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.
After a hard fought, if uninspiring draw against Leicester City, Louis van Gaal’s team – make no mistake this is a side in his own image – sits close to the summit of the Premier League, with a relatively kind fixture list ahead. It is not inconceivable that United could be top of the pile by the time Chelsea visit Old Trafford at the end of December. Yet, there’s a growing unease. Under Van Gaal’s leadership United has become the footballing equivalent of Dorian Gray, albeit a sadistic, rather than hedonistic version.
The outlook appeared fine, if fleetingly, with the team setting up for a title bid that is built on a solid defence, with qualification into the last 16 of the Champions League still in the team’s hands. Dig a little deeper and a more forensic examination points to evidence of a side compromising its attacking traditions for the sake of pragmatism. If there is a portrait of United’s soul locked in the vaults of Old Trafford it might not be pretty.
The irony of Jamie Vardy’s Premier League record-breaking goal at the weekend wasn’t lost on the United faithful. “Manchester United used to counter-attack like that,” Gary Neville ruefully observed. For all Van Gaal’s determination to preach a patient, possession-based style, his team was undone by a counter that consisted of just two passes.
Since the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, United has managed just four wins in 10 outings across all competitions. There have been six clean sheets in that run, but only 10 goals scored, with three of those coming against a below-par Everton. It leaves the question of quite why Van Gaal’s team is so blunt up front?
Possession is nine tenths of what?
It’s no secret that Van Gaal treasures possession. The smile he flashed, in a post match interview, describing the 45-pass move that led to Juan Mata’s goal against Southampton said it all. A philosophy vindicated.
On a very basic level the theory is sound. Keep possession, wear down the opposition and look to exploit gaps as a result of constantly circulating the ball. “Dominance” as Van Gaal likes to call it. At its finest the philosophy manifests itself into performances such as that during the first half of United’s fixture against Liverpool at Anfield.
Henny Komerlink and Tjeu Seeverens, authors of The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches, offer more detail into how the Dutchman sets-up the attacking side of the game.
The authors note that numbers 7 and 11 – in the Ajax system at any rate – are wingers, with the number 9 a centre forward. If a ‘long ball’ from the back into the number 9 is not available then the next option is to deliver it to the wings. Midfielders must make forward runs, holding a position in order to play a potential one-two with his winger. The wide man has a choice of whether to pass the ball off, cut in towards goal, or get in a cross.
The defensive scope of the role expanded, with wingers required know when to press, when to get back into position, and when to cover. The wide players must also be ready to transition into wide areas when possession is won.
In this system full-backs are expected to play a low-risk game, which explains the Dutchman’s faith in Antonio Valencia. Luke Shaw is an exception, so it remains to be seen whether the Englishman’s attacking instincts will be encouraged or coached out.
Even more interesting is how the number 9 functions in Van Gaal’s system. When he took over at Ajax strikers Stefan Pettersson and Ronald de Boer saw their goal return drop. The pair was required to offer themselves for a pass and were tasked with creating space for others. Later, Ajax integrated Patrick Kluivert into the team, as he was able to fulfill the functions demanded by Van Gaal, while also scoring regularly.
The number 10 position is categorised as a midfield role, but nonetheless it is key in any Van Gaal system. The goal-scoring burden rests on the number 10, and he must put in a defensive shift too. Jari Litmanen is Van Gaal’s archetypal number 10, due to the Finn’s selfless defensive workrate, coupled with his attacking prowess.
The explanation offered by Komerlink and Seeverens is a brief summary as to what Van Gaal expects. Yet, even in it’s condensed form, the Dutchman’s methods are a lot to take it – it points to just how much information his players must process.
Theory into practice
Without the genius of Rivaldo, or the equivalent of Arjen Robben at his pomp, nor the outstanding talent at his disposal at Ajax, Van Gaal’s ambition may be tempered. But there have been examples of his theory put into practice. In wide areas Martial, and to a lesser degree Memphis, have worked to create one-two opportunities. The teenage striker, in particular, has adapted to his coach’s requirements well, creating chances as well as scoring important goals.
