With a little more than half the season done, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United are tenaciously hanging onto their top four position in the English Premier League. THT takes this opportunity to grade LvG’s performance this season so far.
Street Cred: A+
Van Gaal and his team have immense amounts of street cred. Van Gaal came to United after having won the top flight honours in three European leagues – the Eredivisie (AZ and Ajax), the La Liga (Barcelona) and the Bundesliga (Bayern Munich) – in addition to winning the Champions League with Ajax and guiding the Netherland National Team to the third spot in the 2014 Football World Cup.So, van Gaal comes with a lot of achievements already under his belt, unlike his predecessor. Coming to his players, most of them have won league gold medals through their tenures at Manchester United and elsewhere. In captain Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Juan Mata, United have potentially the most powerful attacking lineup in the English league. David de Gea is unarguably one of the best keepers in world football right now and overall the Old Trafford outfit are not short of talent in a squad that lost the right to play European football last season.
Tactics and resource utilisation: C+
As expected with a manager of his calibre, van Gaal comes with his own set of philosophies and tactical principles. Unfortunately, those tactics don’t seem to be working very smoothly with his squad. Louis van Gaal teams have always been those that play high possession football, meticulously constructing opportunities and then finishing them off with clinical efficiency. A regular van Gaal victory is usually a one or two goal affair where his team hogs possession, plays the opponents off the ball and scores just a couple of goals to ensure victory. It has been his signature style and the latest in this line of philosophies is his bias towards the 3-5-2 formation. Louis van Gaal utilised this formation to deadly effect en route to the Dutch team’s 3rd place finish in the 2014 World Cup, a major achievement for a team that had been counted out by most football pundits even before the tournament began. They beat the defending champions Spain in their opening game and ended the tournament with a flourish crushing hosts Brazil in the third place playoff.
However, the three man defensive formation has not sat well at United. Manchester United since a very long time has been a club that likes to play fast fluid football that comprises runs down the flanks, runs off the ball and deadly crosses into the opponent’s box. The playing style has been more languid yet more poetic. Van Gaal’s system forces the players to play a game of possession where they spend more time holding the ball. Where a Paul Scholes or Roy Keane would look for the perfect through ball or long ball or Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs ran down the flanks before putting in deadly crosses, we see Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney trying to hold the ball. The mentality of holding possession at all costs has allowed the players to look for the safer pass and it has affected United’s playing style negatively. It is immaterial if fans do no like van Gaal’s tactics but if the players themselves do not seem comfortable especially playing out of the back, a rethink may be required. There is empirical evidence that United play better (and score more and freely) when playing a midfield diamond formation in a 4-4-2 rather than the 3-5-2. Yet van Gaal seems to stubbornly play the latter formation.
Most unsettling of all, however, is the utilisation (or lack thereof) of marquee summer signing Angel di Maria. Admittedly di Maria has had multiple absences this season owing to small niggles but when he has started, it has rarely been in his favoured central midfield position. Van Gaal has preferred to play Angel di Maria on the wings or even worse, behind the striker. Di Maria is a 60 million GBP central midfielder but a 30 million GBP winger at best. The issue arises due to van Gaal attempting to play Rooney in a midfield role where the captain is sitting the deepest ever in his career (except for one off stints under Sir Alex). This leads to Angel di Maria having to fight the captain for his favourite position. Di Maria, with his back to the goal, is not that substantial a player. In the English game which is more physical, di Maria gets mowed down and crowded out easily when he receives the ball at the edge of the box with his back to the goal and needing to turn with the ball. In fact it should be di Maria himself supplying that cross at the edge of the box. Di Maria has prodigious dribbling skills that are best utilised when he runs down the middle confounding multiple opponents before catching half the defense flat footed with a pin point pass to the forwards up front. Yet for the time being it does not seem that he would be doing that any time soon. And it might well toll an early bell on his United career where he has failed to flourish.
And amongst all this we haven’t even mentioned Ander Herrara’s conspicuous absence on the pitch. Suffice to say that the C+ seems generous in some respects and may have well been worse had there not been some evidence of a method in van Gaal’s madness in the form of United’s improved showing this season in comparison to the previous one.
Team morale and team spirit: A-
United last season properly looked a beleaguered side. Head were drooping, shoulders falling and the team hardly seemed to be on the same page. This was largely due to the lack of confidence that David Moyes inspired among his wards. Key players were often caught made making statements that sometimes subtly and sometimes quite directly questioned the manager’s decisions and it took its toll on the team’s cohesion. Players lacked trust in each other. Van Gaal seems to have managed to correct that wrong at least. His United look more a unit. They are still not the one beast comprised of 11 men as they were probably under Sir Alex for the majority of the last quarter of a century but they do seem more committed to the team cause. United are still some way off from the point where they can tenaciously hang on to single goal margins when not playing well as well as pile on the pressure late on to pull off improbable come from behind victories that have given them the unofficial title of Comeback Kings. That said it does seem the team is slowly and steadily getting there.
Player morale: B
Individual player morale under van Gaal has improved overall (as evidenced in the last category) but there are some singular cases here. Ashley Young is a prime example of a player whose morale is sky high through van Gaal’s encouragement. Young was slated by many to be one of the United players heading out of Old Trafford during the summer transfer window last year. He has however received a new lease of life in his new role as wing back where he has reveled in the challenge and actually pushed up his game several notches. Marouanne Fellaini is another prime example. The big Belgian, who was considered David Moyes’ panic buy last time, had a torrid first season at Old Trafford. However, this season he is a completely different man. Van Gaal stuck him in midfield when he didn’t have any players in those position owing to injuries and Fellaini grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The physicality he brings to the midfield especially in the final third throws a new variable into the equation and makes it a problem for defenders to handle when United attack on the break. There have been countless instances this season where Fellaini’s movement off the ball and his physicality at the edge of the box have actually opened up space for one of his forwardly mobile colleagues to net goals. Youngsters like James Wilson, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett too have been given reasonable opportunities to play first team football (albeit often due to injuries and lack of options) and at least the first two have stood up to the challenge very well.
On the other hand are players like Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrara who all find themselves out in the cold as permanent fixtures on the bench. All the three aforementioned players have proven their talent and definitely deserve more playing time and starts. However, fewer number of matches (without Champions League and Capital One Cup fixtures) and United often playing with their backs to the wall have prevented van Gaal from rotating the squad enough this season.
Aaah! The big one! The barometer by which the performance of all United managers is ultimately measured. Sir Alex Ferguson set a stiff precedent for his successors with a stupendous win rate during his 27 years managing the club. David Moyes fell victim to this as he succumbed to losses to Everton, City, Liverpool and Spurs amongst others. In fact many people believe his home loss to Martinez’s Everton was the final nail in the coffin that led to Moyes’ departure from the club. Van Gaal has truly had a mixed bag this season. While he has managed to upstage Arsenal and Liverpool, draw Chelsea and keep a respectable display while falling to City, he has also suffered the ignominy of a 0-4 defeat at the hands of League One side MK Dons in the Capital One Cup or losing the plot while leading Leicester 3-1 to succumb to an embarrassing 3-5 defeat. Even League Two side Cambridge United were made to look much better than they actually are when United, playing away from home, huffed and puffed their way to a goalless draw in their FA Cup fixture.
Van Gaal’s first season so far at United has been a tumultuous one but nothing better could really be expected as Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure truly signals the end of an era at the club. United are very much a club in transition. Van Gaal had the luxury of a well endowed transfer kitty and he has started assembling his squad now. He may need a few more spending windows before he is done but the mega cash outlay means that the club’s promoters would expect qualification to the Champions League next year at the very least.