There has been no word on David Moyes’ fabled iPad bunker. You know the one – the Scot’s replica of Everton’s Finch Farm transfer headquarters: whiteboard lists of targets and touchscreen analytics married effortlessly to interactive profiles on players from Aberdeen to Zenit St Petersburg. It was, we were told, the modernisation of United’s archaic recruitment process; one that had fallen behind under a system previously dominated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s old school contacts book.
Supporters were always skeptical of the claim. Not that Ludditism is prevalent on Old Trafford’s terraces, nor progress without merit, but simply because of the gusto with which executive vice chairman Ed Woodward set to spinning the change. Tablets and interactive profiles; PowerPoint tactics and ProZone analytics – all sound logic until it spews out Marouane Fellaini and 82 crosses. The computer really should have said no.
One suspects, although time will of course tell, that Louis van Gaal wouldn’t know an iPad from his elbow. Nor will the Dutchman feel the need to complete one of Woodward’s extensive ‘acquisition justification’ reports before blowing the best part of £30 million on a new player. There is smart scouting and then, at the risk of stating the obvious, there is common sense.
Yet, van Gaal is prepared to make progressive change. Woodward, for example, was more than happy to tell journalists on United’s summer tour in Los Angeles that the club will spend upwards of £3 million installing floodlights at Carrington alongside Desso synthetic-hybrid grass. The changes will enable United’s squad to train late into the winter evenings – and to do so on grass that is not unlike Old Trafford’s.
Still basking in the glory of the Dutchman’s appointment, Woodward is proffered significant slack for spin. For now. Not least because the former banker has at least delivered two high-profile players this summer, although this is a narrative that could turn before the window is out.
On the training field van Gaal’s impact has been felt immediately, where players not only enjoy the veteran’s intensive sessions, but all the more for the high proportion of ball work. That is always a favourite – and much in contrast to Moyes’ love of punishing long runs. After all, the Scotsman’s view on progress was seemingly confined to the office. On the pitch United’s tactical make-up too often mirrored the outdated training methods employed at Carrington.
Indeed, pre-season 2014/15 could hardly be more different than 12 months ago, with van Gaal at ease in the company of media scrutiny and comfortable with his extensive power. Nor is the Dutchman bothered by the commercial commitments foisted on his squad. van Gaal has even been pleasant – humorous some might say – with the embedded fourth estate. Moyes, by contrast, flitted from fear to the loathing of a man trapped inside his own anxiety, and playing out his deconstruction in the most public arena.
In other words, the former Netherlands coach is everything Moyes was not; a United manager in spirit not only name.
Yet, these are essentially ancillary concerns, albeit ones that will play a significant role in United’s success. The real tests are to come. After all, van Gaal is yet to lead his side into pre-season conflict, let alone the intensity of Premier League action.
On the pitch United’s opening game against David Beckham’s former club, Los Angeles Galaxy, takes place at the 92,000-capacity Rose Bowl in the early hours of Thursday morning. Player fitness and a bumper crowd aside, the real quarry will be in a first glimpse of van Gaal’s tactical outlook, albeit with a side that will not include Robin van Persie.
It promises to be an entertaining month, with a far more positive outlook than United’s legion support has become used to over the past year. Indeed, supporters can forget, for the moment, Netherlands’ pragmatic approach the World Cup. van Gaal has always been a manager with a philosophy; one based on the “most important thing” of “ball circulation” in which the “team that creates the quickest football is the best.”
This is, after all, a philosophy that chimes squarely with the ‘United way’. Glib observation perhaps, but one in which Moyes never fully found comfort.
Certainly, Wayne Rooney was quick to recognise the change in United’s LA camp, admitting that he must “train well and listen” if he wants to play a significant role under van Gaal. What a difference a year makes from the sycophantic pandering that enveloped the Englishman under Moyes.
“We all have to go out there and show what we can do and show every day in training what different qualities we have as players and a team. Everyone wants to impress a new manager and that’s what we’re aiming to do,” added the 28-year-old.
Still, there is much work to do. The Dutchman is yet to stamp his authority on United’s transfer business for a start, although that will surely come. van Gaal has already started work on trimming United’s ample fat. The former Barcelona coach signed off on Patrice Evra’s £2 million departure to Juventus this week, while he made no effort to retain Rio Ferdinand’s services, nor those of Alexander Bütner. Bébé will join Benfica, while the club will take almost any fee for the errant Anderson.
There are at least half-a-dozen other United players that will sleep uneasily on the club’s tour of LA, Ann Arbor, Denver and Washington. van Gaal may not yet feel emboldened enough to jettison Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Nani and Fellaini, but there is good argument to move on from each.
Incoming transfers will garner more headlines still. United is short an experienced central defender, energetic box-to-box midfielder, and high quality winger. These are faults on which Woodward will be judged if United remain short come September.
Then there is the upcoming debate over which player captains the side: van Persie, Rooney or a compromise candidate, the injured Michael Carrick, perhaps? Small fry in the big picture, but a decision that will generate controversy and perhaps even resentment. One suspects van Gaal cares little for either, and nothing for slaughtering previously sacred cows.
In the meantime the Dutchman is unlikely to be carrying a PowerPoint print out into the Rose Bowl on Thursday, let alone an iPad. Modern methods can abound elsewhere. The Dutchman is comfortable with an approach that has worked more often than not.