At 10 the story is different. At the peak of his powers Wayne Rooney might have been well suited to Van Gaal’s requirements. The contemporary model falls well short of the standard. Perhaps the closest that United can boast to a Jari Litmanen-type player is Ander Herrera. The Spaniard, who has been used on occasion at 10, offers the balance of defensive work rate and attacking dynamism that United craves so much.
Meanwhile, on the wing Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are currently in possession of the nominal number 7 and 11 births. Mata does not fit the textbook definition of a Van Gaal winger, though there is recognition that without the Spaniard United lacks a real creative presence in attack. Lingard, on the other hand, is far more in sync with Van Gaal’s orthodoxy.
The book highlights the importance of shape, roles, responsibilities and moving the ball at speed. That latter facet is glaringly absent from United’s play. Van Gaal is still seeking more pace in wide areas, with paper-talk of a bid for Sadio Mané or others consistent with the Dutchman’s philosophy. Yet, to date, his side has remained one-paced – a team that is unable to smoothly transition from defence to attack.
In this United’s most adept player at turning defence into attack is also Herrera. It was the Spaniard’s ball that released Rooney to score against Everton and Herrera also delivered the killer pass that led to Martial winning a penalty against West Bromwich Albion.
Transitions are important because every time there is a turnover in possession there needs to be a willingness to take advantage of the opponent’s confusion. United’s fixture against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season was a perfect demonstration. United ‘dominated’ the game in Van Gaal’s theorem, but it was a quick turnover, and a series of rapid decisions that allowed Eden Hazard to score the winner.
If the roles were reversed Van Gaal’s team would have more than likely have played the ball back, to rebuild the attack rather than take advantage of any momentary chaos.
The pressing issue
Pep Guardiola’s name has been linked with the Old Trafford hot seat in recent days. Such is the concern with United’s turgid performances under Van Gaal that speculation is mounting that the Spaniard could come in in the summer, cutting short the Dutchman’s stay.
It’s conjecture at this stage, of course, but while Guardiola is also a disciple of the possession game he does hold additional demands. Guardiola’s teams press high to win the ball back and there is a requirement for pace in the way his teams play. Guardiola teams focus on creating overloads and then exploiting them.
Pressing or counter pressing is not high on Van Gaal’s list of priorities though, with shape and structure taking priority. In fact, the last time he asked his team to press high up the pitch was against Arsenal and the result was a disaster.
Death by football
United leads the way in terms of number of passes attempted, with 7,728 attempted and 6,520 completed. The nearest challenger to that prize is Arsenal, with Manchester City in third. While on it’s own there’s nothing inherently wrong with a focus on possession and waiting for an opportunity to strike, United needs more speed, execution and a clinical edge for it to work. United’s conversion rate ranks highly in the Premier League at 18.2 per cent, but given the scarcity of chances created the pressure is on to be even more clinical.
The real frustration lies in the fact that United’s patient play falls flat when a pass is misplaced in the final third or a safety first approach is adopted. It’s one thing for a quick move to break down; quite another when a 20-pass extravaganza fails due to one loose ball. Patience needs to be rewarded and United isn’t delivering on that promise.
“Give them something they will enjoy”
Of course, for all the criticism aimed Van Gaal’s way, it is to the Dutchman’s credit that he has rebuilt the team, albeit at a cost, after the David Moyes debacle. And while United isn’t the easiest on the eye, Van Gaal’s team is hard to break down and possesses a resilient streak. The Dutchman is laying foundations for his successor despite the terrace complaints.
The club is in a strong league position, and if Van Gaal can navigate United to near top by New Year, the team might just launch a bid for the title in 2016.
Yet, the question lingers, whether Van Gaal will stick to a more pragmatic approach, or finally trust his players with more freedom. Fans remains concerned that the fare on offer is already the culmination of his philosophy; a robotic style that will leave little by the way of legacy.
