One year ago to the day David Moyes’ Manchester United side was ninth in the Premier League. This year the Reds lie safely in fourth with every chance of overtaking Southampton to make third come Monday. The suspicion, however, is that the Champions League spot has been earned not by United’s excellence, but by other sides’ mediocrity. Louis van Gaal’s “three months” are long past, yet the Dutchman’s expensively-assembled side has not set the Premier League alight.
Of course, Van Gaal sides have often started slowly. In 2010 his Bayern Munich side was a game short of a treble, but only got out into the knockout stage of the Champions League with Bordeaux’s help. Yet, it has been almost six months since the Dutchman has taken over at Old Trafford and the oft-cited “philosophy” has not been clearly demonstrated on the pitch.
Some point to adaptability, as demonstrated against Arsenal, as Van Gaal’s philosophy but managers are, by definition, required to adapt to opposition. Elevating such a basic managerial facet to something greater rings hollow. On the other hand, criticism that Van Gaal has failed to implement a philosophy is also wrong considering that enough evidence hinting at an orchestrated effort to impose a plan is available.
Indeed, the rumour that United is trying to stop drones flying over Carrington, if true, hints at Van Gaal’s paranoia. The fact that the Dutchman has something to be paranoid about is as positive sign as any that some serious work is taking place on the training ground.
On a more serious note, United has clearly been more positive this season. The defeat at the Etihad is a game in point. With a man down after a “stupid” tackle by Chris Smalling, United still managed to challenge Manchester City to the point of pinning the home side in their own half for much of the final 20 minutes.
But it would be fooling to mistake United’s general improvement with the implementation of a philosophy. The latter needs an approach that is clearly distinguishable and there has only been one thing that has been constant throughout Van Gaal’s reign: change.
That said, the Dutchman has instigated a pressing system, whether in a 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1 or 3-4-1-2 formation, United has always played with a high line. Even against Arsenal, a game in which the Reds strategically sat deep, pressing was evident.
United has a very specific approach to pressing too. The opposition’s goalkeeper and centre backs are generally left unchallenged, while full backs are shown the touchline rather than seriously contested. Only when the ball comes into the middle of the park do the Reds ferociously press.
In fact, something approaching a man-marking system is adopted when the ball is deep inside the opposition area. While there are many interpretations of this ploy the most likely is that Van Gaal wants the opposition to come forward and leave space behind for quick players like Angel di Maria to exploit with direct balls over the top. This is reflected in number of long balls United has attempted this season.
It is an observation that also makes sense. Pressing the opposition’s centre backs may force long balls, but United’s forwards must still work their way through an opposition defense, structure more or less intact, even if the Reds gain possession. With the current approach United might just enjoy some space behind the opposition defence.
Further, since Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney often drift into deeper positions, United is presented with opportunities to intercept the ball in situations where a gap between opposition defenders and midfield exists. Considering that United is the most prolific side in the Premier League when it comes to scoring from outside the box, the philosophy is seemingly working.
The philosophy, however, has come at a cost. Under Moyes, United did little pressing. Under the new manager United is not only pressing, but pressing in a highly specific manner in which burst of sprints are required once the ball arrives in targeted areas of the pitch.
Pressing is a highly orchestrated affair and requires a lot of practice on the training ground. Simplistically, United’s players are in a situation where they are using muscle groups that they hadn’t used for a season. Just like joggers who didn’t stretch enough, United players have fallen foul of too many injuries.
Hamstring injuries are caused by inadequate stretching and sudden stopping and starting, while groin injuries are caused in particular by sudden changes in direction. Both have been common at Old Trafford since Van Gaal took helm.
The groin injuries suffered by Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling and Angel di Maria, have been too common and they are caused, in particular, by sudden changes in direction.
Comparing this season’s injury count to those under Moyes reveals that United has had more hamstring injuries to date than in the whole of last season. With only 14 games played, the Reds have suffered more than a half of all groin injuries suffered last season.
di Maria has suffered both hamstring and groin injuries. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that he is United’s preeminent counter-attacking forward and a player required to do plenty of dribbling.
The evidence is anecdotal and no attempt at more rigorous methods of establishing correlation has been made. Still, the logic is convincing and, if true, United’s injury blight should alleviate as players – more importantly their muscles – get used to Van Gaal’s philosophy.
The lack of European football will also offer the United squad time to stretch into the new philosophy – just in time for next season’s Champions League. This might be especially true if the recent rumour of United’s “Gaalactico-ization” next summer is accurate.
With thanks to Liz Worseley (@LizWorsley) during research. All errors are mine.