Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man used to the spotlight. The Swede eventually stole the headlines with two goals against Southampton on Friday night, but Paul Pogba was firmly the centre of everyone’s attention during Manchester United’s first game at Old Trafford this Premier League season. The Frenchman’s integration could encourage manager José Mourinho to change his approach this season.
“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”
Rant doesn’t often get biblical, but in a summer of tough decisions for Manchester United, it is true that success sometimes necessitates sacrifice. Trimming the fat can be the price of moving forward, making tough calls for the betterment and progression of a club. United might need to address the elephant in the room – Wayne Rooney is the hand that might need to be severed for the body to survive.
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.
Much has been made over the possible “Liverpoolisation” of Manchester United. United is mounting a desperate challenge to qualify for the Champions League, but with some irony faces elimination from the seemingly winnable Europa League at the hands of the old enemy, Liverpool.
It is, of course, unfair to compare Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side to Barcelona – the latter boasting possibly the best attacking trio ever. Yet, Barcelona is a side heavily influenced by Van Gaal – one that still adheres to some of the Dutch manager’s philosophy. Van Gaal’s current side faces Arsenal on Sunday and would do well to learn lessons from Barcelona, which swatted aside the Gunners at the Emirates in midweek. Read More
Although it may be obscured by a veneer of short-term relief, Louis van Gaal’s inevitable departure from Manchester United, in such unfavourable circumstances, will make for unfortunate viewing. It is regrettable that one of the most decorated managers, charismatic personalities, and cutting-edge tactical minds of his generation will sign off from a glittering career with his tail so firmly between his legs. Read More
“Attack, Attack, Attack” – a frustrated imploration of Manchester United fans that has echoed around the stands, pubs and living rooms with monotonous frequency in recent months. Although branding Louis van Gaal’s United as ‘boring’ and ‘unwatchable’ has progressively evolved into a media caricature, it is inarguable that the Reds’ style of football under the Dutchman has become increasingly impotent. Read More
Aside from an obsession with possession the mainstay of Louis van Gaal’s philosophy has been an insistence on a high line. Curiously, however, the heavy pressing that usually accompanies adventurous defensive positioning has been noticeably absent at Old Trafford. Read More
December football is a highlight of the British football calendar, with a seemingly infinite stream of games on which to feast over the festive period. In addition to being an excuse to binge on the beautiful game, and copious amounts of food and drink, it is often a pivotal juncture in Manchester United’s season.
Sir Alex Ferguson often reiterated the need to capture form during the final month of the year. Those were simpler times, and the cloud of uncertainty that looms heavy over Old Trafford ensures that much of the excitement present in previous years is decidedly absent.
There is little to stir any festive optimism in a side whose insipid displays continue – an early Champions League exit in Wolfsburg, followed by an embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth, and then at home to Norwich City, are unwelcome variations on the mundane goalless draws that have become the norm.
There is a growing anxiety among United’s support, especially with little certainty about the future. The evidence suggests there is justification in supporters’ fears.
“Boring, boring United”
At the top of fans’ Christmas list of woes is the dismal nature of football on display from Louis Van Gaal’s side. The pragmatic Dutchman has been cast as Scrooge in recent weeks, and his overtly regimented approach to the game has almost completely nullified the entertainment traditionally associated with United.
One of the most concerning factors is that despite weeks of criticism Van Gaal appears completely unshaken in his belief in the “philosophy” – a concept that seems to have less meaning with every passing week. His ethos is centred on defensive solidity and ball retention, but the important passages detailing the action in the final has been torn from Van Gaal’s coaching manual.
In addition to a indistinguishable team identity, Van Gaal’s choice of formation and substitutions have also raised eyebrows. United’s travelling support was horrified when injury to Ander Herrera at Watford prompted Van Gaal to revert to the much maligned 3-5-2 system. It removed much of United’s attacking impetus in the process.
Even with a wealth of options at his disposal the Dutch manager’s selections have continued to provoke ire. Deploying two holding midfielders against less decorated opposition, who rarely bring much ambition at Old Trafford, is simultaneously mystifying and typical of Van Gaal’s tenure.
Not only does the tactic often result in the aforementioned Herrera being left out, but it is an exasperatingly cautious approach. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick are excellent footballers, but there is no need for two-thirds of this trio to start in home games against lesser sides.
