It was, at times, thrilling. Manchester United’s 4-0 victory over Club Brugge on Wednesday will raise few eyebrows across the continent, but in scoring four, with three from the erstwhile predator Wayne Rooney, United’s performance recalled more exciting times at the club. There have been too few moments like this in the past two years; almost none under the ultra-pragmatic Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman’s progress will be measured in stiffer tests than the one United passed in Belgium this week. After all, the Bruge’s quality might be found wanting in the Championship, while rivals, domestic and continental, remain a distance ahead of United. For now, however, sterner judgment is passed by some on the Dutchman’s integration into the club than on the binary nature of results alone. Van Gaal may just have a cultural problem on his hands.
Indeed, there is little wonder the beginning of some frustration is brewing among United’s massed support. Results have been erratic, tactics and formations hard to predict, transfer activity scattergun. Above all, the style of United’s football is distinctly unimaginative. It is not, some might say, the ‘United way’.
And as nebulous as that concept might well be, there is a truism in the myth often being more powerful than reality. At Old Trafford the nostalgic expectation of attacking football outweighs the pragmatic search for results.
Last weekend is a case in point. With United enjoying more than 70 per cent possession against a Newcastle United side that owed a draw to luck more than quality, the cries of “attack, attack, attack” echoed round Old Trafford. To little avail.
Old Trafford’s regulars are savvy enough to understand that Van Gaal’s fare remains a strange brand of football in England, let alone Manchester. Where the obsession with possession and structure once bought a feeling of renewal, after David Moyes’ chaotic long-ball drudgery, it has now become a millstone – dogmatic slavery to the suffocation of entertainment.
There is little expectation of a change in approach though, even if Van Gaal’s history suggests that success will certainly come. Where silverware is guaranteed, Van Gaal’s is a history that also provides much evidence that function will be prioritised over form.
“At Manchester United individually they are great but they have to play like a team,” mused Van Gaal’s nemesis, Johan Cruyff, last year. “Van Gaal has a good vision of football but it is not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I want individuals to think for themselves. I’ve always been an individual who likes to create something within a team performance.”
Cruyff’s assessment holds true and Van Gaal’s use of his most creative players says much. Angel di Maria, now excised to Paris Saint-Germain, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera have, to differing degrees, suffered under Van Gaal’s structure.
While Di Maria failed to adapt to the English game, or perhaps never wanted to, Van Gaal’s mistrust of the Argentinian ran deep. Too flighty in possession, too risky in defence, Di Maria’s game bore few of the hallmarks that Van Gaal demands. Januzaj, meanwhile, has spent much of the past 15 months ostracised to the bench before the recent integration into the team as an unlikely shadow support to Rooney. It is a role that smacks of the Dilbert Principle: in the stark absence of attacking pace, the Belgian has been moved to a role where he will cause least defensive damage.
Mata, too, is now permanently sacrificed to the gods of structure – a role on the wing that affords United’s most creative player the freedom to roam only intermittently. There is, perhaps, more frustration still with Herrera’s absence through pre-season and United’s opening four matches. All the more for the Basque midfielder’s goalscoring turn in Brugge. Herrera’s spark did much to liberate United, even if it took the Spaniard some time to get into the rhythm of the game.
Tactically, caution remains Van Gaal’s priority. Last year’s regression to a three-man defence has morphed, in the new campaign, to the deployment of two holding midfielders. Both are systemic responses to a defensive unit that Van Gaal still does not trust, in a system built to stave off defeat.
More worrying still, Van Gaal sees no concern in United’s tally of just two goals in three Premier League games – one an own goal, the other a sharply deflected shot.
“We were three times the better team,” he said after United’s draw with Newcastle. “So my worry is that we have to dominate the opponent and we did it today, we did it against Aston Villa and we did it against Tottenham Hotspur. Against Brugge we dominate the game, and in preparation we dominated against Barcelona, against San Jose Earthquakes, against Club America. I am satisfied.”
It is an assessment that resonates with fewer United supporters today than a year ago despite the Reds’ 7-1 aggregate victory over last season’s Belgian league runners-up. And while Van Gaal can be pleased with a favourable group stage draw that matches United with PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow, and VfL Wolfsburg, the Dutchman needs more results in keeping with the play-off stage than the Premier League.
It is not just for the lack of attacking flair that Van Gaal draws some scepticism. The other significant cultural mismatch comes in the 64-year-old’s recruitment and retention policy, albeit one that has brought a significant upgrade in the quality of players in at Old Trafford. Jonny Evans’ pending departure to West Bromwich Albion will break one more link between United’s first team and the club’s academy, even if the Northern Irishman has long been absent from his manager’s plans. Nor, in truth, of the requisite quality.
