The third part of our review of the season is our opportunity to reconsider how the season went. Given the events of the last few weeks, however, we are going to change things a little and take a slightly wider perspective. We will look at “the story of the season” although even here we will simplify things because this season has seen a tactical orthodoxy rather than the episodic and experimental phases of Van Gaal’s first season. All we really need to do is describe that orthodoxy before turning our attention to a few relevant themes and issues which might help explain why Louis van Gaal struggled to make his “philosophy” work at United.
Success or Failure?
We can’t really go any further without asking a couple of key questions. The first is whether the season we have just completed can be considered a success or failure? The second is the broader question of whether Van Gaal’s tenure can be considered a success or failure?
The answer to both questions for www.manutdtactics.com has to be both yes and no. We appreciate that many United fans won’t agree, and that the rather dull nature of much of United’s football of late will have coloured judgement, but we have just won a trophy. This is a significant event in the life of our club: whilst all trophies are important, this is our first post-Sir Alex trophy. As such, it is a barrier the club has crashed through that will relieve an awful lot of pressure as we go forward. Van Gaal’s period as manager has been both a success and failure because we have made significant progress over the last two years, we have a technically stronger and better balanced squad now (even if it still has clear weaknesses) and it has been pleasing to see the emergence of promising young players. But the truth is that much of the football has been dull and the pace of progress has not been as rapid as we or the manager would have liked. Ultimately it is these two factors: the rate of progress and a lack of entertainment that has done for Van Gaal.
In the conclusion to our match report from the recent Leicester City game at Old Trafford we made the following points:
“All three of United’s key weaknesses were evident in this game; the tempo of the play was at times too slow, undermining their method, their passing was at times over cautious and their play in the final third was disjointed with their final delivery being poor.”
That is about it. For www.manutdtactics.com that sentence summarises the problems with United this season. Of course there may be any number of other issues but these are the ones which should headline any assessment of United’s play in season 2015-16. The questions to debate are these: Why has this been the case? and what needs to be done now?
The Story of the Season
This year has seen a tactical orthodoxy; United have usually set up as 4-2-3-1 shape with two holding midfield players. This was the orthodoxy from the first pre-season games with only minor and infrequent tweaks. Late in the season United did begin to revert to the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 system that had produced the brightest moments of Van Gaal’s first year at the club, but for most of the year the pattern remained the same from game to game, week to week, month to month. 4-2-3-1 is not a new system at United of course: both Sir Alex and David Moyes utilized this shape, but to them it was essentially a shape to support a counter-attacking approach. That meant surrendering space and possession before looking to hit the opposition on the break with pace and width. One of the central tenets of Van Gaal’s philosophy is the aim of controlling the game through possession. That means an approach where you aim to dominate possession and space and so Van Gaal’s use of a 4-2-3-1 was very different – not for him a counter-attacking strategy.
Early season shape and match statistics. 70.2% possession but a 0-0 draw with Newcastle at Old Trafford on 22nd August 2015
Why did Van Gaal choose this approach? Firstly, he has used this shape before, notably at AZ in Holland, where it helped him to win the Eredvisie. So it’s no great surprise, but it was a departure from the previous season where, by the end, his preferred methods seemed to rely on a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape. The big difference is having two holding midfield players rather than one. Van Gaal may have chosen this approach because of a need to protect a perceived weakness in our central defence. Last year the manager regularly talked about the need for balance, which we take to mean the balance between attacking and defending and it is easy to suggest that this was his concern and led to this approach. Van Gaal is known to favour a system where he deploys six players in a more rigid formation whilst allowing the other four a greater degree of freedom and a 4-2 and then 3-1 system certainly gives that split but this year it produced decidedly dull football.
It is tempting to characterise Van Gaal as a defensive coach but this isn’t necessarily the story of his career. He does value defensive solidity, which he achieved in his time at United, despite the fact that he has not been blessed with defenders of the highest quality. Van Gaal tried to strengthen the centre of his defence last summer but at the start of the season he expressed the view that he was happy to rely on Daley Blind as a centre back and he stuck to this through the season.
