You know the meme about Christian Grey’s unconventional tastes? It could well be due an update following Louis van Gaal’s revealing interview in the aftermath of Manchester United’s draw with Leicester City at the weekend. Pulling hair, says the Dutchman, is allowed in “sex masochism” but not on the pitch – this despite Robert Huth’s best efforts to put Marouane Fellaini off his A-game. Fellaini hit the Leicester defender where it hurts, though nobody was sure whether Huth actually likes that sort of thing. Either way, it was hardly a lover’s touch.
On the pitch United’s performance was far more conventional than Van Gaal’s interview technique, albeit a little more open than has been the case for much of the Dutchman’s two years in charge. Conservatism is normally the watchword, although the Reds created 21 chances against Claudio Ranieri’s title chasers. Sexy stuff. Well, sort of.
Yet, in drawing at home, United slipped just a little further away from Champions League qualification, despite Manchester City’s heavy defeat at Southampton. After all, with just three games to go, United will probably need to win all of them in order to claw back the Blues’ four point lead and superior goal difference.
It was a United side set-up in the 4-3-3 formation that has proven a little more effective in recent weeks, if still not fully convincing. Much as in the Reds’ Wembley FA Cup semi-final victory over Everton, United owed a little to luck against Leicester, with referee Michael Oliver missing Fellaini’s elbow on Huth, together with Wayne Rooney’s blatant tug on Demarai Gray, which should have earned a second yellow card, and Marcos Rojo’s foul inside the box on Ryad Mahrez.
The selection, although a little more open and ambitious, was also notable for its lack of youth. Where Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Guillermo Varela, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah once stepped, in came Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia. An uninspiring choice, with neither truly deserving a place in Van Gaal’s side, let alone a shot at the FA Cup final in three week’s time.
Dig deeper into the Dutchman’s famed faith in youth and it appears a little skin-deep. Much as many fans suspected, Van Gaal’s youthful outlook might just have been a useful crutch with injuries rampant and results poor at times this season. And as the injury crisis has cleared, so Van Gaal has returned to the tried and trusted, no matter how poor the performances. Unless injuries and suspensions bite, then Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard are likely to be the only academy products that start the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace on 21 May.
Famously, Van Gaal has proffered debuts to 14 academy products over the past two seasons, while integrating young players into his team from the off, including Tyler Blackett on the opening day of the 2014/15 season.
Rashford, of course, has contributed much to Van Gaal’s youthful narrative. The Wythenshawe-born forward only made his debut for the club against Midtylland in February, scoring twice and then adding five more in 15 games this season. The 18-year-old is now a fixture in the side, relegating Anthony Martial to the wing and Wayne Rooney to central midfield.
Similarly, Lingard has forced his way into Van Gaal’s first team this season just as it began to look like the 23-year-old may never make it at Old Trafford. Lingard’s 33 games in all competitions is bettered only by Martial among the younger cohort at United.
Then there is the aforementioned Borthwick-Jackson, Fosu-Mensah and Varela, who have each played some part this season, with 12, nine and 11 games respectively. Meanwhile, Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis Depay add to a more youthful looking squad than the one left by Ferguson in 2013, albeit the combined transfer fee for that trio could top £100 million.
Van Gaal, of course, stokes the narrative, claiming success for the development of Xavi Hernandez, Thomas Muller and David Alaba, among another. The Dutchman also claims strategy, and not the ill-fortune of injury, is behind the influx of youth during his time in Manchester.
“We had a small squad at the beginning of the season because you can then give chances to the young players,” the Dutchman told MUTV.
“I’m always really convinced of youth players and how they can stimulate the other players and raise the atmosphere in the dressing room. Those kinds of things are happening now.”
This narrative is well known of course. Yet, it is those who have gone missing that may tell a more illustrative story. After all, only Rashford, Lingard, Paddy McNair, James Wilson, and Adnan Januzaj have played more than 15 matches in any one campaign. None in both of Van Gaal’s seasons in Manchester. Many of Van Gaal’s academy debutants have joined the team with more senior players on the sidelines and not in place of them.
As it stands McNair, Wilson and Januzaj may never play for the club again if Van Gaal remains at Old Trafford beyond the summer. Januzaj has featured in just six games this season – a pitiful return two years on from his breakthrough campaign under David Moyes. This is not entirely Van Gaal’s fault, with Januzaj joining Borussia Dortmund against the manager’s wishes, while some question the player’s attitude. Yet, the inability of the coach to get the best out of a mercurial attacking talent is frustrating, although not without precedent, as Memphis Depay, Angel Di Maria and Andreas Pereira may well attest.
McNair has found opportunities sparse this season too, despite a promising début campaign last year, while the composed Blackett was shipped out to Celtic on-loan for the season and not recalled despite Shaw breaking his leg back in September. Wilson has spent the season at Championship club Brighton & Hove Albion.
Wilson, Blackett and McNair played 17, 12 and 18 games for the club last season. The number reads two, zero and nine 12 months on. None can be guaranteed a future at United whether the manager remains beyond the summer or not. Where Van Gaal has offered opportunities, he has also taken them away.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Dig deeper into the Dutchman’s faith in youth and it appears a little skin-deep. Van Gaal’s youthful outlook might have been a useful crutch with injuries rampant and results poor. As the injury crisis cleared, so Van Gaal has returned to the tried and trusted.[/blockquote]
Meanwhile, this season Borthwick-Jackson, Varela and Fosu-Mensah have played when injuries hit, only to be dropped when more senior men returned. In the case of Fosu-Mensah, eight excellent performances were followed by one dodgy outing against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final. Van Gaal dropped his countryman at the first opportunity and the 18-year-old may not feature again before the season ends.
Others have come and quickly gone. Michael Keane, Reece James, Saidy Janko, Marnick Vermijl and Tom Thorpe each played at some point under Van Gaal. None remain at the club. Pereira is still a United player, but has seen little action despite an outstanding season for the under-21s. In keeping with Varela, the suspicion is strong that Van Gaal simply does not trust flighty, creative South Americans.
It leaves, perhaps, Rashford, Lingard, Borthwick-Jackson and Fosu-Mensah as the only academy products likely to be included in a Van Gaal squad for the 2016/17 season – if the Dutchman remains beyond May. None of the quartet is guaranteed a place in a José Mourinho, of course, if the Portuguese joins the club as appears increasingly likely.
Should Van Gaal go this summer he will leave as a huge disappointment, although with the narrative of youth resonating for many. Whatever the doubts about many young players’ future at least Rashford’s innate quality appears to be one for the ages – a player for whom Van Gaal may well take credit in the years to come.
Then again, with so many younger players also falling by the wayside under the Dutchman, Van Gaal leaves the suspicion that his desires are… well, perfectly conventional. Pragmatic to the core.