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