It is the word that has become most synonymous with Louis van Gaal’s first six months at Manchester United: the “philosophy.” It is at one the Dutchman’s favoured “play style” and a system of coaching belief; his principles and a fundamental axiom. The philosophy has carried Van Gaal through two decades at the sharp end of European football during spells with Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national side. It is, also, barely in evidence at Old Trafford this season.
Indeed, such has become the Dutchman’s umbrella of pragmatism that is not easy to determine United’s strategy let alone an over-arching philosophy. Strip away Van Gaal’s bright young things at Ajax and even the embryonic forebear of Pep Guardiola’s world-beaters at Barça; forget, for a moment, that Champions League final with Bayern. Concentrate, instead, on the here at now in Manchester. The assessment is something less impressive – far, it seems, from a philosophy.
For much of the campaign Van Gaal has lived in the moment, fire-fighting one injury crisis to the next while, patently, not fully trusting his squad. This despite a summer outlay of around £150 million. Even in recent weeks, with a new injury-free paradigm a play, Van Gaal does not have a solid grasp on his preferred team. Perhaps not even a favoured strategy. Instead, the Dutchman has become a manager tinkering in an increasingly desperate battle to find the right balance. It is a brutal assessment six months into the role.
Yet, the number of systemic, tactical and personnel changes say much. And the Dutchman now routinely deploys his men – even the stars – out of position. Van Gaal has used 30 players during the Premier League campaign alone, while the Dutchman has veered between a range of systems, from three to five at the back, and a diamond to straight lines in midfield. None of it points to a man with a clear idea of where he is heading, injuries or otherwise.
Friday night’s fixture with Cambridge United at the Abbey Stadium is a case in point. The world’s oldest tournament is United’s sole remaining chance of silverware this season and, presumably, a key focus for Van Gaal’s squad. Yet, there was another formation shift – to a 4-4-2 diamond – with up to five players nominally used out of their typical position. None of Daley Blind, Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj nor Angel Di Maria were deployed in the roles that made their names. Little wonder United served up another disjointed performance in East Anglia.
The curiosity was not in United’s lack of fluency though. Nor even in the team’s lethargy. After all the noted inability of Van Gaal’s team to move from back to front quickly is becoming passé. The real talking point was the Dutchman’s revision to a flat-back four system that he had been at pains to denigrate in the build up.
Curious not least because Van Gaal so forcibly pushed back against supporters who had called for a return to “4-4-2” at Loftus Road last weekend. It is a system in which the Dutchman has little faith that his squad can successfully execute.
“I said to my players I have twitched my ass on the bench because we were out of balance,” Van Gaal said last Thursday.
“We won against West Ham playing 4-4-2 for instance but all the time it was twitching your ass and I don’t like it. After I switched the system we won nine in a row then we lose one game and the discussion about the system start up again. It’s ridiculous.”
This is, of course, a crass reduction of a period in which United impressed rarely, winning games on the back of a tight rearguard, but a team increasingly passive in attack. That the Reds drew three away games over Christmas has become a symbol for the apparent lack of tactical ambition away from Old Trafford.
Van Gaal rejects discussion of his repetitive formation changes, externalising the debate while stretching the self-imposed time-limit for singularity with his squad. It was, remember, supposed to take three months. It will, it seems, be months yet.
“I do not have to take into account 600 million opinions,” said the Dutchman of the perceived criticism from United’s global fanbase.
“I cannot listen to what the media are writing or what other people are saying because they are never at the training ground or attending the team meetings. It is my job to analyse the games, communicate with the players and then make a decision with my staff. I do not feel the players are completely comfortable with the new system yet. I would like them to be more comfortable but we are working on this in the middle of the season so we are doing a lot of things during the matches.”
It is an observation that brings an obvious question though: what exactly was United’s coach trying to achieve during the cup tie at Cambridge? This was not Van Gaal is crisis mode at the Abbey Stadium, but a manager who made a conscious choice to field two midfielders in his back four, while pushing Fellaini nominally out to the right and deploying Januzaj in central midfield. None of it worked. Even Di Maria’s role at the head of the diamond is one not often occupied by the Argentinian during his time in Europe.
The formation switch did little for his players’ comfort, while the number of ‘square pegs in round holes’ played to the hosts’ strategy of defending deep and seeking to break into wide areas. And yet it is almost inconceivable that United will field a flat-back four against Leicester City at Old Trafford this weekend.
“I was very disappointed at half-time because we made the same error against Yeovil Town and Queens Park Rangers,” said Van Gaal in the aftermath.
“We played in the same style of play [as Cambridge] and you don’t have to do that. In the second half we played much better, we built up the game from behind and played no more long balls.
“I know in these matches every aspect of a game is against you. The crowd is against you – that is nice I think – but also the pitch and also the defensive organisation of the opponent. Cambridge are the weaker team – everybody knows that – and you have to solve that problem. You cannot always solve that problem.”
Away from the here-and-now of United’s cup fortunes, questions remain about the Dutchman’s use of his squad in addition to the lack of tactical consistency. Certainly Ander Herrera – benched again at Cambridge – Januzaj, Rafael da Silva, and Luke Shaw will ask the same question. Herrera has started just seven games this season – not all the absences explained away by injury. The Basque’s positive cameo as a second-half substitute, when the 25-year-old noticeably quickened United’s attacking momentum, is likely to be rewarded with a place on the bench against Leicester.
Meanwhile, Rafael and Shaw were dropped in favour of midfielders Blind and Valencia at Cambridge. Neither can be confident that they will return to the starting line-up at the weekend.
Then there is Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Di Maria, from whom Van Gaal is extracting less than the sum of their considerable parts. Rooney has started just five games in all competitions as a striker this season, while Di Maria has played in central midfield, on the wing, at ’10’ and up front during the campaign. The changes have rarely benefited the former Real Madrid player. Meanwhile, it is not obvious that Van Gaal fully trusts Mata as United’s principle playmaker, despite the Spaniard started 17 of 25 possible games this season.
None of this precludes Van Gaal’s eventual success of course. The Dutchman’s outstanding record suggests that he will get it right at United. Certainly, the 62-year-old’s gravitas earns him more time and, arguably, more lenient assessmentthan the inept David Moyes.
Yet, time is also a factor. Six months in and the sum is a strategic outlook that appears confused; a philosophy that is no clearer than on the day Van Gaal walked into Old Trafford. It is little wonder United supporters have begun to ask the questions Van Gaal so obviously dislikes.