As the season wore on, the features of Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1 became almost set in stone; United controlled the ball but goal scoring chances were at a premium. Long periods of possession saw United endlessly recycling possession around the back six players with the ball being very slow to reach the final third. Most of our passing was slow and deliberate with very few passes which hurt the opposition or even asked serious questions of them. Passing was slow but there was also very little positional fluidity; the team tended to be fairly rigid in its shape.
It is hard to remember now, but it wasn’t always like this. In effect United regressed to this as the norm. But there were a couple of critical games which seemed to hasten United’s transformation to this particularly dull pattern of play. Last year we identified United’s defeat at Leicester as a key match which affected Van Gaal’s thinking and his subsequent tactical approach. This year we would identify two games that United played within the space of a month.
The first of these was a victory at Southampton in September. United came from behind to win 3-2 but in the first half hour of the game United struggled and went behind. The key point is that Daley Blind found it hard to cope with the pace and physicality of the left side of Southampton’s attack. Van Gaal might have believed that Blind could operate as an effective centre-back in the Premier League but did his struggles here make him reassess to the point where he adopted a more rigid approach?
The next significant game was at Arsenal. By half time United were losing 0-3, which became the final score. The holding midfield players here were Schweinsteiger and Carrick. At the start of this game Schweinsteiger on the left pushed on and pressed high up the field towards Memphis in the wide left position. This naturally dragged Carrick across, but Carrick did not push high himself. Effectively this left Darmian exposed on the United right and with Mata also tending to stay high and come narrow, Darmian was overrun by the combination of Sanchez and Walcott. The lesson of this game seemed to be that United needed greater lateral discipline in their positioning and they could not allow too great a gap to develop between the two holding midfield players.
It was noticeable that United’s shape became significantly more rigid after these two games and the two holding midfield players deliberately seemed to stay very close to each other; less movement and more cautious passing patterns. This prevented one of these two players from operating as a more flexible shuttler; usually in a 4-2-3-1 one of the two will play a more cautious holding role whilst in possession, whilst the other has more licence to support attacking play by moving higher up the pitch. Now at United this didn’t happen.
In the game following the Arsenal defeat, United won 3-0 at Everton, a performance which seemed like a backlash, but thereafter between the derby against Manchester City on 25th October and the final game of the year against Chelsea on 28th December United played 11 league games, scored only 7 goals and picked up a total of 11 points. This period effectively undermined United’s whole season and is the reason they failed to qualify for the Champions League. As a consequence Van Gaal lost his job, but it was at this point in the season that he also lost the fans.
United did improve after Christmas but the rest of the season was characterised by inconsistency. United have failed to win more than two consecutive league games in a row. That is of course an inconsistency of results. The tactical approach and nature of our performances was very consistent until later in the season when the annual injury crisis eased. That easing saw Fellaini and Rooney return to the side, allowing Van Gaal to use these two players in midfield as he seemed to flirt with last year’s 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 approach. He could do this of course because these two gave him physicality in midfield and an early out-ball. But this didn’t work as well as it did last year because by this point in the season the forward play had often become disjointed. Last year Herrera and Mata often combined well as the ball moved forward; this year Van Gaal preferred the speed of Rashford, Martial and Lingard, all young, inexperienced players who are still learning how to combine to exploit their pace to greater effect.
Late season formation and statistics from the game at Old Trafford versus Bournemouth
Earlier in this piece we mentioned that it was a distinct possibility that Van Gaal chose to play with two rigid defensive midfield players because of concerns about Blind’s vulnerability at central defence. There is no doubt that Blind’s performances in this role improved steadily as the season went on. Was an increasing confidence in Blind as a central defender the motivating factor behind Van Gaal’s reversion to the use of one defensive midfield player later in the campaign?
We will now turn to a few issues and features which seem to have undermined Van Gaal. As previously stated, we are widening this a little to look beyond this season and consider general issues which seem pertinent.
The red herring
This is the first big issue. For many people it comes down to the tactical shape of the team and they often make the point that we should be playing 4-4-2. For www.manutdtactics.com this is a red herring. The argument goes that United should be playing with wingers and we would agree, but 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 also embodies wing play (as do other systems) although we acknowledge that there may be a few subtle differences from strategy to strategy.
