Listen to any one of Louis Van Gaal’s press conferences and you cannot help but be entertained. Predictably unpredictable, he bamboozles journalists with a combination of wit, humour, and brutally honest assessments of his players in a particular variety of the Queen’s English. LVG’s Dutch accent would make even the expert Steve McClaren proud.
Since his arrival in May 2014, Van Gaal has made constant reference to his ”philosophy”, a term that has permeated throughout English football with other managers hopping on the bandwagon. To me, the expression seems to be used as a go-to excuse whenever asked to explain the reasoning behind their decisions. It is hard to ascertain just how regimented Van Gaal is in regards to implementing his philosophy however, judging by how frequently former players of his speak out, it is quite clear that many simply do not buy into his way of thinking.
The question avid supporters of Manchester United should have is – How do Van Gaal’s philosophies clash with the historical values and the brand of football that United have entertained football purists with for decades? Compare a Manchester United performance of the Van Gaal era with the swashbuckling, fluid attacking movement of the Sir Alex and Sir Matt Busby sides of yesteryear.
Read Sir Alex’s Ferguson’s biography and it soon becomes more than apparent that long before the word became part of generic football vocabulary, he had his own ”philosophy”. There are various references to discipline, keeping players in line when needed, and making sure they knew who was in charge. Despite his love of making sure his players were kept on the straight and narrow, Sir Alex knew that attacking players perform best when the shackles are off. He understood that such players thrive when they are given a little bit of creative license, and he was also aware of the necessity for pace going forward. Think back to the genius tactical switches that helped United clutch victory from the jaws of defeat, the exciting wing play dating back to the George Best era, the mercurial talents of the likes of Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo, complimented by defensive and midfield stalwarts like Keane, Vidic, Robson and Stam.
Long gone are the days of The Red Devils being able to choose two between Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskajer. Think back to the imagery of the Bayern Munich rear-guard flat on their backs on the cusp of tears after that famous night in Barcelona that even the most ardent United detractors will admit is unforgettable. As things stand today, United’s number 9 options are so threadbare that Marouane Fellaini; a player initially signed as a box to box midfielder, is now United’s ‘fall-back’ option. To be honest, it is somewhat reminiscent of a ‘get the ball to the big man’ tactic you think would be reserved for a mid table League one side.
Part of Louis van Gaal’s football philosophy is clearly possession based; an ideology based on the notion that if the opposition are without the ball then you cannot concede. Watch a Manchester United game either this or last season, and the fear in the players of making a mistake whilst in control of the football is evident for the world to see. Too much of United’s build up play consists of passing the ball sidewards, or knocked 20 yards backwards whenever there’s any pressure from the opposition. The era of the fluid and forward-thinking football that helped make Manchester United into a truly great side has been replaced by a passive pragmatism, a slow-paced boring brand of football that failed to get the best out of the world class Di Maria, and also serves to inhibit the current side’s attacking talents.
There is an argument that part of United and Van Gaal’s problem is a lack of pace in forward areas. As technically gifted as he is, Juan Mata possessing the attacking midfield role on the right is part of the issue. The Spaniard finds himself shunted out to the wing to compensate for United’s lack of balance in attacking areas. The Old Trafford outfit can boast four candidates for the number 10 role yet only one natural right winger in Antonio Valencia. This means United’s play is often slowed down by Mata being one and one against a left back and cutting back inside, unable to beat his man for pace.
Mata is certainly not alone however. As accomplished as Schneiderlein, Schweinsteiger and Rooney are, bursting through an opposition’s back-line is hardly their forte. Admittedly they are all very technically proficient footballers, however without much movement in front of them, United’s play has not looked penetrative. In my opinion, it is their difficulties in this department which have resulted in The Red Devils having a worse minute per chance frequency in the Premiership than the likes of Watford, Swansea and Norwich.
It is not all doom and gloom however. Anthony Martial; the world’s most expensive teenager, showed enough glimpses in his short cameo against Liverpool that he should help alleviate some of the problems United face in being unable to play through the lines. It remains unseen whether he will live up to his hefty price tag, however in theory he should add a penetrative aspect to Manchester United’s forward line that only the currently ‘hit and miss’ Memphis Depay can offer.
In addition, whilst not necessarily having the best defenders individually, the system and style of play that Van Gaal has implemented makes it hard to break through their defensive structure. An axis made up of two from Schneiderlein, Carrick and Schweingster marshal well in front of the back four. The summer saga that saw David De Gea nailed on for Los Merengues also seems to be over for the time being at least, which will only serve to reinforce the strength of the United defence.
Prior to his horrific leg injury in his maiden Champions League appearance, Luke Shaw was beginning to show some of the form that made him such a sought-after player from Southampton. Whilst it is a clear blow to lose him for what is sure to be a long period of time, the form of Shaw and his international team-mate Chris Smalling does bode well for the long term future of United.
There is also no doubting that the acquisitions of Matteo Darmian, Sebastian Schweigenster et al have improved the team. Darmian; in my view a clear upgrade on Rafael and Valencia, has thrilled the United faithful with his rampaging runs up and down the right flank. Schweigenster has been deployed as one half of the double pivot role in front of the United defence, making sure that the ball is kept ticking over. Manchester United’s statistics in possession act as artillery for fans of the club who are able to wield them as supposed evidence of superiority in discussions with rival clubs’ fans.
Manchester United will still win plenty of football matches this season and due to the even bigger incompetencies at Anfield and White Hart Lane, should still easily qualify for the Champions League this season. Nevertheless a resurgent Manchester City look almost equally as likely to win the title despite us only being halfway through September.
There is too much quality throughout the side for there to not be moments of brilliance that act as flash-backs to finer points in the history of the club, however unless Louis Van Gaal releases the vice-like grip he likes to maintain on his side’s playing style. It seems that if there is still such a thing as the ”United Way”, the current manager and his squad are still yet to find it.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Alex Hannam
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