Strange times these. Not only is Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side every bit as insipid as that presided over by David Moyes last season, but the Dutchman has seemingly taken on board his predecessor’s predilection for long-ball tactics. It’s in the data you know. And while statistics can tell many stories, for the moment it is enough to draw observation from United’s game at West Ham United on Sunday. One in which the Reds’ agricultural tactics secured a late point.
For much of the fixture United toiled in east London, second best to West Ham at every turn, and seemingly willing to cede the impetus to Sam Allardyce’s side despite the vast difference in quality available. In the end Daley Blind’s low drive in the 93rd minute secured a point for Van Gaal’s men that they barely deserved.
Not for the first time this season, too often in truth, it was a performance of scant ambition and even less cohesion from Van Gaal’s team. Indeed, much in common with many games since November, it was the Dutchman’s expensive attacking line-up that failed to click at Upton Park. In Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, and Robin van Persie, United employed more than £150 million worth of attacking talent. Not that it showed.
Yet, in adversity Van Gaal has reverted to a back-to-basics approach, with United employing a direct game in the final 20 minutes at Upton Park that bordered on total desperation. It is an odd reaction from a manager schooled in Total Voetbal.
Whereas Sir Alex Ferguson might have used an ever riskier attacking approach as the clock ticked down, the Dutchman has taken to deploying Marouane Fellaini within a very specific game-plan. Against Cambridge United in the FA Cup Fellaini started from the left, with United launching long diagonal passes at the Belgian. And again at West Ham a similar approach, although to the manager’s credit was pivotally involved in United’s equaliser on Sunday.
The contrast with Ferguson is relevant though. The Scot remained a gambler to the end, even as his tactics regressed into greater pragmatism during the sunset of his United tenure. Van Gaal, by contrast, has quickly retrenched into a rudimentary percentage game this season. More than the lack of attacking accord between talented forwards, it is the Dutchman’s Plan B that ought to shock. After all, in 20 years at the sharp end of European football, it is hard to recall many times that Van Gaal has so readily been reduced to, essentially, hoofing it. His Netherlands side at last summer’s World Cup, where the Oranje played over 100 more long balls than any other team, being one notable exception.
There is, of course, a temptation to dismiss one game, albeit where United launched 89 long balls from 452 passes at near enough 20 per cent of the total. But the truth comes into sharp relief when Allardyce delights in pulling up his opposite number for resorting to agricultural tactics. Sam Allardyce! Strange times indeed.
“In the end we couldn’t cope with Long-ball United. It’s not how you normally see United play, but it got them a goal in the end,” said Allardyce in the aftermath of United’s late equaliser.
“You might just criticise Louis Van Gaal for playing long balls as much as I’m sometimes criticised for being direct. In the end it’s paid off for them so you can’t knock it.”
Fair enough, perhaps, although the Midlander’s observation comes without the full context – that after Van Gaal spent around £150 million last summer, some of it on United’s wealth of attacking talent, supporters might be entitled to enjoy just a little more flair. And a lot more ambition.
Indeed, there is one sense in which Van Gaal’s Plan B is bleeding into his principal strategy: the Dutchman’s side has played more long balls than any other team in the Premier League this season aside from Burnley. 1,862 to be precise. While, in percentage terms that number places United near the foot of the long-ball league table, it comes as no surprise that most of United’s rivals for European football next season play more of their football on the ground. It is food for thought next time Fellaini’s number comes up as a late substitute.
The counter-point to this observation is that United has played more passes in the Premier League than any other side bar Manchester City. In fact, United’s average possession this season of 59.3 per cent is also second only to City, while the team’s pass success ratio is 84.8 per cent. Second, again, to the Blues. United may play the long ball game, but Van Gaal’s side is pretty accurate with it.
Yet, it is the efficacy of that passing that concerns most, aside from the questionable aesthetics. Van Gaal’s side generates fewer key passes per game that almost half the Premier League, leading to just 12.7 shots per match on average, with 4.6 hitting the target. Here the comparison with Moyes is again relevant – the Scot’s side created more chances from less possession last year.
Drill down into the data further and the performance of key individuals is also questionable. Juan Mata remains United’s most careful passer, completing more than 89 per cent of the time, although it is tempting to conclude that Van Gaal does not fully trust the Spaniard. Nor has he been United’s creative saviour – providing just four assists this season at an average of 1.4 key passes per game. As ever Michael Carrick and Daley Blind also retain possession nine times in every 10, but with little end-product.
By contrast Rooney squandered more than 20 per cent of the ball against West Ham, launching repeatedly ineffective sweeping passes from left-to-right as is the Scouser’s predilection. It is not as if the England international is creating chances with it either – he has just four assists to his name all season.
In the data there is a greater point; that Van Gaal’s philosophy is at heart essentially pragmatic. Stuck between two stools of a defence that he does not fully trust and an attack lacking in pace, the Dutchman has though – and failed – to find a wining balance between the two. At West Ham Van Gaal deployed Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj in an attempt to injectpace and drive through midfield. It came at the expense of tempo, craft and a short passing game.
Yet, whenever Mata is deployed and the Reds use the ball more effectively, United’s becomes too ponderous for the elite level. Too predictable to break down organised defences.
Elsewhere, Van Gaal has made other compromises that are yet to bear fruit. It is tempting to conclude that the Dutchman’s decision to crowbar Rooney into midfield is the conflagration of Van Persie’s relationship with his manager and Falcao’s vast expense to the club. With it the manager has seemingly – and perhaps permanently – sacrificed Ander Herrera, the only United midfielder who offers a balance of craft and energy currently lacking.
Just one more curiosity in a season that may yet bring Van Gaal his only possible saving grace: Champions League qualification. It is the metric by which all others are measured, and the only possible justification for ‘Long Ball United.’