There’s quite the debate swirling around Old Trafford at the moment, with fans, pundits and former players undecided on how well Louis van Gaal’s first season at Manchester United has actually gone.
Few envisaged the day hit-n-hope enthusiast Sam Allardyce would accuse the Red Devils of resorting to long-ball tactics, dubbing them ‘long-ball United’ after one of several speculative crosses into the box fell kindly to a volleying Daley Blind to secure a 1-1 draw with West Ham three weekends ago, and indeed, much of the criticism directed at van Gaal has centred around his style of play.
Ron Atkinson believes his Dutchman’s philosophy has been ‘lost in translation‘, Paul Scholes labelled it ‘miserable football‘, and even centre-back Johnny Evans has admitted recent displays are hardly up to the standard United fans were accustomed to under Sir Alex Ferguson – a manager whom, despite winning 13 Premier League titles, always prioritised performance over results.
Clearly we’re still waiting for them to hit anything close to top gear, but it’s hard to argue with the Red Devils’ standing of third place in the Premier League. If van Gaal’s remit for this season was to qualify for the Champions League, he’s currently on schedule. Across all competitions, United have lost just twice since August – and coming up short against Manchester City and Southampton is hardly something to be embarrassed about.
Likewise, van Gaal’s had to deal with a catalogue of problems this season, further amplified by it being his first at Manchester United and his first in English football. The Dutchman jested about having just one player out injured in January for example; he’s usually had to contend with between five and ten potential starters languishing on the sidelines for the majority of his fixtures this term.
That, in combination with an audaciously imbalanced squad, the existence of three world-class strikers and five feasible No.10s sharply juxtaposing a defence with an average age of just 24, has resulted in continuous changes in formation, style and personnel. One can only imagine how confusing the relentless swaps between back threes and midfield diamonds – two systems historically alien to the Manchester United philosophy – has been for the players.
Yet, van Gaal has still managed to drag his side kicking and screaming, difficult performance after difficult performance, up the league table – by no miraculous coincidence. His half-time inclusions of Marouane Fellaini have favourably changed the course of results on countless occasions this term, his switch to a back four ensured three integral points against QPR in December and the impact the change to long-ball had for the final minutes against West Ham was evident enough through Allardyce’s post-match analysis. Some United fans may be disillusioned with how van Gaal sets up his teams, but there’s no doubt the Dutchman is earning his keep when it comes tactically outmanoeuvring his opposite number.
That being said, there’s a common feeling that United could be doing better this season. After all, they’ve spent a net total of £170million in the four transfer windows since Ferguson’s retirement, more than City and Chelsea, and United’s squad is resultantly laden with some of the top attacking talents in the game today – Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria and Juan Mata, to name but a few.
If a manager’s job is to find a system that brings the best performance out of all, both individually and as a team, that’s where van Gaal is currently failing. On paper, at least, United’s starting Xi is good enough to be challenging for the Premier League title, but they’ve not been a genuine factor in the race for top spot since the turn of the year.
So, are the fans, pundits and former players right to be demanding more from van Gaal? Is this a sign of his philosophy being incompatible with the Carrington club in the long term? Should the Old Trafford hierarchy be considering replacements already?
Well, the Red Devils will inevitably be held to unrealistically high standards, but the fact of the matter is that it will be a long time before they return to the dominance of old. The crucial task this season is returning the Champions League and, although performances have not been pretty, by hook or by crook, van Gaal will likely get them there – assuming there’s no shock end of season capitulation.
That alone earns him at least another year at United, aided by a greater understanding of English football and a better rounded squad. We often say players from abroad require a season to settle, so why not a manager – even if he’s regarded as one of the best in the business?
Should Manchester United’s unenjoyable performances trickle into next season however, regardless of results, van Gaal could soon find himself fighting against a very disillusioned, very powerful, worldwide fan base.