In theory Van Gaal’s attacking ideals sound exciting. If United’s frontline functions smoothly, breaking down opponents through one-twos, scoring goals and truly dominating games, we might just find the zenith of Van Gaal’s vision. And yet United fans have become accustomed to Van Gaal’s more pragmatic instincts. He is yet to demonstrate the genius for which he’s was once reputed.
Or, as Sir Matt Busby once told a teenage Bobby Charlton, “all those lads you see going into Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday. You have to give them something they will enjoy”.
It’s a sentiment Sir Bobby might do well to whisper into Van Gaal’s ear.
Data: Squawka, Transfermarkt, BBC
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.
“Such a strange style to bring to England,” noted one observer at Old Trafford recently. Even stranger to bring it to Manchester United, he should have added. On Saturday, with United racking up a third successive scoreless draw, the Reds’ raucous away support spontaneously chanted Paul Scholes’ name. It was a none-too-subtle rebellion by 3,500 travelling United supporters, many of whom are now deeply frustrated at the side’s lack of expression – let alone the inconsistent results.
The triumvir of bore draws over the past week was the first time that United has achieved that particular feat in more than 10 years. Nothing to be proud of there. And while inconsistent performances are, perhaps, to be expected from Louis van Gaal’s post-Ferguson transformation, results over the past week are very much symptomatic of a greater ailment. The Dutchman’s tactical caution has eased little since his appointment in July 2014.
It is, says Van Gaal, “a process that takes three years,” although supporters are cognisant of the difference between winning trophies and playing with flair. The latter certainly doesn’t take three years to establish – and Van Gaal is seemingly blind to accumulation of terrace disgruntlement.
Van Gaal reacted aggressively to Scholes’ comments in the past week, with the former United player frank about the Reds’ creative deficit under Van Gaal. In the wake of yet another moribund performance this weekend, Scholes is entitled to feel a sense of vindication.
“There’s a lack of creativity and risk,” said Scholes last Wednesday. “It’s a team now you wouldn’t want to play against because they’re tightly organised, but it seems he doesn’t want players to beat men and it’s probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in. The hardest thing to coach is scoring goals and creativity. I played with some brilliant centre forwards and I don’t think they could play in this team.”
In turn, the Dutchman accused Scholes, who made 718 appearances for the club, of not being “responsible” and speaking out because he is “paid by the BBC or Sky.” It amounted to a low blow against a player who has earned the right to voice the opinion held by many supporters.
Notwithstanding this week’s spat, it says much that supporters camped in Selhurt Park’s Arthur Wait Stand should spend time in the second half urging the team to “attack, attack, attack.” Fans waiting to be released after the game declared that “we’re Man United, we want to attack.” It is a message falling on deaf ears.
Post-match, Van Gaal remained on the defensive, suggesting that fans have “the right” to protest, but that “maybe they shall sing at the next match another way.” Perhaps so, with the club facing a series of winnable games over the next month. Van Gaal’s side faces CSKA Moscow and West Bromwich Albion at home next week, followed by a trip to Watford. Games against Leicester City, West Ham United and PSV Eindhoven follow.
United should pick up points from many of those fixtures, although it is rare indeed that Van Gaal’s side wins with style. Indeed, there are perhaps less than half-a-dozen games in which the Dutchman’s side has achieved that goal: versus Liverpool and, perhaps, Everton this season, together with games against Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool last year.
The lack of attacking ambition is born out in some data. This season United ranks first for possession, but 16th for total number of shots taken. To put that in context, when it comes to shots taken, United’s total of 110 is more than 100 fewer than Arsenal’s. Inside the penalty area only West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland have taken fewer shots than United.
More damming still is the side’s inability to create chances, hampered it seems by the manager’s tactical straight-jacket. This season United ranks 11th for assists, last for key passes, and 15th in terms of dribbles. Van Gaal’s requirement for ball retention also means that his side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the Premier League, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chances created than United.
