You can’t always get what you want. Pedro, Muller, Higuain, Hummels, Gundogan. Manchester United may not have ever wanted these players, but they probably did. Why wouldn’t you want them in your team? But they didn’t get them.
The Rolling Stones are hardly philosophers, but they’ve given us a great piece of advice. You can’t always get what you want, but you might find you get what you need. And although United definitely did not get what they wanted, they may just have got exactly what they needed. And that’s Anthony Martial up front.
Last season United were a team in ‘transition’. It’s an easy excuse for some teams – transition is the time just after you’ve messed up by selling your best players and bringing in too many new faces who haven’t had the time to gel, and just before – hopefully – you manage to get them playing like a team and not just as a collection of strangers in a strange land. But United might just have a valid excuse this time.
Louis van Gaal is credited with drawing up the blueprints and laying the foundation for the present success of Barcelona. He is the man who gave debuts to Victor Valdes and Xavi, the man who saw the manager in Pep Guardiola and pushed him violently out of the team in order to install Xavi in the midfield.
He’s not a sentimental guy, that much is clear, but it wasn’t simply callousness that made him axe Pep, he just forced the ageing midfielder into thinking about his management career whilst laying the foundations that would make Barcelona the buzzword for classy football all over the world. But no one would argue that Van Gaal’s two spells at Barcelona were unqualified successes, it’s just that they left one hell of a legacy.
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Something similar happened when he left Bayern Munich. We mustn’t remember that he took them to a Champions League final in 2010, but we must also remember that the team he helped build won the treble in 2013 and is now taken on the position of third best in the world behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. He may not be the man we should give all the credit to, but he is due some of it.
And so we move on to his present club – one where his first season was a tough one. Manchester United struggled, looking terrible at the back. By the end of the season, though, they started to look solid at the back, but toothless up front. The tactic was to lump the ball up to Fellaini who could bully defenders and win headers. It worked sometimes but failed just as much as it worked. Fast forward to the second season, and the master tactician, the man who won the Champions League with unfancied Ajax and ‘created’ such stylish, modern behemoths as Bayern Munich and Barcelona, was playing route one up to the big man. Sophisticated.
Manchester United fans and former players are unhappy. They see Van Gaal as a slow passer. A man who is more intent on sorting out the problems of the defence by making sure his midfield keeps the ball – possession not to break down defences, but possession to stop the other team attacking. It’s not the fast-paced, swashbuckling United way, they say. Van Gaal is not really the manager they want.
Even at the start of this season, the same long ball tactic has been used on a few occasions. But it’s starting to look a little less ‘Plan A’ and a little more ‘Plan B’. And that’s because of the arrival of Martial. Another player that Manchester United didn’t really want – or at least not for the price they paid for him.
But his start to life at United has been phenomenal. He just can’t stop scoring, he looks threatening, he’s thriving on the pressure and the hype. The price tag seems to have made the crowd excited every time he touches the ball, and he’s thriving on that.
And the problem for United last season was that they simply couldn’t break down defences often enough. The long ball tactic worked sometimes, but if it didn’t, they had no penetration. This season, with Martial and Depay providing directness, pace and finishing ability, and Mata, Herrera and Rooney providing creativity in front of a solid base of central midfield generals who can get the ball to them, United are looking more and more of a threat. And they’re still playing Van Gaal’s boring and defensive tactics.
They may not be the tactics that Manchester United fans want. They may not have the striker they wanted, and they may not even have the manager they wanted. But Van Gaal is building something at United. His team are now adding sharp canine teeth to their attack as well as steel and balance to their defence and midfield. Louis Van Gaal knows what he’s doing, he’s done it so many times in the past.
The Ferguson era is over, and that doesn’t just mean for United. We’ll probably never see such a long-serving manager at a top club ever again. Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are a dying breed. But without the continuity of Ferguson, you need to have something else that runs through the club. Something that sustains success and something that gives identity to the club. And a new style of playing, modeled on Van Gaal’s way with a little added passion, flair and attacking menace sounds like something United should be about. The thoughts will outlast Van Gaal at the club, and United will benefit from it.
Van Gaal may not be the manager Manchester United want. But given the way the team is progressing bit by bit, and given how his ideas and his philosophy will lend an identity to the club beyond what it already has, Van Gaal is the manager they need.