Ever since officially ascending to the Old Trafford throne, Louis van Gaal has been attempting to drill the notion of a ‘strong philosophy’ into the mindset of everyone involved with Manchester United.
In his opening press conference, following an impressive World Cup campaign with the Netherlands fuelled by his surprise introduction of a 3-4-1-2 system, van Gaal argued that a ‘strong philosophy’ and an entrenched self-assurance in his own ideas was the leading factor in United’s decision to hire him.
And following a manager in David Moyes who often appeared abject of his own ideas, LVG’s insistence upon an ultimate vision, up until now, has been unanimously viewed as a rather refreshing course of action around Carrington. Encouragement from fans, the players and the British press has not been hard to come by.
The only problem was that Manchester United’s season hadn’t started yet, and when it did, van Gaal’s philosophy didn’t prove strong enough to prevent a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Swansea City. Or perhaps it was too strong – in my opinion, it was the manager’s idealism that cost the Red Devils on Saturday.
Many will point to Manchester United’s lack of activity in the transfer market this summer as a key factor in the loss to the Welsh side. Admittedly, for a club attempting to adopt an entirely new formation, that was already in desperate need of fresh blood in several departments, the Red Devils’ recruitment so far this summer – with the only first team signings being Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera and now Marcos Rojo – has been decisively sub-standard.
But van Gaal was clearly attempting to make a statement with his surprise line-up against Swansea City. Faith in attacking football and young prospects have been central pillars of his philosophy throughout spells with Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, whilst 3-4-1-2 is a more recent addition, tailor-picked for Manchester United’s imbalanced squad.
Subsequently, United’s starting XI to face the Swans included two Premier League debutants in Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard – the former brought into a back three and the latter, an attacking midfielder, utilised as an emergency right wing-back. Ashley Young was drafted in on the opposite defensive flank amid injury to Luke Shaw, comprising just one of three players, along with Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher, aged 27 or older.
You can see the van Gaal philosophy shining through. Young, adventurous players and assumedly, the ones who have responded best to his direction throughout pre-season. But such an idealist approach can be a very dangerous thing – it was a lack of pragmatism, the reluctance to take the situation into account, that cost United a valuable three points on the Premier League’s opening weekend.
Not least because, van Gaal set in place a formation that he currently doesn’t have the players for. Even at full strength, the Dutchman has only three senior centre-backs to choose from and a single left wing-back in Luke Shaw. Any damages to squad depth, as there were on Saturday, require delving into the youth squad or utilising players out of their natural position.
Of course, the United boss will view it was one egg broken in the process of making one incredible 3-4-1-2 omelette, a formation that he’s not only developed a recent lust for but also allows the club’s three most important players – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata – to be on the pitch in their preferred positions at the same time. David Moyes struggled to find such an inventive solution after signing the Spaniard for £37million in January.
Van Gaal is well aware that transitioning an entire crop of players, at a club that has never branched far from the realms of a flat back four and double widemen, into the new formation will take a considerable amount of time and likely cost a multitude of points.
But in my opinion, the defeat on Saturday was easily avoidable. United could have lined up in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1, the formations they’ve used almost exclusively over the last two campaigns and yonder, with exceptional ease. The 3-4-1-2 project could have waited for a more appropriate occasion, particularly after the Red Devils have adequately strengthened to execute that system effectively. Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young did not need to be immediately thrown in at the deep end.
No doubt, Louis van Gaal is an idealist manager who will always try to see the bigger picture, something he prides himself on as much as others eternally praise him for. But against Swansea, we saw the negative side to such an approach. 3-4-1-2, although clearly United’s plan A for the coming campaign, did not fit the occasion or the players available.
It’s not the first instance van Gaal has been accused of sticking by his own laurels too adamantly. As German sports writer Raphael Honigstein explains: ” The 4-3-3 formation brought the best out of many Bayern players [in his first season in charge] and gave their play a sense of identity, something that hadn’t been seen in Munich for quite a while.
“The season after, the formation became a dogma. He never diverted from it. Not when the opposition had worked out a way to deal with, not when specific games warranted it, nor when key players were injured. Instead, players were shuffled around inside the system and often ended up in very unfamiliar positions.”
We’ve already seen an emergence of that philosophical stubbornness during van Gaal’s opening game. So be warned United fans – as much as a ‘strong philosophy’ is what everybody at Old Trafford currently appears to desire most, it can also be a very dangerous thing. If LVG is to be successful in the Premier League, a greater sense of pragmatism is required.