Almost as frustrating as Plan A is Van Gaal’s persistence in using the lumbering Marouane Fellaini as a route one alternative. Despite his apparent “genius” there is little ingenuity in a contingency plan that involves diagonal balls launched in the Belgian’s general direction – incredulous, even, that an expensively assembled squad should resort to low percentage tactics.
Regardless of the squad’s many deficiencies Van Gaal has once again suffered for a side decimated by injury. Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break in Eindhoven is still fresh in the memory. While the left-back should make a full recovery Shaw’s injury has set the tone for another season of ill luck. Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera and the indispensable Chris Smalling have all been ruled out in recent weeks, along with the perpetually afflicted Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
Once again some question Van Gaal’s rigorous training regimen and its propensity to increase United’s injury list. Pending a thorough scientific analysis the truth will remain unclear, but the skeleton squad that took to the field at Wolfsburg and Bournemouth raises questions about how wisely United invested last summer.
The doomed pursuit of Sergio Ramos was exciting, but amid the frenzy there remained a sense of deja-vu about the episode. Ed Woodward has spent the past two summers flaunting the club’s wealth in a manner akin to Floyd Mayweather – the result is a rash of big name players using United as leverage in contract discussions.
And it is this blind pursuit of marquee names that has left United threadbare in defence, forcing Van Gaal to use his most inexperienced players in significant games. United’s sense of faith in youth is positive, but a monumentally important Champions League tie against a top German outfit is not the optimal time to break in new blood.
In this the board and Van Gaal share blame for the squad’s shortages – and for failing to learn from the painful lessons of last season.
United’s recent spate of injuries, coupled with the impending January window, has raised speculation that the club may once again delve into the market. Acquiring top talent is no easy task, as is often made clear by managers nationwide – and Van Gaal has already moved to temper expectations.
“Goals are the most important thing, we have to always look for solutions to make goals”, the manager opined. “We have to look for the solutions in our selection, that’s important. Maybe we have solutions elsewhere but that’s more difficult, because in January clubs shall not let go of players who score”.
Hardly encouraging words for supporters who long for an extra striker to ease United’s goal famine. Indeed, the squad would benefit from at least two additions, in attack and defence. Yet, the chances of luring élite talent to M16 in January are small.
In truth an internal solution will have to be found – and United must also factor in a rest for Anthony Martial, who cannot be relied upon for an entire season. The challenge becomes greater still if Rooney returns from an injury lay-off the same player who has defiled pitches up and down the country this season.
Commendably, Van Gaal has largely arrested his side’s defensive troubles this season, albeit a record that came to a halt against Bournemouth and Norwich with injuries taking hold. Defensive solidity is dependent on retaining key personnel such as Chris Smalling. The Londoner has developed wonderfully in the past year, but his record suggests doubts about his ability to stay fit for extended periods.
Then there is the question of United’s manager who has indisputably suffered a bad month. The Reds’ mundane football is grudgingly tolerated while results remain acceptable. Ignominious exit from the Champions League, coupled with humiliation against Bournemouth and Norwich, has turned opinion against the Dutchman.
Indeed, United’s slump in form could not have come at a worse time for Van Gaal, with a plethora of world-class coaches suddenly in the shop window. United’s board has lavished praise on the manager, but with José Mourinho out of a job and Pep Guardiola planning a change of scenery, Old Trafford’s suits will surely have noticed a persistent itch in their collective trigger finger.
Should Guardiola decant from Bavaria the clamour for his services will be at its most fervent in Manchester’s blue half. Yet, when Guardiola officially announces his future, United’s board will be left in a precarious situation. Aside from the increasingly unlikely chances of capturing a trophy this season, there is little Van Gaal can do to dissuade fans that the club should ditch him for the enigmatic Spaniard should the opportunity arise.
It is, of course, conjecture at the moment, but losing Guardiola to City would be a watershed moment in Manchester football history, remembered fondly only by those of a blue persuasion. In fact, there is growing consensus that United must mount a pursuit of the former Barcelona boss, lest the club miss out on yet another an élite manager since Ferguson’s retirement.
In that there is recognition the club is in a period of worrying uncertainty – one with an end that may shape the club for the foreseeable future. For the moment Van Gaal is under considerable scrutiny. The only thing the Dutchman can do is to start winning matches.
“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.[wptg_comparison_table id=”1″]
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.