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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.