Louis van Gaal is a tactician. He’s feted worldwide as a student of football, one of the most sophisticated coaches on the planet.
In the mid-90s, he nurtured a group of young Ajax academy graduates, coaching them to become some of the best known names in world football and helping them to a Champions League title in the process. Two finals in two years to be exact. The team included Edwin van der Sar, the De Boer brothers, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert.
It was a hell of a team, and they played some amazing football. In fact, in November of 1995 they played what van Gaal insists is the only ‘perfect game’ that any of his teams has ever played.
By this he means played to his tactics, right down to the letter. Not letting it slip once, getting the passing right, getting the off-the-ball movement right, getting the positioning right. Van Gaal’s teams play sophisticated football – every player has a job, and every movement is choreographed. Or at least, that’s what van Gaal would like it to be, he’d love to move the players around himself. You get the feeling he’s very, very good at FIFA.
And his United team have been getting better at doing his bidding this season. They’ve slowly progressed into what everyone agrees is something representing good form. They were contesting the leaders at Christmas but their challenge has waned. Yet their performances have got better. The team has got more used to the possession game, and with Michael Carrick in front of the defence – or slotting into the defence when United are attacking – the United back line looks much stronger than it did at the start of the season.
United have become more and more of a van Gaal team, as you’d expect. LvG would never compromise on his principles, and you’d always expect his teams to conform to his ideas. But over the last few games, United’s tactics have been nullified by good defending and good shape from both Chelsea and Everton. And the manager has to take some of the blame for that.
His tactics aren’t wrong, per se. He’s got a squad with the likes of Carrick, Rooney, Herrera and Mata, all players who know how to pass the ball very well. He’s got pace in Valencia and Young, and these are also two more traditional wingers who are good at crossing the ball. And he’s got the aerial threat and physical prowess of Marouane Fellaini.
So why shouldn’t he use all of these elements?
United can pass the ball around and work it to Fellaini’s feet for him to hold it up and bring others into play. Or they can work it wide to the likes of Young and Valencia and get crosses in towards the big Belgian’s head.
They’ve done it to great effect for most of the second half of the season, and have even been accused of being a long ball team at times this season.
I don’t think anything could be further from the truth – United don’t just lump it to Fellaini, they try to work it into an area where a high ball has a better chance of finding his head in a good position. But I can see why people might think they’re a bit of a hit and rush side.
It’s got less to do with the actual high balls and more to do with the rigidity of the game plan.
United are painfully rigid at times. Yes they try to pass it around and keep possession, but it always feels like they’re just trying to work it wide so they can get a cross into Fellaini’s head. The have lots of possession, lots of outlets for passes in the midfield, but only one line of penetration.
And it’s not like Fellaini isn’t good with the ball at his feet, either.
And you’d think that for a manager like van Gaal, the well-worked long passes to the big man would be a plan B. Something to pull out of the bag when silky football isn’t working. It’s nice to have that club in the bag, but it’s not the club you start with – more of a rescue club than a fairway wood, if you like.
But for United at the moment, it’s plan A. It worked very well against City and against Liverpool, but Everton and Chelsea were able to sit deep, man mark and easily nullify the threat. Kurt Zouma had Fellaini in his pocket all game.
And like any game plan, it’s fine to use it so long as you can change it in games where it just doesn’t work. But United can’t – when you use plan B as your plan A, it’s difficult to change things when it doesn’t work. It’s difficult to go from playing it long to passing it around in the 80th minute when you have very little time left. It’s much easier to just start to hoof the ball in the final few minutes when you desperately need a goal. Normal human psychology doesn’t really lend itself to trying to play slow, silky, thoughtful football when you’re chasing a game. Adrenaline is running too high, heart rate is high too, and there’s too much of a temptation to panic.
United won’t win the league this season, and they’ll more than likely qualify for the Champions League. Van Gaal has achieved what he set out to achieve this season, and he has brought United back to where they belong – the top table of European football. But they could maybe have had much more if only Van Gaal had stuck to his guns and played along the ground more often, using Fellaini’s height as a backup rather than a starting tactic. But i’m sure we’ll see more of this next season – van Gaal’s too classy a coach for this to last too long.