Perhaps, for all the Reds’ careful possession, the team’s ability to ‘walk the ball into the net’ is not aided by the manager’s insistence on deploying a largely ineffective and tactically ill-disciplined striker. Wayne Rooney, who has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, ranks 29th for shots taken. At Selhurst Park, Rooney’s penchant for wandering out of position, meant that the 30-year-old failed to touch the ball in Palace’s box even once.
Style is, of course, more than the numbers alone – although a team replete with players able to take on an opponent, or chance an arm at shooting once in a while, obviously quickens the pulse. Van Gaal’s terrace accusers can point to a lack of ambition that, at times, is far from ‘the United way’. On Saturday, with Crystal Palace pressing for the win, the home side was far the more ambitious of the two.
Here Rooney has become a significant inhibitor to United’s attacking evolution. The former Evertonian is by no means the only player to stand accused of poor-form this season, but is unable to provide the kind of pacey fulcrum required of a modern number nine. Nor does the Scouser hold up the ball with any quality. Worse still, Rooney’s seemingly sub-par conditioning means that he is no longer sharp over 10 yards – evidenced by the way the Scouser was unable to latch on to Anthony Martial’s fine first-half through ball against Palace.
In deeper roles Rooney is unable to affect the tempo of United’s attacking play at all, let alone put up the numbers that justify his selection. The Englishman has proffered no assists in 12 Champions and Premier League games this season, and made just 12 key passes. Deployed at 10, Rooney has scored once, taken just four shots, and made just three chances for his team-mates. Rooney’s first touch, long a barometer of the player’s form, continues to ensure his second is the proverbial tackle. He has become a significant barrier to United’s attacking ambitions.
The required change is seemingly obvious to all but Van Gaal, with Martial offering a range of skills and pace at number nine that completely changed United’s attacking outlook through September. With Memphis Depay having benefited from a spell out of the limelight, Ashley Young fit, and Ander Herrera a positive contributor at 10, there are fewer reasons than at any point to retain Rooney. Once unthinkable, few now doubt that dropping the captain will aid United’s attacking verve.
But if Van Gaal has fully retrenched into a conservative outlook, then neither is United’s manager able to affect a game from the dugout. When change comes, Van Gaal falls back to like-for-like substitutions, or those pre-determined through sports science. On Saturday, while Rooney struggled on for the full 90, Van Gaal once again withdrew United’s most creative midfielder – Juan Mata. It was followed by the now inevitable Marouane Fellaini-Bastian Schweinsteiger job share substitution. All too predictable; all too lacking in ambition.
It leaves Van Gaal under increasing pressure: to deliver not only the results that keeps his employers happy, but at least a modicum of entertainment for supporters expecting more.
“I know that if I lose and lose then I will be finished, I know that,” admitted Van Gaal. “But I shall do everything for this club and these fans, who are unbelievable.”
Starting, it must be said, with just a touch more attacking ambition. The fans demand it.
Every now and then we all make a huge mess of our jobs. Something that is second nature falls into a vacuum of complacency. Ultimately you get bitten on the backside. Manchester United did this on Sunday against Arsenal, turning up to the office in dress-down clothes, while everyone else came suited-and-booted.
Sunday bore witness to how a philosophy can get in the way of actually playing football, and how tactics can make a World Cup winner look lost and misplaced. Louis van Gaal’s decisions didn’t just lose United the game against Arsenal, but highlighted his natural limitations—despite being a world-class coach.
Van Gaal decided the way to snuff out the Arsenal threat was to play high up the pitch. The Dutchman appears to have noted Arsenal’s predilection for not ‘getting in behind’ very often, opting instead to play the ball to feet. In response Van Gaal offered up huge areas of space to Arsenal to make his plan work.
His strategy spectacularly backfired.
Bastian Schweinseiger has been asked to bomb up the field and close down the opposition’s defensive midfield and centre-backs in each game he has started. Michael Carrick played the role earlier in the season as well. It’s a strategy that works against Liverpool: a team who want to play the ball out of the back, but are so bad at it that the manager gets sacked.
