Manchester United’s defeat to Southampton last weekend was heavily criticised by the newspapers on Monday morning. No surprise there, but even after such a poor showing it is nonsense to argue that little has changed at United over the past year. Still, the Louis van Gaal’s side has managed to win just 10 out of 21 games this season, with a points tally of 37 – now 12 shy of the league leaders. It begs the question: how much has Van Gaal really achieved?
At the same stage last season United had gained the same number of points – and David Moyes’ side was only 11 points adrift of the then league leaders. The stats certainly don’t scream change, although – in a way – the league table has something very different to say. Compared to last season when Moyes’ side were struggling to obtain a Champions League spot in seventh, Van Gaal’s men lie fourth in the table. Just enough change some might say.
When Sir Alex Ferguson’s replacement lasted only 10 months in the job United’s hierarchy must have realised that a fundamental change in direction was required; a coach both more astute and more illustrious – with the kind of unparalleled self-belief and confidence that the job requires.
Yet, it’s been a long first six months for Van Gaal at Old Trafford whatever the Dutchman’s past. Home defeat to the Saints underlines the fact that Van Gaal has a lot of work left to be done before United will again challenge for the title, despite United’s recent 11 match unbeaten run. Hampered by a chaotic injury list – but aided by a poor run of form United’s rivals for Champions League qualification – it’s been a campaign with both it’s highs and lows.
United’s summer spending has provided plenty of ammunition: Van Gaal spent £150 million and yet the points total is only on par with Moyes’ performance. It’s a critique Van Gaal dismisses – and the Dutchman is savvy enough to know that if a club could guarantee titles with money alone Manchester City would have held the Premier League every year since 2008.
Van Gaal is bullish not least because everybody knew United had to invest once again, especially with so many veterans leaving last season – and with Chelsea and City pooling talent over the years. After securing Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in the past two summers even Arsenal has joined the big-spenders now. United had to play catch up or would have fallen further behind.
Yet, after last year’s torrid season Van Gaal was left a group of talented youngsters with zero experience and clutch of world-class players with almost zero confidence. In the context the Dutchman has led United to a comfortable position halfway through the season, integrating new faces and attempting to build his so called philosophy.
Luck has played a part of course, especially in some very important games, such as victories over Arsenal and Southampton at St. Mary’s. Although many will argue that any luck is balanced out by the long injury curse that has haunted the squad.
There is hope too. Specifically five areas that point to Van Gaal heading in the right direction, despite Sunday’s defeat to Southampton.
The captaincy choice was the right choice
Among the first and perhaps most important decisions Van Gaal made last summer was to make Wayne Rooney captain when faced with the choice of trusting his compatriot Robin van Persie or extending the captaincy to the player who defines United’s past decade. The unstable relationship Rooney had with Sir Alex and Van Gaal’s regular arguments with players was a concern, but Rooney has taken up the role so pragmatically.
Youngsters are being given a chance
Van Gaal has used a group of youngsters this season, bringing them to the first team in the way Moyes did not. It is a policy that has benefited Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and James Wilson in particular. They are, if not household names, on the road to it. And the way this group has performed, given the lack of experience on offer, is commendable. Breeding youth talent is one of United’s core foundations and it appears to be in harmony with Van Gaal’s philosophy, leaving the future of the club in safe hands. But it would be amiss not to note that a few talents have been overlooked too – the sale of Danny Welbeck and the Adnan Januzaj’s situation in particular.
The team ethic comes first
Football is a team sport and Van Gaal appears to have little regard for a star name. In fact he recently said that he needs “balance in the team” and when asked about Rooney’s selection as he claimed the Scouser’s involvement is “dependable on how the balance in the team is.” It is becoming clear that the Dutchman cares less for individuals than the team as a whole. This is a good thing.
Reinventing fallen idols
Van Gaal has developed a reputation for exploring hidden talents in players and in the process reinventing them, much as he did for Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern Munich. There have been numerous examples of this trait in evidence already this season, with Marouanne Fellaini and Ashley Young – once considered outcasts – now playing pivotal roles in United’s campaign. Whatever else, when players who were once considered dead wood find some new vigour, something is heading in the right direction.
Van Gaal wants more from the team
Most importantly it’s the way that Van Gaal assesses United’s performance in this first half of the season that matters. His side is fourth in the league table and, albeit with some jitters, into the fourth round of the FA Cup. But Van Gaal understands that his team has not performed close to it’s capability yet, even if many of its failings could be pinned upon the long running injury crisis. But now with injuries coming to an end, Van Gaal should be able to play a more stable 11 in the coming games – perhaps pinning down a consistent formation as well.