Yet, Evans follows fellow academy graduates Darren Fletcher, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley out of Old Trafford over the past year. In the trio’s wake greater quality has been acquired. The cost to United’s heritage is as yet unknown.
Meanwhile, Tyler Blackett’s mooted loan to Celtic removes another connection to a storied past, leaving Patrick McNair, Sam Johnstone and James Wilson the remaining youth to hold a realistic hope of first team action. None has featured for the team since United’s pre-season tour of the USA.
With David de Gea’s future to be resolved, and Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones due to return, none of the trio is likely to spend much time on the pitch over the coming months. It is even possible that Van Gaal will break a club tradition of at least one academy player featuring in every match-day squad for the past 3,749 games – one that stretches back to October 1937.
That moment is unlikely to come at the weekend, where United faces a much more difficult task against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, than in Europe this week. But nor is United likely to score four in south Wales. It will, after all, be a match where Van Gaal emphasises control over craft.
“We played very well against Bruges in ball possession,” he said pointedly on Wednesday. “Much better than matches before, but it was because they had to attack so they gave more space. Swansea have a good team so it be very difficult to beat them”
20 thoughts on “Europe awaits but Van Gaal’s way remains lost in translation”
great read, Ed. I wonder if LVG will start to listen to Ryan a little more about unleashing that flair a little more with Mata
or Herrera at 10 and allowing their keen eye for a pass and not worrying that it may not work every time but once it does it
looks, not only pleasing on the eye, but more importantly forms a potent threat that defences don’t adapt to and we win with
aplomb and disdain for the opponents
the misgivings about Louis are steadily growing. The line up for the Swansea game will be intriguing. Herrera just has to start
Alternatively. Give nothing away early doors. Don’t concede, grow into the season. Clear out the deadwood & build a team
Sometimes a) i just think Van Gaal shouldn’t be United’s manager because a tactically sound one would challenge for the Premiership and would go far in the CL with the present players b) Not buying a striker, right winger and a CD in the closing window is horrendously horrendous c) His handling of the David De Gea’s situation is total madness d) His pursuing impossible players who don’t want to come to United e.g Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Mats Hummels, Gareth Bale and now Neymer without actually buying them is a painful heap of embarrassment on United e) His decision not to buy Pedro is a testament that Van Gaal is not the messiah and its totally unacceptable. I pray he’s pushed out very soon along with his philosophy which no philosophy
A bit harsh.
Case in point:
“Results have been erratic”
— Results have been rather positive since November 2014. I think we did rather well against the Top 6 last year. Are we better this season, you bet.
Also, this season, we have finally started creating chances on a regular basis. In fact, this start reminds me of 2007-08, when we started the season by drawing their opening two games against Reading and Portsmouth… while we lost points, we were creating chances. Goals always come, if we create chances. Over the past 2 years, we have suffered from no chances created….
I see goals in the future…
You talk about an increase in chances created, but apart from one great save by Krul, we hardly tested the Newcastle goal. Shots on-target have been rather low in the initial 3 games, given the nature of the opposition.
Our results against the top 6 have been good, because they don’t just simply defend (except maybe Chelsea), and that makes it easier for us to find gaps. When mid- and low-level teams flood the defence, that’s when we find it extremely hard to create chances, and that’s owing to LvG’s tactics of possession football, and moving the ball at snail’s pace.
Cruyff’s assessment of LvG was an eye-opener. Indeed, LvG limits individual creativity and unpredictability, unlike Cruyff, and that’s to the detriment of the team, resulting in boring football. We may let in more chances against us with Herrera in the team, but we also tend to create more chances with him.
Also, Swansea away will be a better measure of our capabilities than Club Brugge, which was very very poor.
Fergie was capable of building teams greater than the sum of their individual parts.
By suppressing flair and individuality van Gaal is doing the opposite. The talent in his squad is being wasted, sacrificed on the altar of functional, possession-based, risk-free football.
Into the ECL group stages joint second in the Prem table. Lost? I don’t think so. You need a map lesson or three pal.
Lost in translation?
Well I totally agree with the article, in fact, if anything I’d say it lets LvG off lightly.
The football is truly awful. Cautious, timid, unimaginative, turgid, practical, perfunctory. I could have a bit of an adjective-a-thon here but I won’t. What kills is the lack of daring-do. What kills is being bereft of hope. Gone are the days of an onslaught with ten minutes remaining. We don’t load it into the box with the clock ticking down. We thoughtfully pass it back and across.