We have covered this before and don’t intend to look at this issue in too much detail, but we would reiterate a couple of points. Firstly Sir Alex moved away from 4-4-2 years ago because it allowed teams to overload United in the centre of the park and in Europe this meant that United surrendered control of the game. This is perhaps the single key reason why United struggled in the Champions League in the 90’s and it was only after changing team shape that we were able to reach three Champions League finals in four years. In Europe most consider for this very reason that 4-3-3 kills 4-4-2 nearly every time and Real Madrid’s triumph over United in 2000 is seen by many as a defining moment in tactical terms in any debate about that issue. 4-2-3-1 is a kind of a compromise because of this.
To play a successful 4-4-2 domestically as well as in Europe you need a robust dynamic central midfield with at least one Roy Keane type figure, and some quick wingers who can deliver accurate crosses. United don’t have these at the moment. Do people really want to go back to 4-4-2; do people really believe that this is “the United way”?
The other red herring
A yearning for a 4-4-2 highlights another red herring, that is, a lazy assumption that a tactical approach is all about team shape. Team shape is only ever part of the tactical equation. How you choose to use that shape is at least as important an issue. Evidence of this was the positional rigidity of Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1 this year which could be contrasted for example with the way others use it; Sir Alex or Arsene Wenger have each used it in different ways.
Which brings us back to that old chestnut, “philosophy.” Van Gaal’s basic philosophy is to control the game by controlling possession. So when you don’t have the ball you press the opposition to try to win it back and if possible win it back close to the oppositions goal. When you have the ball, retain possession, but circulate it at pace to stretch the opposition in an attempt to disorientate and pull them out of shape. When they are out of shape, you hit them quickly and hard. Van Gaal’s United have been able to adapt to some aspects of this philosophy, namely the ability to press and retain possession, with United nearly always having a significantly higher percentage of possession, passes made and passes completed than the opposition. But they haven’t been able to play at a high enough tempo or be dynamic and co-ordinated enough in the final third when the space opens up to hit the opposition quickly and hard.
Patience isn’t always a virtue
Controlling the game through possession is all well and good (it requires patience on the part of both the team and fans) but in itself it isn’t enough to win the game. The current United team have clearly been guilty of being too patient for the fans at Old Trafford. This can be a fault of many teams who adopt this approach. It is a criticism levelled at Arsenal (always looking to score the perfect goal) or Barcelona and Spain (dominating teams for a 1-0 win) or Guardiola’s Bayern where much has been made of the ‘U-shape’ passing diagram running from fullback to fullback through the central defence and defensive midfield. Pep Guardiola is very conscious of this and has talked openly about the need to break this pattern. It is a pattern we have seen much of this year at United where six players have commonly formed this “U”.
The point is, United are good enough to retain the ball for long periods (which is a triumph because for many years before the arrival of Van Gaal we weren’t) but we aren’t good enough or dynamic enough to use that possession effectively. The result is too many passes which don’t stretch the opposition, leading to endless moves which seem to be aimless and never seem to be going anywhere. The patience means that when space does open up, United don’t seem to either be able or have the courage to use it – to up the tempo and strike.
This requires a change of mentality and what is needed is an urgent patience which doesn’t lose sight of the aim. The aim isn’t just to control the game, but also to score and kill the opposition. The aim of every passing move should be to result in a shot on goal.
It’s all about goals.
At the start of the season we expressed our concern that United were effectively going into the season with only one experienced established striker. United had let Van Persie and Falcao leave in the summer. Hernandez, returning from a loan spell, clearly had a job to do in convincing the manager that he was good enough to do the job. Whilst Van Gaal tends to favour a team shape with a single advanced forward, our concern was that the only established forward was Rooney.
Many United fans, for various reasons don’t like Rooney. We aren’t in that camp but we questioned whether at this point in his career he was the player to play a lone striker role? Our concerns proved well-founded early in the campaign and whilst the arrival of Martial and the emergence of Rashford has gone some way to alleviating this concern, it has generally been proved true, with United recording their lowest ever ‘goals scored’ total in the history of the Premier League and Rooney ending the season playing in midfield.