19 thoughts on “Van Gaal: a retrospective”
Fantastic writing as always. I particularly enjoyed the point about reinventing fallen idols. It is a pleasure second only to see young players come through the ranks, seeing the old, the broken, the downtrodden given a new lease of life.
Including Valentia too
A generous appraisal. Fellaini and ‘pivotal’ is just plain wrong and how depressing that the ‘philosophy’ includes hitting long balls to him in desperate search of an equaliser. None of RVP, Herrera, Di Maria or Falcao are playing anywhere near to their potential and he’s seemingly unconcerned with Rooney turning into late-stage Gerrard rather than playing him up front in his best position. I’m certainly hoping that all will come good but it’s been a bit disappointing thus far.
Very good article. LVG took over a team which had started to deteriorate since 2010 under Alex Ferguson and reached rock bottom in terms of direction, quality, and loss of confidence last season. He will get MUFC back to the top where they belong regardless of how much they have achieved so far. Anybody not seeing this is blind
experienced coach but must do better. 352 is not working. Our defenders are being lambasted weekly but its not their fault. partial to van persie even wen he plays poorly. 0 shots on target won’t win you many games. 4231. Shaw Jones smalling valencia, herrera carrick, di maria Rooney januszaj, falcao
“LVG took over a team which had started to deteriorate since 2010 under Alex Ferguson and reached rock bottom in terms of direction, quality, and loss of confidence last season.”
OK, SAF’s last great team peaked in 2008.
BUT let’s not get unduly pessimistic about what TheLads achieved thereafter – two CL finals, four EPL titles AND second in the other two seasons by the narrowest of margins.
We can’t re-wind the tape of history but it would be fascinating to know what SAF would have achieved with the “old gang” last year and where TheLads would be with this summer’s reinforcements – and a much more attack-oriented manager at the helm. I doubt very much that we’d see no shots on goal from a team managed by Fergy !
Nikhil – I admire your optimism and I genuinely hope time proves you right.
The problem is that there is so much rebuilding still to do (a couple of seasons worth, imo) and despite the league position, LvG is not getting the best out of this squad, largely through his rigid system that’s stifled pace and creative instincts and seemingly turned many of the players into Tom Cleverley impersonators.
What’s frightening is that in spite of the money that’s already been spent, there’s barely a position on the pitch (GK excepted) that you can say with confidence that we’re set for the next 3-5 years (of course not accounting for the possibility of one of the Spanish clubs coming in for De Gea). Most notably, CB, RB, CM, RW, CF are all areas of major concern, and just getting more out of players like Young and Fellaini (although true as you say) is quite different from saying they’d even make the bench at Chelsea, City, RM, Bayern, etc. Then of course there are those that just haven’t progressed, or even gone backwards over the last 2-3 seasons.
Frankly, many of these players look inhibited and scared of their own shadows under LvG and I’m certain a good number of them will be gone next season. But replacing them with the quality needed to compete in Europe, and importantly, getting them to gel as a team, is going to take a heck of a lot more money and patience. We’ll just have to wait and see how much more of either or both the board is willing to provide.
“players look inhibited and scared of their own shadows under LvG ”
Midway through the loss to Southampton, I couldn’t help wondering if any of the attacking players felt comfortable being squeezed into LvG’s “philosophy”.
And, that led to a corollary, what would SAF do with this collection of talent – play TheWayneBoy in midfield ? play TheAngel as a second striker ? persist with RvP ? not find a place on the bench for Falcao ? mis-use Juan Mata’s playmaking talents ?
LvG’s “system” is very much safety-first which means that most of the possession statistics are meaningless and, what’s more, it’s very, very boring to watch.
Frankly, I’ve been disappointed in the team’s performances. I like to be a glass half-full kinda guy but…….
Excellent article as always Ed. IMHO the injury list in the first half of the season was the main reason behind the inconsistencies in performances and team formation. Once players get more game time together the team will “gel” much better and we’ll finally find our best 11. Another issue was “balance” and i think this will be found in a fully fit squad. Its clear that LVG has a vision and plan and i for one am optimistic going into the second half of the season.
“Its clear that LVG has a vision and plan and i for one am optimistic going into the second half of the season.”