This high press is also typical on the continental; Barcelona has used it for years. Pep Guardiola’s best teams pushed high up the pitch, wining the ball in midfield, and then killed the opposition. But there is also a reason why teams do not use the high press on Barça in reaction – because vacating space enabled the Catalans to thread the ball through an eye of a needle and create chances.
Sir Alex Ferguson noted this in his many European battles, and forced his teams to be more conservative against such opponents. This is also why he had great success when facing Arsenal.
Van Gaal gave Wenger everything he needed to win the game in a small window of play, and as expected, United then made Arsenal look like Barcelona.
In fact, the Gunners didn’t do anything extraordinary on Sunday—they simply went through the motions and played the natural Arsenal game. But there is a reason why they have failed to win the title in a decade. Teams have learned that if you sit deep, and pack the midfield with hardworking players, and use the counter attack, you will have success against them.
It seems that Van Gaal didn’t do his homework or believed he could deconstruct Wenger in a less industrial manner.
United set up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, but within this two players were playing “false” positions: Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney, who consistently swapped territory in the first half. It prompts the question: why?
With the Germany captain pushing up and vacating midfield, the England captain should have dropped back to the halfway line, filling the space between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. That didn’t happened. It is incredulous to believe Van Gaal asked his side to vacate the midfield completely against a team who are one big midfield with no strikers!
Schweinsteiger was clearly following orders, but it seemed the flaw in the system was Rooney and Memphis Depay’s positions.
For whatever reason in those first 45 minutes United’s attack and midfield simply didn’t do its job correctly. To stretch the analogy: they turned up at the office in flip-flops and a bermuda shirt.
It was clearly evident on the manager’s face as the half progressed he was shell-shocked. This led him to profess after the game it was the worst he had seen them play under his tutelage, but he should have reacted quicker than he did.
“When you start like that you can never win a game, we lost every duel, every second ball, not tight on their midfielder, and they can play they are a fantastic team when you let them give them that space it is difficult,” Van Gaal claimed. “That was the worse United have been under me, we were not able to give a normal performance. I have never seen that of my team, that is the question I put to my players.”
The second half was much better from United, retaining 72 per cent possession after bringing on two ‘less technical’ players in Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia. Rooney and Schweinsteiger were pushed into wider areas, choking the Arsenal supply line, leaving the home team with only a much more direct ball to Theo Walcott. If you are Daley Blind it is so much easier to defend when you are facing the traffic.
Memphis made way after 45 minutes because he simply isn’t showing the mental application to be a United player at present. He is undoubtedly talented, but he looks like Raheem Sterling did for Liverpool last year—fully aware of the expectation, but not quite happy to do the defensive part of his job.
Memphis is built like an ox and shouldn’t have issues with the physical nature of the Premier League, so it can only be presumed that the problem is in his head, with a skewed idea of what it takes to be a top professional. This isn’t the Eredivisie.
Luke Shaw’s injury has forced the manager to play Ashley Young at left-back – and while Blind and Chris Smalling look solid together there is no case to move the Dutch player to full-back. But if Young is to be a success in a defensive role, Memphis needs to adjust his game fast, or Van Gaal has to drop him. The alternative is to move Matteo Darmian—who is suffering a bad spell after a fine start—to left-back, and allow Antonio Valencia—who was poor against Wolfsburg—to play at right-back.
Neither of these are ideal scenarios, but the issue lies further up the pitch, and not in a defence that has – up until Sunday – conceded few goals this season. Smalling continues to look like Rio Ferdinand’s heir apparent, but it was United’s defending as a team was the issue at the Emirates.
The most peculiar fact of Sunday’s defeat was the omission of Morgan Schneiderlin, who would have pressed and tackled Cazorla better than anyone else at the club. The Frenchman was bought to break up play and dominate central midfield – it is odd that Van Gaal decided to leave him on the bench and trust a core of 30-somethings instead.