This is the other and perhaps more significant part of the philosophy. The basic philosophy is this: control possession, control the game; move the ball around to disorientate the opposition and when you have pulled them out of shape, strike.
For this to work you need this you need a balance between control, caution and adventure. Last year especially, Van Gaal talked a lot about balance. Early this year he did the same. We never got it right. Note the use of the word ‘we’, meaning club as a whole, manager, players and fans? Fans want swashbuckler, players appear over cautious. Louis isn’t naturally as cautious as people believe and as he is characterised. If you read between the lines of his press conferences he was apparently as frustrated as anybody with the response to his philosophy of his players. He thought they were too cautious and his mantra was apparently “pass it quicker, take more risks.” The problem was that they didn’t.
Was Van Gaal really the problem?
There is a danger here though that we over-personalise the issues around United’s recent struggles. Football fans generally tend to do this. As fans we look for hero’s and villains and so often attribute a success to one person and similarly blame failures on an individual as well. You could call this the messiah and scapegoat syndrome. It isn’t really like this of course and the danger is that in doing so the underlying cause of successes and failures are overlooked. As a consequence you may then either end up repeating the successes without really appreciating what made them happen, or worse still repeating failures without addressing their cause. United as a club, hierarchy, coaching staff and fans need to be careful that we don’t fall into this pattern. Over the last season we have heard many United fans at matches repeat the mantra that he, (Van Gaal), has to go and that he doesn’t get United, that he is the problem and on occasions state the view that we need to change manager and all our problems will be solved. Therein lies the danger as these fans are missing the point.
Part of the problem
If anything, Van Gaal was only really part of the problem, one whose roots date back about a decade for which Sir Alex should take a part of the blame. This is unpalatable to many fans because Sir Alex delivered so much success over so many years. Isn’t that an example of the messiah syndrome?
The main problem in our view is that for those ten years United failed to plan for Sir Alex’s eventual retirement. There was a clear lack of long term investment in the squad and a failure to modernise club structures on the technical or playing side of the club. This was all compounded by the ridiculous decision to change CEO at the same time as the retirement of a manager who had been in place for 27 years. United continued for too long to over-rely on Sir Alex’s personal qualities and especially his man management skills. He can be considered as perhaps the best man-manager ‘type’ football manager of the recent era, so surely the club could see that when that factor was removed something else would be needed. Why didn’t they plan ahead? Perhaps it was arrogance or the Glazer factor? Perhaps a combination of the two, but it is fair to say that both Moyes and Van Gaal have been victims of this situation. As fans we would be foolish to overlook this or to expect that a new manager, whoever he is, will eliminate this problem.
That isn’t to say that Moyes and Van Gaal didn’t get things wrong. The point is that they are not solely to blame.
Two Years in slow motion
When Louis Van Gaal was appointed as United manager we wrote that we expected him to change the playing system from a 4-4-2 based system to a 4-3-3 system. We also highlighted the central tenants of his “philosophy”. Over the last couple of years on countless occasions countless fans have stated that they don’t know what his philosophy is. For www.manutdtactics.com his philosophy has always been fairly clear, even if Van Gaal himself has always seemed reluctant to define it in words. This philosophy hasn’t often worked as well as we would have liked but it is clear; control the ball, control the match. The aim is to move the ball around whilst dominating possession in an attempt to pull the opposition out of position and so create opening and score goals. At the same time dominating possession minimises the opportunity the opponent has to attack you, so in theory reducing the chance you will concede a goal. Many will point to the fact this often hasn’t worked as evidence that this philosophy is flawed and doesn’t work but there is lots of evidence that it can work and has worked many times for other clubs. It just hasn’t worked at United for Louis Van Gaal and to many it isn’t “the United way”.
But why hasn’t it worked, and is it a philosophy that can work in the English Premiership?
Small squad, big injury list
On a couple of occasions this season Van Gaal has stated that it has been his conscious decision to go with a small squad. There are positives and negatives in this. The positive that Van Gaal has described is that this can gives an opportunity to emerging youngsters. The obvious negative is that a small squad leaves you more vulnerable to an injury crisis.
