Louis van Gaal had conquered the Eredivise, La Liga, the Bundesliga, the Champions League and even the World Cup, to an extent, before arriving at Old Trafford this summer. There is however, no challenge in world football, quite as demanding, unpredictable or competitive as the Premier League.
The Manchester United manager is a very assured man; one that’s blurred the line between self-confidence and arrogance many times before. Yet, as the Red Devils lay in seventh place after eleven games, three positions away from their desired Champions League spot, has Van Gaal’s world-infamous lack of self-doubt, combined with a limited knowledge of the English game, lead the Dutchman to underestimate our top flight?
Take his decision to utilise a 3-5-2 formation at the start of the season for example, a system that’s rarely worked in the Premier League before – especially for the clubs at its summit. Manchester City’s 2012/13 pathetic title defence was in-part thrown away by Roberto Mancini’s efforts to implement 3-5-2, eventually costing him the Etihad hot seat, and by no stunning coincidence, as soon as Van Gaal dropped the formation imported from his World Cup successes with the Netherlands, United picked up their first Premier League win of the campaign – a 4-0 thumping of QPR.
No doubt, back threes works in other leagues and Van Gaal’s 3-4-3/4-3-3 hybrid system won him a host of silverware at Ajax and Barcelona. But Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho – the three most decorated managers in Premiership history – have never dared to flirt with it, which tells its own story of how alien back threes are to the English game.
Not to suggest they’re entirely incompatible with the Premier League. Not to suggest some club, at some point, won’t win the title as a consequence of adopting the seemingly foreign system. But for a manager to believe he can use it to take English football by storm in his debut season, defying the Premiership’s philosophical history so abrasively, is either excessively bold or worryingly naive.
Underestimation is reflected in Manchester United’s summer transfer policy too. The free-spending, top-heavy, so called ‘Gaalactico’ recruitment certainly captured the imagination of the Old Trafford fanbase, but of that £150million summer outlay, only £27million (less than 20%) was devoted to a Premier League-proven player – 19 year-old Luke Shaw.
Of course, finding more technical talents was essential for van Gaal’s much discussed ‘strong philosophy’ but as a result, United’s starting XI now lacks the pace, power and penetration of even the most generic Premier League sides. Angel Di Maria is the only player who offers defence-stretching pace going forward and Robin van Persie, a striker who’s always lacked the physicality of his Premier League counterparts, remains an isolated and frustrated figure in attack.
Take Radamel Falcao for example, an exceptional goal-scorer by all means, with a career record of 201 goals in 309 appearances throughout spells in South America, the Primeira Liga, Ligue 1 and the Spanish top flight. His loan stay at Old Trafford has been plagued with injuries however, and van Gaal now reportedly fears that the Premier League is too physical for the Colombian assassin. Chelsea, amongst others, came to that conclusion some time ago.
You can see similar problems with Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo, who are both now sidelined with serious injuries. The former measures in at just 5 foot 11 and is surprisingly slender for a defender-come-holding midfielder – there were even questions over his physicality during his six years in the Eredivisie -and the latter, although 6 foot 1, is hardly blessed with the power and menace of your average Premier League centre-back.
One could say the same about former Athletic Bilbao playmaker Ander Herrera, a £25million acquisition. He was hauled off at half-time against West Brom in October for Marouane Fellaini, a midfielder purpose-built for the unique physical challenges of the Premier League, and the Spaniard is still yet to regain his place in the starting Xi.
Then there’s the issue of defence, and quite frankly, I’ve never seen a top Premier League club enter a season with defensive cohort as young, inexperienced and leaderless as Manchester United’s.
When Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra left Old Trafford last summer, replacing their experience should have been van Gaal’s first port of call. Instead, perhaps due to his Dutch, total football heritage, the United boss targeted attacking acquisitions first. Even his defensive signings, such as Blind, Shaw and Rojo, are exceptionally progressive when compared to the Premier League norm.
Combined together, an image forms of a manager that arrived in the Premier League with too many assumptions – predominantly that only his vision and United’s quality going forward truly mattered. But the Premier League doesn’t work like that – certain criteria must always be met, especially defensively and physically – and compared to the foreign top flights there are absolutely no easy games – no periods where the likes of Tyler Blackett or Patrick McNair can be comfortably bedded in.
I feel that the Premier League’s caught van Gaal surprise, and I’m not alone in this theory. To quote Ruud Gullit, former Chelsea and Newcastle manager; “ If you only strengthen the midfield and the attack, than you are underestimating the level and the power of the Premier League. If you want to survive in the top flight of English football you start with the foundation and you build the roof of your house last. Van Gaal has done it the other way round.”
Perhaps a small adaptation period was always inevitable – one can only learn from experience. But for such a decorated, proven manager to underestimate and overlook so many core aspects of the English game, is incredibly surprising.