It was, as Louis van Gaal admitted so pithily last Friday, “stupid” to set a deadline on success. Not least because Manchester United’s past performance patently offers no guarantee of future results. But a deadline the Dutchman set – three months for Van Gaal’s “philosophy” to take root and for the watching public to pass judgement. It has, in truth, been little better than a ‘C plus’ to date.
United’s draw with West Bromwich Albion on Monday night highlights many of the challenges – and, to be fair, some of the opportunities – faced this season. Van Gaal, without the suspended Wayne Rooney and fatigued Radamel Falcao, was still able to field a front six the envy of many throughout Europe. With Daley Blind and Ander Herrera anchoring midfield, Van Gaal entrusted Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, and Adnan Januzaj to provide the creativity for lone forward Robin van Persie. It worked only intermittently.
Meanwhile, United’s back-five looked, on paper at least, balanced and talented: David De Gea, complemented by Rafael da Silva, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw – more than £70 million worth of youthful ability.
Despite the talent on offer United delivered yet another inconsistent performance, creating 22 chances at the Hawthorns, but conceding twice against a Baggies outfit that has suffered a mixed start to the campaign. In truth, whatever Van Gaal’s positive spin on the performance in the aftermath, United remains some distance from the country’s best – this coming a touch over 17 months on from winning the Premier League by 11 points.
It was a match that encapsulated Van Gaal’s tenure in microcosm – he has built a creative, talented, and expensive side that is frustratingly inconsistent. In the three months since the veteran coach took the Netherlands to third place in the summer’s World Cup, United has lost games to Swansea City, Milton Keynes Dons and Leicester City and is yet to win away from Old Trafford.
During that time United’s manager has delivered a myriad of systems and tactical approaches; almost as many as the changes made, enforced and otherwise, to Van Gaal’s side. Whatever “philosophy” the Dutchman is employing it is seemingly unclear to the players, let alone United’s supporters.
Time is a commodity the Dutchman has on his side, as much for not being David Moyes as his performance to date, but it is now certain that three months was an ambitious target on which judgement could pass. It may take months, perhaps years, for this United side to realise its potential.
But the question also arises whether Van Gaal’s tinkering has helped or hindered United’s transition. Flexibility and game intelligence are much valued assets in the modern game, but traits this United side is yet to fully develop. Tactically, it is has not been an easy ride for the players, especially those lacking confidence and experience.
The Reds began pre-season with Van Gaal insisting on deploying a back-three system, supposedly to mitigate weaknesses in the squad, but the Dutchman imposed his fifth different formation of the campaign against West Brom. In between the 62-year-old has rolled out systems with three forwards, a midfield diamond and, on occasion, a straight four four two.
The team’s strategy has also been in flux, with the Dutchman’s possession-based attacking football normally to the fore. Just not always. On Monday night the Reds spent the first and last 20 minutes launching aimless long balls. It was, to some observers, unironically Moyesian.
At times the football has also been pedestrian – none of van Persie, Blind, Rooney, Mata offers blistering pace. Yet with Di Maria in full flow, Herrera constantly on the move, and Falcao sharp around the penalty area, there has also been moments of electrifying flair. Inconsistency of another kind.
There are plenty of caveats to any judgement of Van Gaal’s performance. Injuries have been consistent over the period, with up to 10 United players in the treatment room at any one time. It is one reason, but the not the only driver, that the Dutchman has used 36 players in nine matches this season.
There has also been a significant rotation of players, with a dozen leaving Old Trafford in the summer and around £150 million spent on an influx of talent. Whether United’s shopping was opportunistic and driven by fear, or strategic and long-planned, remains an open debate.
The new coach has also brought change of another kind: yet another backroom team. It is, perhaps, worth noting Sir Alex Ferguson’s criticism of Moyes, in his latest autobiography, for bringing in so many new coaches last summer. Van Gaal had little choice but to do the same, although the ‘Hollandisation’ of the coaching staff is significant. At least in Ryan Giggs, a universally popular choices as assistant, there is hope the Welshman can bridge the gap from manager to team.
There remain question marks over Van Gaal’s squad management too. The Dutchman proffered Rooney “special privileges” as club captain, while offering public criticism of Shaw’s fitness. There is also much debate over United’s use of Shaw, Januzaj and Mata – each cast aside at one point or another this season. Divide and rule is a dangerous game to play in the ego-fueled atmosphere of United’s dressing room.
There are also doubts about too many in Van Gaal’s squad. De Gea’s form, up to Everton at least, was patchy; Rafael, Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans each injured at some point. In midfield Herrera does not yet dominate in the manner United requires, while Mata has too often been peripheral. It is far from clear that Blind’s passing talent can overcome a chronic shortage of pace, while Michael Carrick’s age and lengthy injury have disrupted the Geordie’s campaign. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have shown little to disprove the widely held notion that both were lucky to survive the summer as United players.
Up front Falcao is yet to prove he is fully recovered from a serious knee injury, while Rooney has demonstrated little of the leadership entrusted to him as captain. It is even more concerning that Van Persie is now a permanently peripheral figure. It is almost 18 months since the Dutchman performed at his highest level for United, with the question now open as to whether the rot is now permanent.
Yet, there are many positives for United supporters too – not just that Moyes is no longer in charge. Away from that crass assessment, Van Gaal has gained praised for trusting in youth: Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair have demonstrated first team promise not everyone foresaw. Shaw and Januzaj will surely play more often as the season moves on, while Tom Thorpe, James Wilson, Marnick Vermijl, Jesse Lingered, Nick Powell, Reece James, and Michael Keane have also featured.
There is also much promise in United’s pattern of attacking play, even if Van Gaal is yet to install the kind of defensive “balance” he seeks. In Di Maria United has acquired a rare talent, albeit at the cost of almost £60 million invested, while Herrera offers promise of an energetic and combative edge missing for some time.
The Reds will certainly score plenty of goals this season; the success or failure of the campaign ahead surely lies with Van Gaal’s ability to create a more structured defensive unit than the one employed against West Brom.
In this there is both hope and criticism. Three months is no time to turn around the failed Moyes experiment, but plenty, it seems, to expose this squad’s remaining flaws.