In the last two seasons United have suffered significantly long periods of the season when around 10 first team players have been out injured. That’s about half of the first team squad. This might seem exceptional, but a statistical analysis suggests that it is not. United have suffered a similar injury crisis in each season since 2011-12 season. Is there a problem with United’s conditioning training and medical departments, or is it just bad luck?
Consider the following statistics: in season 2016-17 United players missed 365 matches across the whole squad through injury. That is an average of 12 matches per player. If you exclude players who only made a couple of appearances then that figure increases to 13. If you strip the squad back to the core group who you would expect to play a majority of matches, that group numbers around 17 rather than 31 players. They missed 264 games between them at an average of 15.5 matches or just under half a league season.
Training the brain; are the team fit enough?
Van Gaal hasn’t talked directly about his “training the brain” principle recently, although he did make much of this last season. He wants intelligent players who can solve problems on the pitch and know why they do things. On one level that is fair enough, players with “football intelligence” are a valuable commodity. Our question is, has a focus on training the brain been at the expense of training the body?
The defining characteristics of the English Premier League are its pace and physicality. An almost superhuman level of fitness and athleticism are required to compete in this environment and if players are not fit enough they cannot compete. If the focus on training the brain has been at the expense of physical fitness and strength then this will have reduced United’s competitive edge and potentially contributed to the periodic injury crises. To consider if this is a significant factor we need to return to those statistics and consider total matches lost to injury across the squad over the last few seasons:
- 2011-12 – 405 matches lost to injury, (despite this high number of matches lost we only lost out on the title on goal difference this year).
- 2012-13 – 295 matches lost to injury
- 2013-14 – 245 matches lost to injury
- 2014-15 – 270 matches lost to injury
- 2015-16 – 365 matches lost to injury
These figures suggest that this last season has been quite a poor one for injuries but not significantly worse than recent seasons. It could however suggest that injuries have been a factor this year. Has the “training the brain” principle contributed to this? In truth we can’t say whether it has or it hasn’t.
Big injury list; give youth a chance
The other consequence of having a small squad and an extensive injury list is lots of opportunity for young players to step up. Many fans seem reluctant to acknowledge that this was part of the Van Gaal plan, preferring to consider it an accident. In fairness to him we would point out that prior to the start of the season he did state on a couple of occasions that he wanted a smaller squad for this very reason. He was also as good as his word – he has promoted youth and when they played well, he stuck with them. Yes he had to do this at the time, but he consciously and deliberately put himself in that position in the first place.
When Sir Alex retired he left an ageing squad with a number of former key players in decline. Many of these, some of them formerly World Class had simply not been replaced over the years. LVG has addressed this and we now have a younger, better balanced squad with a number of players who are still developing and are only likely to improve. Marcus Rashford, Tim Fosu-Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Guillermo Varela, Paddy McNair; they are all young players promoted through youth development who could have big futures at the club. Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay and Luke Shaw are not much older, all young players bought during Van Gaal’s time at the club who could also have big futures.
Has Van Gaal underestimated the competitiveness of English football? He has made reference to the fact that every team, whoever they are and from whatever level of the League system, will compete. This seems to have come as a surprise to the manager. That in itself is surprising but could also be anticipated because the level of competitive spirit in England is almost certainly higher than elsewhere. This has been a real challenge to Van Gaal and his philosophy. Will it, like a reliance on a small squad in which football intelligence is focused upon more than fitness, stand up to the rigours of English football? Or put another way, does competitiveness and physicality counter his philosophy?
Van Gaal’s teams play a very structured approach. He is not the only manager who insists on this; of course all teams need some structure. But it has often been a criticism of his teams over the years so the question is whether his approach is too structured to the point of being stiflingly rigid?
In simple terms Van Gaal requires his teams to retain possession and pass the ball in a patient and structured way until they reach the final third of the pitch. What this requires is a u-shape of players which starts as the fullback on one side and runs back and across through interchangeable centre-backs and defensive midfield players and then up and across to the fullback on the opposite side. These players are expected to stay in position and retain a rigid team shape until the team have moved up the pitch and reached the middle of the opposition’s half. He expects 6 players to adopt a more conservative approach and work to retain that team shape, and allows the other 4 to be more spontaneous and flexible in their positioning. This requires a patience that has not been matched by United fans and has resulted in play that they have often found very dull.
