Manchester United’s bench said much. The list of those who didn’t feature speaks even louder. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj – three of United’s most technically gifted players – were used for not a second of the Reds’ diligent 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday night. This was Louis van Gaal’s first win on the road this season; it also came in a manner that the Dutchman has rejected for much of his career.
The veteran coach has long been more than a tactical innovator or training ground dictator. For the best part of 25 years Van Gaal has been a man firmly wedded, if not to any one tactical system, then a “philosophy” built on front-foot-forward possession-based attacking football. After this summer’s World Cup, and United’s smash-and-grab at the Emirates, it is tempting to conclude that there is a philosophy no longer. The Iron Pragmatist.
In Brazil Van Gaal’s late decision to implement a system based on three central defenders was controversial in his homeland, but drew nothing like the ire aimed at the Netherland’s sober ideology. In the spiritual home of o jogo bonito Dutch anti-football took a limited side all the way to the semi-final. Very little of it was beautiful as Netherland’s conceded possession and sought to attack on the break.
Similarly in north London United enjoyed just 38 per cent of the ball, while Arsenal created almost double the number of chances. Arséne Wenger called it “one way traffic” as United aimed to do little more than defend in numbers and then attack at pace through Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria. It wasn’t until Rooney’s 85th minute breakaway goal that United finally got a shot on target. José Mourinho couldn’t have done it better.
Few in the travelling camp were concerned with United’s style in the aftermath though. Amid a chaotic past 18 months expectations have been firmly reset both in the stands and the dugout. Points matter most even if style and victory are never mutually exclusive. Here, not for the first time it should be said, United was prepared to let the Gunners hog the ball while the Reds kept an eye firmly on the result. Little wonder Van Gaal was absolutely delighted with the outcome. So were 3,000 raucous away supporters.
“It was a fantastic result,” said Van Gaal on Saturday evening. “We had a lot of injuries and in spite of that we have won. In an away match, it is very difficult. Arsenal are a very good team, an attacking team and that I knew in advance. That is why I chose this strategy and at the end I can laugh, but at the same time, you can imagine that if Arsenal could have scored one of the four or five chances in the first half then maybe this would have been another game.”
Indeed, United’s back-three of Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair appeared anything but a unit for much of the opening half. If Van Gaal had drilled the new system into the trio over the past four day’s training little showed on the pitch. It was period in which former Red Danny Welbeck and midfielder Jack Wilshere should each have scored for the home side, possibly placing the tie out of United’s reach long before half-time.
Arsenal’s profligacy cost the hosts, but as the match wore on it was United that increasingly gained control even if Arsenal continued to monopolise possession. Ridiculous though it might have been, as Di Maria raced clear seeking to score United’s third, the only shock was the inevitability of it all.
“We weathered the storm, especially in the first half, and then we knew we could hit them on the counter attack,” said Rooney.
“We knew they were vulnerable on the break and we did that. Our goalkeeper was fantastic but we hit them with two good goals. We knew we had to get as many players into the defence as we could and we did that by putting five at the back. We also knew we had the legs on the break, which we saw to good effect in the second half.”
Yet, for much of the past two decades Van Gaal has preached a philosophy of victory with style; the Dutch school codified only for local tastes at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Amid all the silverware the 62-year-old has claimed, very little of it was secured at the hands of pragmatism.
Even in north London this was a brand of prudent football in the extreme. United’s defensive injury crisis is profound – Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans missed the trip south – but there is no shortage of attacking talent. Mata, Januzaj and Herrera sat on the bench; a trio that would have offered greater midfield control than United enjoyed on Saturday. In fact the Spanish duo now seem further away from Van Gaal’s preferred team than at any point this season.
But there is little argument to brook with the result. Van Gaal, as he claimed post-match, was completely right. Yet, in the wider picture Saturday’s performance also recalls a question about Van Gaal’s long-term plan for United. Is this the Dutchman of old in crisis mode, choosing to eek out results despite himself, or has the attacking zeal seeped away with the pressure bearing down at Old Trafford?
“We have to wait and see,” concluded the Dutchman. “It is the first away victory so the players were very excited in the dressing room but it is only one victory. We have to confirm that with victories in the next two games that we play at home.”
Those fixtures, against Hull City and Stoke City should bring a further six points and with it five Premier League victories on the spin. That’s momentum whatever United’s style and a genuine platform on which to build. Confidence, at a low ebb for months, now means so much.
Beyond the immediacy of victory, however, there is a rich attacking tradition at United that one suspects Van Gaal would like to emulate, even if Sir Alex Ferguson’s latter years and then David Moyes did much to airbrush the mystique. Van Gaal’s legend says he is at one with 130 years of United’s history. The past six months have demonstrated something very different. One will win out before the Dutchman leaves Manchester.