virtually out of position, and anyone with half a brain and partial eyesight could see Mata and Lindgard were completely ineffective — SO SWAP THEM. This is not rocket science. Too often people try to make mountains out of moles hills when it comes to football management. Most of the decisions are actually not that complicated.

Throwing Young on and not Fellani. I honestly thought that was just a F you to the fans. It’s that bad of a decision.

MassiveBob - April 13, 2016 Reply

Keep it simple Louis, keep it manageable.

GK: De Gea or Romero (pick one)
CB: Smalling, Rojo, Jones or Fosu-Mensah (pick two)
RB: Darmian or Varela (pick one)
LB: Blind or Borthwick-Jackson (or Shaw) (pick one)
CM: Schneiderlin, Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Carrick or Fellaini (pick two)
RW: Lingard or Valencia (pick one)
LW: Memphis or Young (pick one)
AM: Mata or Rooney (pick one)
CF: Martial, Rashford or Januzaj (pick one)

See?? Anyone can manage United… 🙂

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