Van Gaal’s squad have improved their structured play out from the back over the last two seasons, fans will remember the autumn of the 2014-15 season and United losing the ball many times in their own half (a 3-5 defeat at Leicester most famously springs to mind). That doesn’t happen quite so often these days even when the opposition press high up the pitch (with the obvious exception being the first leg of the Europa League tie against Liverpool).
The frustration of most match-going United fans tends to build in matches to a point early in the second half when, having not made a breakthrough, it is clear that they are persisting with their method. It becomes most audible when they have reached the final third via a structured approach and an obvious opportunity to play a more adventurous pass is overlooked in favour of the ball being recycled back to the rear of the team. There is much talk about transitions in football, that moment when possession passes between sides, but the transition that United find most problematic is the one where they are required to switch from this cautious structured mode to a more adventurous and spontaneous mode. Is the philosophy breading a fear and caution amongst the players resulting a rigidity and lack of spontaneity?
Fear of losing possession
Over the last two years it is fair to say that United have developed the ability to control games through retention of possession. United’s possession percentage is usually amongst the best in the league. The advantage in this is that the opposition has less time to attack and as a consequence (despite a seemingly weak and inexperienced defence) United have one of the league’s better defensive records. The issue is whether they do enough with this possession.
The down side of this emphasis on retaining the ball seems to be reluctance on the part of individual players to take a chance, instead choosing to make the easy pass, often a sideways pass, rather than to pass or run into positions which might hurt the opposition. The players are playing percentages, which is all very logical (another favourite Van Gaal word) but results in a lack of adventure. It is as if players fear the criticism they will receive if they lose the ball. As fans we don’t know if this is the case, but looking in from outside it has often felt that way when we have watched United play under Van Gaal. Does the Van Gaal philosophy over-fetishize possession and has the manager’s apparently forthright head-masterly personality, his stubbornness and autocratic style resulted in a squad afraid to take risks?
Overcoming the low block
Possession hasn’t proved enough to help United overcome those teams that set up to defend with a low block, usually in two banks of four.
This has been United’s most troublesome issue over the last two years and has resulted in a pattern where United tend to do well against the better teams, but struggle against lesser opposition. The reason for this is quite clear; teams of limited ambition tend to sit deep to play for a draw and perhaps catch United on the break should the opportunity present itself. In that scenario the onus is on United to take the initiative and break the opposition down. The opposition simply lets United have the ball. The problem is that United don’t often have the wit to use their possession well. Against better sides who have greater attacking intent United have often found space and time to attack; better sides are then more likely to leave gaps for United to exploit but if United have to try and break down a stubborn disciplined defensive formation, often they can’t. Why?
Tempo and Pace
Our view is that there is a couple of reasons for this; pace and tempo.
These are not the same things, by the way. Tempo is determined by the speed at which you circulate the ball, how many touches you take before making the pass, how alert and proactive you are in your awareness to move, both on and off the ball. How quickly you do the simple things. These things set the rhythm of your play. By pace on the other hand we are referring to a player’s speed over the ground -how quickly players can run, both on and off the ball.
Both these factors are important and both are significant in helping a side in possession to break down the defensive formation of a team that is set up to defend. It is often said that pace kills people simply because it doesn’t allow you time to recover. This is true, but so does a high tempo. The arch exponents of this approach in recent years were Guardiola’s Barcelona. The rhythm of their passing, the tempo of their play would mentally tire and disorientate teams, who would lose their defensive shape, perhaps only momentarily, but in that moment the searing pace over the ground of Messi would destroy them.
In principle Van Gaal’s philosophy relies on the same approach. Circulate the ball at a high tempo to create space by disorientating the opposition. The problem has been that the tempo of United’s play has been too slow, giving the opposition plenty of time to recover and close down the space created. This problem has been compounded by United’s cautious approach and general inability to see or reluctance to accept the opportunity. In season 2014-15 the lack of pace in the side was an issue and remains one still, but in the 2015-16 season it has been less of an issue in itself. United do now have pace in the side, the question is do they know how to use it….yet?
