It is an inescapable observation. Louis van Gaal is no gambler. Not in the fashion Sir Alex Ferguson once professed to be. Faced with the necessity to tinker, Van Gaal’s DNA screams conservatism. Every time. It was never this way under the Scot whatever the changing nature of his tactical outlook during the end-game of 27-years at Old Trafford. When it came to the crunch Fergie always bet on red, even when the house looked certain to win on black.
Yet, Van Gaal has little compunction in bringing a swathe of youngsters into his first team squad. The latest, Marcus Rashford, is one of the most exciting attacking talents to come through United’s Academy in the past decade. Supporters can add Sean Goss, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe, Patrick McNair, Andrea Pereira, and Jesse Lingard to an ever lengthening list of kids in the picture. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis Depay represent youthful, if expensive, recruits.
It is a bifurcation without easy explanation. Faith in those who have little history on which to base it; and an adherence to a philosophy that, at times, sucks the fun out of a club built on attacking flair. And an observation that begs the question of how Van Gaal’s legacy is likely to shape up. One blessed with long-term health based on youthful vigour. Or on a culture of tactical fear?
Saturday’s victory over Watford brought consideration of both, but also hope that there is room to erode elements of the latter. After all, United’s average starting age, with Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Antonia Valencia on the sidelines, was just a touch over 25. The bench included two teenagers and two 20-year-olds.
And at times United attacked Watford without the fear so prevalent this season. Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay interchanged beautifully in a performance reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in the triumvirate’s 2008 pomp. If some way short of the same quality.
Yet, in recent weeks, Van Gaal has also come under fire for an approach that borders on negative, especially in the context of United’s rich history. In repeatedly deploying two defensive midfielders, opting for unambitious substitutions, with a mindset seemingly bent on marginalising some of his more creative players, Van Gaal has earned Old Trafford’s ire.
The observation is born out in the numbers. The Reds rank first for average possession, but 16th for shots-per-game. United’s total number of shots this season is 134 behind Arsenal’s and growing by the game. Inside the penalty area only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion have taken fewer shots than United.
It is a team that ranks 11th for assists, 16th for key passes and 14th for dribbles attempted. There is little flair to note. Van Gaal’s side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the league, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chance created than United.
Yet, if Van Gaal’s philosophy arcs towards the soporific, it also bends to the will of the club’s youth. It is an accommodation very much in the keeping with the traditions of the Babes and Fledglings. Far from breaking United’s record of calling up an Academy player for every first team match-day squad for more than 3,500 games, Van Gaal has baked in its existence for years to come. Rashford and Goss may not have made the pitch at the weekend, but their chance will surely come. And probably soon.
“It has always been part of my own philosophy and that of the club to give opportunities to youth players,” noted Van Gaal last month.
“With advice from Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, I regularly invite members of the development squad to train alongside the first team. It gives them a chance to step up their training and to improve their technical ability.
“A good example would be Paddy McNair. He trained with the first team, which helped him prepare so that it wasn’t such a big step when he was called upon to the first team.”
It is a balance of risk, in trusting those without experience, against long-term rewards that Van Gaal seeks. It also brings a choice: when to trust the young and, perhaps even more importantly, when to ditch the old.
The observation may be born of coincidence, yet Rooney’s absence was met not with the attacking impotence that may once have been expected, but with a brave and vibrant opening period. Terrace joy in the new order was dampened only by Ander Herrera’s injury. After all, it was the Spaniard’s weighted pass that set Memphis up for a neatly finished opening goal.
Saturday’s game was also one that offered a glimpse of a post-Rooney future. And it looked good. One in which Martial, Lingard, Memphis, Herrera and Mata could form the backbone of a flexible, creative, and – Mata aside – pacey attacking unit. In time Ashford and the brilliant youth team prospect Callum Gribbin may also join the group. The latter has already joined Van Gaal’s first-team training sessions.
“This club has always been famous for giving young players a chance and we have to continue with that policy,” notes Van Gaal. “When you see us in the Champions League with Shaw, at 19 years of age, Memphis, 21, and Anthony Martial, 19, it is clear we have the same aims.”
Indeed, the Dutchman’s career is littered with players blooded under his tutelage. At Barcelona Van Gaal offered a first team chance to Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta. The pair became “the backbone of the club and its culture.” At Bayern Munich there was “Thomas Müller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber.”
Rashford, Gribbins, Goss, Borthwick-Jackson, Tuanzebe, McNair, Pereira, Lingard, and the other youthful acquisitions will, in time, become Van Gaal’s “guardians of the culture here at Manchester United.” Far from destroying United’s culture of youth, through heavy spending on imported talent, Van Gaal is building for the future.
And yet United’s style matters too. Youth without flair, Champions League qualification, but a campaign short on silverware – it is a cocktail that will not mix in the Dutchman’s favour.
Van Gaal may not be a gambler, not in Ferguson’s mould, but it is a wager of sorts. The Dutchman’s bet is that his faith in the vibrancy of youth breaks free of his self-imposed tactical straight jacket.
The stakes: a lasting Old Trafford legacy.