Jesus wept it is truly awful.
SAF’s last couple of seasons weren’t gold dust but we had some beautiful moments, but this!!! It’s akin the Dave Sexton days. We fucked him off after seven straight wins because the football was shit but now, in the days of noodle sponsors and making the champions league, get to fourth, it’s reight. Instant results and too timid to let the youngsters in, and don’t be fooled by last years McNair being on centre stage. LvG had no choice. This year, stifle development, spunk 20 million on a 29 year old. Gone are the days of home-grown youth.
LvG stifles any creativity and prefers pragmatism. But as a fan from The Doc days, I want Rock & Roll, leather, blow jobs and the shit eating antics of G.G. Allin, I don’t want cardigans, water and Mumford and Sons, because however nice their tunes are, and they are, I can’t cope with ninety minutes of ’em.
As The Kurgan once said, “it’s better to burn out, than fade away…”.
In the days of £300,000 weekly wages and transfers of English players for almost as much as Third World countries debt, football has lost its soul and it’s hard to care about it anymore. It’s now a corporate brouhaha, with boring player interviews, bright lights, shiny things but little substance. And football that’s poo.
I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see it getting much better fast, and that’s a shame.
Thanks Ed and Paul for continued excellence.
Up the Reds.
You nailed it!
I agree with lots of that Ed, but when he’s says he’s “satisfied ” that doesn’t mean he’s over the moon,Just satisfied…..
he wants more exiting football himself & for the fans, he said that. The players have to work that bit out, within the framework
Good post as ever. I actually agree with what Van Gaal is striving to achieve. If we want to win the biggest of prizes, then starving the opposition of possession isn’t a bad way to go about it. The problem is, as you have pointed out, it’s another case of square pegs in round holes and how many times have we been here before with Fergie? If and it’s a very big if – the way it’s currently looking – Louis can add genuine pace and verve to our attack (and bench Rooney who has nothing left in the tank) then we might all yet be converts. The problem is Woodward has failed badly this summer, we needed to sign a commanding centre half and at least one top class striker and maybe another winger (with pace). I’m not at all confident that we will make those deals happen and because of that, I actually see us struggling to finish in the top four, but there is still a glimmer of hope that we might sign at least one player – whether it will be of the required quality remains to be seen. Mark Larwensen recently said that it takes a new manager at least 18 months to get the players he wants in and those he wants out (he was referring to Rodgers) but it’s an interesting take and on that basis, LVG has time on his side to make his mark at United.
Ed limits himself to just the one short dig at Rooney, and delivers a deeply incisive analysis of where United are at. But the amounts of blame being laid at Moyes’s door currently by both Ed and Paul is nothing short of revisionist.
The Everton man should never, ever, have got near our club: but who appointed him, and what did he bequeath him ? About the same as what Frank O’Farrell got.
United’s football during Ferguson’s final years was a far cry from the thrilling play on which a legend was built, and no more so than in 2012-13. Evra, Ferdinand and Vidic peaked and on the precipice of steep, dangerous decline, their standbys callow and always injured; Valencia, Nani and Young in horrendous form on the wings. That, implausibly, United walked that title was down to Carrick; Chelsea and City being at war with Benitez and Mancini respectively; Arsenal being Arsenal; and their sublime finisher having crossed the floor of the house in search of a medal. Yet van Persie’s recruitment epitomised a short-termism that cruelly parodied Ferguson’s previous fearlessness and which was embedding deep problems in our club, with the cryogenics that saw Scholes block Pogba’s path to the starting XI as its apogee.
Moyes’s biggest failings lay not in what he did – “wrecked the joint” according to Paul – but in what he didn’t: start repairing a joint Ferguson had allowed to rot to its foundations. Woodward is key to the story, yet there’s one central player who has somehow escaped all scrutiny: David Gill. No doubt Gill thought he was doing the right thing in stepping away and letting Woodward just get on with it, but he called that 100 per cent wrong. Turns out, securing noodle partners, and securing title-capable footballers under contract at other clubs with ideas of their own, are different skill sets, and with the squad in urgent need of renewal and the management changing for the first time in a quarter of a century, Woodward needed mentoring that window not abandoning.
But seems Gill couldn’t wait to get away and work instead for enemy of football Michel Platini, whose abandonment of any kind of meaningful FFP means no matter how close van Gaal gets to stumbling on a line-up and formation capable of scoring as well as stopping goals, our rivals will be free to simply buy their way to titles their sporting prowess alone would never have procured, until we start targeting the attainable talent that will allow us to do the same.