Sure, he has a “philosophy” but it’s getting increasingly-difficult to believe that that’s enough reason to be optimistic.
Fuzzy stuff I’m afraid. Fallen idols reinvigorated, world class stars lacking confidence. LVG is floundering and luck masked it.
Van Gaal’s most successful period as a manager was in the 1990’s when he built his reputation. He devised a structure of operating, call it a philosophy if you like, and he stuck to it quite rigidly. It brought him success. However, since then he has had just two trophy-winning seasons in the last fifteen years, one in Germany and one in Holland. Could it be that Van Gaal’s best years are behind him, that he is yesterday’s man? Ronald Koeman, a former pupil/assistant was surprised how predictable United were against Southampton.
Van Gaal is a self confident and thoughtful man who likes structure, organisation and discipline, and this can be seen in his team. However there appear to be things missing such as passion and energy. Traditionally United have played exciting, mobile attacking football. Currently the team is pedestrian, predictable and though possession-based, creates very little.
Perhaps Van Gaal needs to learn the United philosophy rather than the other way round. He has the best group of attacking players in the P.L. but they are all under-performing. Van Gaal’s calm attention to detail is fine but paradoxically this is helping to stifle the team. He needs to pick more attacking line-ups, trust the players instincts more and release United’s own dogs of war.
LVG has been talking about philosophy but am yet to see or understand what this philosophy is all about. I sometime wonder what this philosophy could could be. Having 50% possession without a shot on target for 90 minutes? Playing players in positions they are not used to? Making substitutions that have negative impact on the match? Arrogantly sticking with a 352 formation that the players are not comfortable with? Having intense training session twice a day that its leading to unpreceedented injury crisises? I could go on and on. The truth is LVG is not under presure to perform because of his reputation therefore he can afford to continue with his experimentation. The only reason we are fourth as Ed mentioned is because of spur, Arsenal and liverpool’s poor form. The way we going its a matter of time before we are out of 4th place unless he swallows his pride and abandon his beloved 352.
LVG has been talking about philosophy but am yet to see or understand what this philosophy is all about. I sometime wonder what this philosophy could could be. Having over 50% possession without a shot on target for 90 minutes? Playing players in positions they are not used to? Making substitutions that have negative impact on the match? Arrogantly sticking with a 352 formation that the players are not comfortable with? Having intense training session twice a day that its leading to unpreceedented injury crisises? I could go on and on. The truth is LVG is not under presure to perform because of his reputation therefore he can afford to continue with his experimentation. The only reason we are fourth as Ed mentioned is because of spur, Arsenal and liverpool’s poor form. The way we going its a matter of time before we are out of 4th place unless he swallows his pride and abandon his beloved 352.
Change takes time lads. We’re all desperate to see Unitrd back where they belong but football has changed dramatically these last few years with citeh, Chelsea and even Spurs buying and selling players at extraordinary prices.
I personally don’t like it but I’ve got to get with times. We do need an overhaul in player talent (we buy the best) and philophosy.
You can’t buy the premiership but if you get the right manager with intelligence & man management skills we most certainly will get there. I’m thinking we’re a couple of years away.
My only criticism of LVG is that he could have made the transition more smoothly by bringing players in piece by piece, erecting the house more slowly. I think this because I imagine players not only need to adjust to the new stratrgy (albeit difficult because of the ridiculous injury toll we’ve gsd this year) as well as personally not knowing if they are in it out.
I think we got better after the summer transfer window closed as players knew where they stood. New wobbles are about this new winter window.
Patience & less expectation of immediate success despite the money outllaid is what we require no matter how we hate seeing poor performances.
Regardless of the other areas that we need to improve (and the shocking injury list), a settled and solid defence will have seen us with more points this season and there’d none of this nonsense of comparing our position to this one last season. It all starts at the back. Confidence at the back breeds confidence throughout the rest of the team. This season we’re on an upward trajectory, albeit a slow one, whereas last season we were on a downward one. That’s reason enough to be optimistic, particularly if the constant injuries abate and the team is allowed to become more settled. I’ll take that over last season any day of the week. We all know the squad needed a major overhaul and that was never going to happen in half a season. Let’s get some perspective. The fact we’re in fourth place now is an achievement in itself – admittedly thanks to other teams not performing this season, but it’s points in the bag that matter, regardless. We were never going to finish higher than third this season, so in theory we’re actually second in the league at the mo! 😉