Van Gaal is not far away from having a very good team, but the manager has to find a plan B and C to back up his A game. The Dutchman can mix it up, as he did in the second half, but it is his failing that he didn’t start the game in this manner.
Anthony Martial continues to look like a hero-in-waiting in a United shirt, but if Rooney and Memphis do not fulfil their function, Van Gaal’s team will drop more points.
All is not lost and the club is not in a panic just yet; Van Gaal’s side just needs to wear a suit and tie to that next meeting.
Amid the transfer market noise it is almost easy to forget that Manchester United was consigned to the club’s first defeat of 2015/16 Premier League on Sunday. Louis Van Gaal’s side twice lost to Swansea City last season and slipped to another defeat in Wales at the weekend prompting thoughts that the Welsh side is the United’s ‘bogey team’, just as Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides of the late noughties struggled to beat Middlesbrough.
Still, the match at Liberty stadium once again demonstrated the Reds’ propensity to turn heavy possession into few goals, with Louis van Gaal resorting to sending Maroune Fellaini on late in the game as a desperate last resort.
United started brightly though, with Ander Herrera deployed in place of injured Adnan Januzaj at number 10 in an otherwise familiar shape:
The difference between in the Spaniard and the Belgian’s movement, below, was one of major factors in, if not the cause of, why United struggled to break down a stubborn Swansea defence though.
One factor is how often Januzaj hits the flanks – far more regularly than Herrera. Herrera may create more chances – he created four at Swansea while Januzaj failed to create any against Newcastle United – but the Belgian’s movement compensates for Juan Mata’s lack of presence on the right flank. Januzaj vacates central space for Memphis Depay to cut in and shoot. Herrera’s more classic interpretation of the number 10 role prevented this at Liberty stadium:
Where United failed, credit goes to Swansea manager Gary Monk, whose switch to a 4-4-2 diamond following Mata’s goal won the home side the game. United’s shape, with essentially no right-wing, has allowed the Reds to dominate the centre of the park in pervious matches, but the Swansea manager negated that advantage by opting for a narrow formation.
In fact, using two strikers as well as an attacking midfielder, was a particularly effective way of testing United’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling. It was a shrewd tactical move on Monk’s part.
Van Gaal’s response – bringing Ashley Young on in place of the goalscoring Mata – made perfect sense too. The 4-4-2 diamond is highly vulnerable to being stretched across the field, and introducing a hardworking traditional right-winger is a textbook move to combat the formation, as illustrated below.
Michael Carrick’s concurrent introduction in place of Morgan Schneiderlin was also a wise move on Van Gaal’s part in the context of United’s shift to a 4-3-3 formation. Recall that United’s best football last season was in this system with Carrick holding. Carrick’s superior range of passing means that he engages the flanks much more effectively than Schneiderlin and is therefore well suited to work the inherent weakness of 4-4-2 diamond.
More controversial was Van Gaal’s decision to swap Herrera for Fellaini – and then using the giant midfielder at number nine. With United a goal down the decision to push Fellaini into the Swansea box could have been useful. Indeed, Swansea brought on a third centre-back just to follow the Belgian around the pitch.
Perhaps the braver move still would have been to introduce Fellaini in place of Wayne Rooney, who again struggled to get into the game as he has in each Premier League match this season.
Still, the Herrera-Fellaini substitution was the right call. Again, Rooney works the flanks better than the Spanish midfielder. ‘Lumping it to the big man’ was an option, but another – perhaps primary plan – was to allow Memphis, who had been quiet, to come into the game more. Rooney sat to the left of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Scouser, who has always displayed a tendency to drift towards the left, makes for an ideal central midfield partner to Memphis.
Tactics aside, the game highlighted some clear problems with some personnel. Sergio Romero reinforced the opinion of some that the Argentinian is not a reliable goalkeeper for a side aspiring to compete on all fronts. David De Gea would have made a better fist of saving Swansea’s first goal, while most Premier League ‘keepers would have stopped the second.
