In 2014, Louis van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford promising a philosophy that would take Manchester United in a new direction after David Moyes’ nine-month imitation of Sir Alex Ferguson had left the club rudderless, out of Europe and in desperate need of a squad overhaul. Two-and-a-half years later, six months earlier than when his United contract was due to expire, the Dutchman is talking about retirement in relatively conclusive terms.
“I thought maybe I would stop, then I thought it would be a sabbatical, but now I do not think I will return to coaching. So much has happened in my family, you become a human being again with your nose pressed to the facts.”
Indeed, there was a great paradox to Van Gaal’s philosophy. In England, at least, the term is instantly put into a pejorative context – associated with whimsical notions of exciting, attacking, breakneck football straight out of the Jurgen Klopp playbook. But Van Gaal’s philosophy defied the grain; a slow-paced passing game so meticulous it could trigger narcolepsy, yet more often than not delivered the right result.
Despite the negativity that accompanied Van Gaal for the majority of his United tenure, his Old Trafford spell was by no means a failure considering the mess he inherited from Moyes and the after-tremors of Ferguson’s retirement. His first season brought an instant return to the promised land of Champions League football; his second brought the first major trophy, the FA Cup, of the post-Ferguson era.
That wasn’t enough to spare the Dutchman the axe, as dissidence towards his rule grew increasingly louder. Criticisms of boring, long-ball football not only came from the supporters, but more pivotally a never-ending list of Manchester United alumni who had moved on to picking up their pay-cheques in punditry.
Nonetheless, if Van Gaal was simply the night-watchman until a more convincing option came along, he certainly played his part in stabilising a club that appeared to be in freefall under his predecessor. He even found room for Ryan Giggs on his bench and reduced United’s squad age by two years – paying homage to the former winger’s declaration of chances for young players at the end of the 2013/14 season.
In turn, however, that put Jose Mourinho in an unfamiliar position when he was summoned to replace his one-time employer last summer. The Portuguese has built a career upon results and silverware, but suddenly found himself tasked with bringing the style back to Old Trafford – of course, whilst providing the necessary wins to re-establish United as a world force once again. But compared to a predecessor endlessly vilified for style of football, has Mourinho actually lived up to his mandate?
Of course, Van Gaal’s retirement comes at a curious time, considering the inevitable points of comparison accompanying it. Only a matter of days ago, Mourinho was accused of resorting to long-ball tactics by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, as the aerial prowess of substitute Marouane Fellaini grabbed a late equaliser in the most recent instalment of the northwest derby.
“They played long balls in a wild game. We played the better football and had the better plan. In the end period of the game when United started playing long balls – to Marouane Fellaini and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – after 80 minutes high intense football it is really hard.”
It mimicked Sam Allardyce’s accusations of ‘long-ball United’ in February 2015, when Fellaini was once again utilised as a battering ram to punch holes in the opposition box and create second-ball scenarios for his team-mates, as United successfully searched for a last-minute leveller against West Ham.
“In the end, we couldn’t cope with the long balls Manchester United kept putting in the box. It was just, thump it forward and see what they could get. In the end, it paid off for them.”
The hint of attritional tactics also triggered memories of the reverse fixture earlier this season, when Mourinho put everything into escaping Anfield with just a point – his side barely producing one genuine attack throughout the entire ninety minutes.
But the statistics suggest a rather different story, the performances against Liverpool being the anomalies rather than the norm. Indeed, in terms of goals scored, goals scored from open play, shots and dribbles (all per match), United have improved from their two years under LVG, whilst long balls have decreased and goals conceded has stayed the same. That’s no small feat considering the intensity and competitiveness of the Premier League has reached unprecedented heights this season, whereas Van Gaal oversaw a relatively uneventful 2014/15 and a chaotic 2015/16 that, in truth, he should have capitalised on more.
Yet, there is one crucial area where LVG currently rules supreme over the Special One, in a curious variation from the latter’s career. Indeed, Mourinho has become revered for obtaining the right results from the most important games, but his United side have struggled to live up to that billing this season.
Across all competitions, the Red Devils have managed just two wins against the Premier League’s ‘big six’ – one of which was a victory over a severely weakened Manchester City side in the EFL Cup. They struggled to get going in both northwest derbies, lost the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, failed to overcome Arsenal – a side Mourinho boasts a fantastic record against historically – and were annihilated by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a 4-0 romping.
Indeed, whilst Mourinho may have found a considerably more popular balance between results and performances than Van Gaal, the most vital, most-Mourinho piece of the jigsaw is still yet to be put in place. As paradoxical as it may seem, during a season in which it appears the top six has become a complete league of their own, United may well be better off with Van Gaal in the dugout, grinding out results against their closest divisional rivals.