Man United needed van Gaal after Moyes, but has he taken them a step too far?

One of David Moyes’ biggest mistakes during his torrid ten months as Manchester United boss was a failure to differentiate himself from the great Sir Alex Ferguson.

He had the same players, the same tactics and even the same accent as his predecessor, but inevitably failed to deliver the same calibre of results. It’s like trying to replicate your mother’s legendary lasagne; no matter how many attempts and different concoctions, it never tastes quite the same.

The missing ingredient was, of course, Ferguson himself, who had held together an ageing squad lacking true world-class quality to claim his final Premier League title the season previous. Moyes would argue that he never really got the chance to make his own signings and imprint his own image onto the team, but in the context of this article that’s almost beside the point.

Although his methods haven’t proved popular with everybody, United needed a manager like Louis van Gaal after Moyes, prepared to take the club down a new philosophical direction and away from another superficial impersonation of the Ferguson years.

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Moyes’ tactics were leant from the Red Devils’ immediate past, but the Dutchman tested a midfield diamond and a 3-5-2 formation within weeks of taking the Old Trafford throne – two systems that had been used by Ferguson for no more than a handful of games at a time throughout his 27 years in charge of the Red Devils. Instead of simply following the Ferguson playbook, he ripped it up and wrote a new one. Doing that at club as big as United required incredible self-belief, something Moyes always lacked.

Whether LVG’s preference for possession was the right fit for a club who had institutionalised dynamic wingers and free-scoring strikers was almost irrelevant in summer 2014. Taking the initiative with a long-term vision that would instantaneously restore their Champions League status and relevance amongst Europe’s elite, whether it be centred around conservative, offensive, attritional or aesthetic football, was all that really mattered.

It was simply a vehicle, a mechanism, an instrument, to take United where they needed to be. It worked a treat last season as van Gaal turned over a declining squad whilst finishing in the top four. Yet the Iron Tulip has always been a manager of principles and now almost halfway into his second season at Old Trafford, those principles of possession-oriented football are becoming increasingly dogmatic. It’s starting to feel like United’s new direction under LVG has gone a few steps too far.

Recent results – five scoreless draws in nine games across all competitions – as well as the statistics paint LVG’s philosophy in a dim light. United rank first in terms of average possession, passes in their own half and backward passes, yet come bottom in forward passes, 19th in passes into the final third and 15th in chances created, whilst scoring the least goals of any side in the Premier League’s top seven.

Those statistics are not an indication of whether United are playing good football, bad football, inefficient football or effective football; that is what the Premier League table decides. But recent results and a league standing of fourth have shown that the philosophy van Gaal self-prophesised relentlessly 18 months ago isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whilst pejorative reactions from the Old Trafford faithful suggest the club is moving too far away from its DNA.

Fans will accept change when it’s a catalyst for success, as it was last season, but will inevitably fear it when not providing results. LVG’s master-plan isn’t finished yet and the United boss has made no secret of his desire to sign a top-class centre-back, a top-class striker and a penetrative winger – who knows how effective the philosophy would prove to be with all three in the Red Devils’ starting XI – yet keeping the supporters onside is vital at a club as big as United and van Gaal’s preferred style of play is increasingly alienating them, especially at home.

Under Ferguson, Old Trafford was a fortress and a threatre of exciting football, the trend-setting stage for the rest of the Premier League. Although LVG has revived Old Trafford’s status as a difficult place to come – still awaiting his first defeat there this season – he has not restored it as a thrilling venue where fans will be guaranteed 90 minutes of entertainment. United have scored just nine times in seven games at home this season – a worse return than eleven of their Premier League rivals.

I’m not labeling van Gaal’s philosophy as good or bad, for it is based on the same ideals that made Barcelona the greatest club side the world has ever witnessed for a good four years under Pep Guardiola. But it is not the United fans know and love, the United of breakneck-paced counter-attacking, flying wingers and scoring strikers, and the level of dissonance is becoming increasingly dangerous.

Likewise, current table toppers Leicester City are really showing up the weaknesses of van Gaal’s ideals. They’re ahead of United by three points and have scored the most goals of any Premier League side, yet rank second-bottom for completed passes, third-bottom for average possession and rock-bottom for passing accuracy.

If a club whose two leading entities – Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy – cost them just £1.4million are leading the division by simply getting the ball forward as quickly as possible, why is a squad that LVG has spent over £250million on in the space of 18 months languishing in fourth and aimlessly shuffling the ball along the halfway line for 20 minutes at a time? It simply doesn’t add up. 

Despite his egotistical reputation, van Gaal has compromised with the United fan-base before. Last season, when they chanted 4-4-2 against QPR, that’s exactly how they lined up in the second half. When they asked for no more 3-5-2, van Gaal quickly fazed the system out.

He is not completely unbendable and once again, the Red Devils boss must compromise; although it is his vision, United is not his club. It belongs to the supporters and unless either results improve to indisputable levels or the Red Devils adopt a more open brand of football, especially at home, they will be quick to remind the Dutchman of that.

Moyes didn’t last long without the fans onside and his successor won’t either.