Meanwhile, the major problem caused by Rooney is that he does not ‘lead the line’, nor can he hold up the ball effectively. This allows the opposition defence to creep up the pitch and squeeze Memphis and Mata out of the game.
In theory, Fellaini might perform effectively at number nine. The Belgian could force the opposition into a catch 22 situation where they cannot push up – the traditional defence against a target man – lest Fellaini act as a focal-point for midfielder runners such as Memphis, the now departed Januzaj, and Mata. Nor can they defend deep given Fellaini’s aerial presence.
Still, Memphis, Januzaj and Mata had started to build an understanding with one another before the Belgian’s departure on Monday. Januzaj’s roaming to the flanks allowed Memphis and Mata to cut in – and the three have shown flashes of just how devastating this combination could be. This observation, and Rooney’s tactical indiscipline, could be incorporated into a strikerless formation.
Rooney’s movements to the right could be interpreted as the England captain covering for Mata, but acquiring a strong right-winger could also solve a number of United’s problems. Indeed, this column previously failed to identify a striker that would improve United significantly, while a right-sided forward – such as Gareth Bale or Kevin Volland – would make up the goalscoring numbers and, theoretically, have the same impact as acquiring a new striker.
Using Young or Januzaj on the right does not really solve this issue. Memphis has quickly established himself as an important weapon in United’s arsenal and the Swansea game has demonstrated that a ‘traditional’ number 10 significantly hampers the former PSV player’s game. Mata, Rooney, Fellaini and Herrera simply are not as comfortable as Januzaj on the flanks and Januzaj had to play at 10 in a 4-2-3-1 if Memphis was to shine.
In this analysis the ideal scenario is that a classy right-winger replaces Mata on the right. Still, with Pedro not deemed good enough, it appears unlikely that a classy right-winger will join United before the transfer window closes. Januzaj’s departure also suggests a more permanent move to a 4-3-3 system, below.
This formation will leave room for Memphis to cut in. If Mata is chosen ahead of Young on the right, with Januzaj now at Borussia Dortmund, the Spaniard at least formed a fruitful relationship with Herrera last season. This shape is aided by Matteo Darmian, who has started the season strongly.
The shape is narrow, but this is not a major problem with three players in central midfield allowing Luke Shaw and Darmian to bomb forward. This is not unlike the system Van Gaal used in United’s convincing victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City last season. United, of course, now has better players.
United’s defeat at Swansea demonstrated just how vital Januzaj is to making a 4-2-3-1 system work. With Januzaj now departed, the need for a ‘proper’ right winger lingers. It appears that a 4-3-3 formation is now the only feasible option going forward. Indeed, Van Gaal said he will use “more or less 4-3-3” this season. It is now time to live up to those words.
Diagrams from sharemytactics.com
Statistics and illustrations from squawka.com
Two months into the summer 2015 transfer window and Louis Van Gaal has certainly strengthened Manchester United’s squad with a quintet of acquisitions. Matteo Darmian is a huge upgrade over Antonio Valencia at right-back and Memphis Depay adds flair and a sense of unpredictability to United’s forward line. Morgan Schneiderlin and the star of United’s transfer window, Bastian Schweinsteiger, provide the Reds with a midfield duo capable of holding its own against high-class opponents.
In defence there is reason to think Van Gaal might just stick with what he now has. Van Gaal’s philosophy revolves around balance being omnipresent in the starting eleven. There is a strong argument that the purchase of a central defender is essential if the Dutchman is to achieve that goal. After all, since the departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United has often lacked a commanding defender to bring calm to the apparent chaos. Yet, Van Gaal showed faith with the options he had last season, providing each defender with a chance to stake his claim. It has paid some dividend.
After being sent off against Manchester City in November Chris Smalling was United’s most impressive centre-back. Smalling’s determined performances were augmented by some crucial goals, including a thunderous header against City to complete his redemption. Especially towards the latter end of the season, Smalling was transformed into a defensive leader, and has carried on this impressive form into the new season.
