They way I see it, Jose Mourinho was right at the weekend when he not so much threw his players under the bus as he did tie them all to a train track, comedy damsel-in-distress western-movie-style, commandeered the train and drove forward and backward over them until the whole squad had well and truly snuffed it.
Anyway, now that we’ve picked up the pieces from Friday night, had a panic attack about screwing up against lower-league opposition, then watched Match of the Day, imagined what it must be like to be Vincent Kompany and then felt much better again, it occurred to me that we have now reached the stage where you can pretty much divide United fans into two camps: those who believe that Louis van Gaal is an experienced tactical expert who is yet to get the best out of a horribly imbalanced squad, and those who think he is a stubborn egomaniac attempting to crowbar a formation which relies on joy-killing possession into a club rich in the tradition of fast-flowing attacking football.
My feeling is the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But that’s not intended as a fence-sitting cop-out as it is a weary resistance against the grating sound of the two opposing viewpoints being the the loudest. It’s clearly not the case that Louis van Gaal is a failure and no better than David Moyes (“But they’ve got the same points total!! That must be that the club is in exactly the same state as it was before and van Gaal is shit!”) nor am I saying that he’s a flawless,
Butthead Christ-like visionary. What I’m saying is – and bear with me here – is that perhaps we should look at some explanations, history, facts and varied viewpoints and analysis, and use them to draw a reasonable and balanced conclusion.
There doesn’t have to be a complete consensus on Van Gaal, though, for it to be fairly clear that a lack of pace in United’s build up has been an issue, with possession so far seeming to be given precedence over penetration. But this, folks, is van Gaal’s style, and it probably won’t change very soon. Total Recall, a chapter of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, looks at van Gaal’s methods at Ajax in 1991. Wilson, who describes Van Gaal as ‘dogmatic’, writes:
‘At Ajax, van Gaal was violently unpopular among those who yearned for the romance of two decades earlier. They saw his reimagining of Total Football as dully mechanistic in its emphasis on system over creativity, but he had a vision and the personality to rise above the club politicking and impose it.”
Sound familiar? How about this one, with Wilson quoting authors Henry Kormelink and Tjen Seeverens in their book on Van Gaal of 1997:
‘As a professional soccer player, he was known for his confidence in his own opinions, his abilities to convince players and coaches alike that he was right, and above all for his tactical insight’.
Wilson goes on to talk specifically about how Van Gaal’s training sessions advocated retaining possession under pressure, which helps to explain 3-5-2, the amount of passes that occur between the back and three and why Gary Neville doesn’t like it. So far, not much has changed, then. But why would it? An emphasis on system and resolute self-confidence are not things that change over time. They are evergreen characteristics of a manager who has largely been very successful. Tactical insight, on the other hand, needs to be more malleable and is a talent that does not necessarily mould well with dogmatism, and it is that tactical insight that is now under such scrutiny at United.
But then, van Gaal had six years to implement his philosophy at Ajax – a philosophy that peaked after four years when Ajax won the Champions League in 1995. This might go some way at least to explaining why van Gaal insisted he would need three years to turn United around. He knows that if he is to instil the game into the club that he thinks will work, it cannot be done in half a season.
But these, of course, are different times, when managers are on the hotseat faster than ever to the extent that chairmen like Darragh MacAnthony are now ranting on Twitter that sacking the manager has become the easy go-to option (defending to the hilt, as it happens, Fergie’s son Darren, his manager). Before he become a crap activist, Russell Brand – please bear with me here – wrote a brilliant column about football in the Guardian. Back in May of 2013 he wrote this paragraph in a piece about Sir Alex Ferguson:
‘Football fans always query and second-guess the decisions of managers but I always return to the baseline certainty that they must know more than us. They must. The alternative is too terrifying; that mad, flawed, myopic boors are running our clubs. So if Theo Walcott isn’t being played through the middle at Arsenal that can’t be because it’s never occurred to Arsène Wenger. Or if Matt Jarvis seems too deep to make an impact that can’t be because Sam Allardyce has never considered the alternatives at West Ham.’
The guy may be a shallow, megaphone-touting pound-shop Tony Benn, but he’s got a point. It is a little worrying that it would seem fairly obvious that Angel Di Maria is no striker and shouldn’t be played up front, receiving the ball with his back to goal and given no room to sprint forward, as was the case against QPR. But shouldn’t we at least give an internationally experienced manager of twenty-plus years the benefit of the doubt? Van Gaal’s explanation was this:
“We have to stretch the pitch – that is an important aspect of a striker, that he can stretch the pitch. Then you make the pitch bigger and your midfielders can play in a bigger space and play a better positional game than ever. So I tried that – I had to try it because I didn’t have the preparation at the beginning of the season.”
OK, so it didn’t work against QPR in the first half. And when he moved di Maria back, we seemed to look much more comfortable. And therein lies the dilemma. Is van Gaal a stubborn mule, bending the players to his will, or a coach willing to experiment with different combinations in an effort to find a flow to an oddly assembled squad? Choosing one or the other is just the easy option. The reality is that it is too early to know for sure and we have to be patient. (No, we were not patient with David Moyes. But he was not cut out for the job of Manchester United manager, at least not at that point in his career). I think that’s how we can give ourselves room you start to raise the level of debate. Just a little.