Youth and experience
Another point frequently made by Van Gaal is that the manager who follows him will reap the benefit of his work and specifically the squad development work he has undertaken. This may be true but only time will tell… “We will have to wait and see,” as he is fond of saying.
Consider though, this list of players: Lingard, Wilson, Januzaj, Memphis, Varela, Shaw, Borthwick-Jackson, Martial and Rashford. What do they all have in common? They are all fairly young and all have pace. Then consider this list of players: Carrick, Schweinsteiger, Mata and Rooney. They are all older and more experienced players, but they all lack genuine pace. Considering these two lists it is fair to say that United have a group of older players who perhaps know how to hurt the opposition but don’t have the ability to do it with pace and a group of younger players who do have the pace to hurt the opposition but don’t have the knowhow to use their pace yet. We repeat the word ‘yet’ as this is a lesson that some of them have begun to learn, but it will take time and hard work if they are to develop this knowledge.
Leaders of Men
For many years United teams have had an abundance of leaders, player who were capable of taking a game by the scruff of the neck, changing something on the pitch or beseeching those around them to a greater effort just when required. United have lacked this over the last few years, and it has been a problem to some extent since Keane left the club. In midfield there has been a long tradition of players of this type: Robson, Moses, Whiteside, Ince, Keane or even a player like Paul Scholes (whose outspoken spiky criticism of Van Gaal illustrates a competitive instinct that would not settle for anything less than victory). It isn’t just in the midfield area where these players have been a factor, players of this type have been in abundance both in defence and attack. Whether it has been Pallister, Bruce or Vidic at the back, or Cantona, Hughes, Cole or Van Nistelrooy up front. All of these players playing down the spine of the side have had a determination and a preparedness to go the extra mile and to refuse to go down without a fight. Even United players whom you might consider to be more artistic have had a steely determination about them; we have already mentioned Scholes but you could add Giggs, Beckham and Ronaldo to his name. What has happened to these types of determined characters?
Consider our current centre backs. Blind can be a bit spiky at times, but essentially he is fairly lightweight and struggles against physicality. Chris Smalling has a black belt in Judo, but would you know it? Further forward Mata and Herrera are nice guys, you might let them marry your daughter but often in a battle things seem to pass them by. This is a missing ingredient in United’s current squad, perhaps only Rooney has this quality and therefore Van Gaal’s choice of captain. Maybe this is a phenomena that has no place in Van Gaal’s cerebral approach to the game, but he had these type of players at Ajax, (Seedorf, Davids and Kluivert were no shrinking violets). Where are the leaders?
Two holding midfield players
The 4-2-3-1 has allowed Van Gaal to play two holding midfield players and that has often been criticised in itself by fans who choose to ignore the fact that Sir Alex sometimes did the same thing. In the 2014-15 season Van Gaal experimented with any number of formations and it is only in his second season at the club that he has settled into this orthodoxy. This begs the question why has he chosen one that utilises two defensive midfield players? On countless occasions we have heard United fans complain about this and they often question the approach just after they have criticised the use of Daley Blind as a central defender. Are these two issues linked?
We have always felt that they are. Van Gaal and United spent a large part of the summer of 2015 chasing Sergio Ramos. We always felt this to be a forlorn pursuit, but what it does is illustrate that Van Gaal felt at that point that this was an area of the team which needed to be strengthened. We agree with him and still believe this to be a pressing need. Many fans bemoaned United Van Gaal’s statement as the summer transfer window closed that he was happy to go into the season with Blind as a centre back. Perhaps he should have added, “Because I will protect this area of the team with two overly cautious defensive midfield players”.
All of which brings us back to where we came in. Unfortunately for Louis he was unable to solve all these problems in the time he was given, and so United move on. However we believe that Van Gaal has laid some solid foundations upon which the new manager can build. We should be grateful to Louis for the work he has done. He didn’t deliver exciting football but he has steadied the ship, undertaken a partial rebalancing of the squad and he promoted youth; his final act was to make United winners again.
Over to you Jose.
We would like to thank @unitedstats99 for the statistics regarding injuries quoted in this article. Give him a follow on twitter.