The former Fulham man was central to victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Smalling’s positioning has been exceptional, allowing him to neutralize Harry Kane on the opening day and Villa’s Rudy Gested. The England international’s passing is also more assured than a year ago, although it remains a cause for concern against an opposition that presses. If Smalling continues this rate of development he could fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson predicted five years ago.
Meanwhile, Van Gaal has transformed Daley Blind into a central defender this season, with the Dutch international providing balance on the left. Blind doesn’t boast pace, power or height, but has looked assured in the new role. Blind adds intelligence to the backline and his ability to bring the ball out from the back has instigated several United attacks. The former Ajax player has also formed a good understanding with Smalling.
Still, Blind has been caught out a few times in dangerous areas – alarming considering the Dutchman doesn’t have the recovery pace to make up for shortcomings. It is an observation that means Marcos Rojo could well replace Blind in the starting eleven when fit.
Rojo showed flashes of quality last season and his aggression reminds supporters of the Serbian rock, Vidic. The Argentine’s reading of the game and his passing range must improve if he is to succeed at United though, while Rojo ‘s positional ill-discipline left more than one gap at the back last season. Nevertheless, the former Sporting man has real character and his robust tackling was a strong feature.
Rojo is perhaps the most suitable partner for Smalling and averages a similar number of tackles and interceptions per game. Rojo also boasts an impressive number of clearances.
Phil Jones has always held the potential to be a force for the Reds, but injury problems consistently ruin any momentum. Jones’ injuries persisted last season, with the former Blackburn Rovers man taking part in just 22 games. In keeping with the pattern Jones’ has missed the opening three weeks of this season. He was a member of the starting eleven during United’s best period of football from March to April, where the Reds’ defence conceded just four goals, forming a resolute partnership with Smalling.
Jones started pre-season brightly, although disappointed against PSG in the final tour game. His positional awareness remains a real weakness at times, most notably allowing a Zlatan Ibrahamovic space to slot a home for PSG. It points to a pivotal season, with a high probability of it being his last chance in Manchester.
Jonny Evans, by contrast, is near an Old Trafford exit. Evans’ alarming regression since Ferguson’s retirement continued in 2014/15. The Irishman is an excellent reader of the game, but is bereft of confidence and looks frightened of the ball. It seems unlikely that he will ever recapture his place at United and a move away from the Old Trafford spotlight seems highly likely for the former academy player.
Meanwhile, youth players Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett were thrown into the team last season as injuries took hold. McNair was a surprise starter against Everton in November and barely put a foot wrong in the months to come. He handled the physical presence of Romelu Lukaku, efficiently nullifying the Belgian’s impact. McNair’s reading is impressive, although lapses in concentration caused mistimed tackles and unnecessary fouls at times. McNair has some work to do if he is to become a fixture in the United first team, but the Irishman isn’t fazed by the standard in the Premier League.
Blackett, meanwhile, showed promise on the left side of defence, although all momentum was lost after being part of the United horror show at Leicester City. Despite being frozen out of the first team as the season wore on, the Manchester native looked calm and assured when given the opportunity. Blackett is the type of ball playing defender that Van Gaal typically adores. After signing new contracts at the club, big things are expected of both the youngsters in the coming years.
Improvement to individuals suggests that, unless a truly world-class defender becomes available, Van Gaal will stick with what he has. After all, there has been a stark improvement United’s defending this season. The individuals have progressed and the understanding between them has created a strong unit after a full pre-season under the Dutchman.
How close is Louis Van Gaal to achieving his philosophy? The Dutchman’s side dropped its first points of the campaign against Newcastle United on Saturday — and the Manchester United family wept at the heinous crime that is a goalless draw. United struggled in the final third of the pitch against a resolute Geordie defence, which was happy to park the bus and take a solitary point. The visitors almost stole the match at the death with a rare counter-attack.