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Louis van Gaal - After the Choosen One is he the Right One?

Updated on February 15, 2016

The Background

Louie Louie, oh no
Sayin' we gotta go, yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah
Said Louie Louie, oh baby
Said we gotta go

Taken from the popular Richard Berry song, it is likely how some Manchester United fans feel after the recent poor run of form, replacing the word 'we' with 'you' regarding Louis van Gaal and his performance as manager of Manchester United. More recently, some have said his side is boring, we never look like scoring and he doesn’t know what he is doing. Back in August, a day after the first defeat of the season to Swansea, changes to the squad were made with Van Gaal letting Januzaj and Hernandez go to Germany on loan and permanently respectively. United then splashed out GBP36 million on unknown French youngster Anthony Martial and were accused of panic buying. Just a month later van Gaal found his side sat at the top of the Premier League. Fast forward to December and Gary Monk of Swansea has lost his job after a series of poor performances and van Gaal is back under pressure after seeing his United side crash out of the Champions League at the group stage. How quickly things can change in football.

26 years ago when I was at school I wrote a mock newspaper article for a school project stating that Sir Alex Ferguson should go after a terrible defeat to Charlton Athletic. Thankfully no one outside my school read it and just one year later United won the FA Cup and proceeded to dominate English football for the next 24 years. The difference between success and failure in football is often just a slip away, just ask Brendan Rogers. When appointed in 1986, Ferguson had a similar task to van Gaal in that he had to rebuild the side and that meant getting rid of some popular names and creating his own culture and way of discipline. Ferguson rebuilt the side from the bottom up and it took him 4 seasons before he finally began to develop a settled side. It has to be said though that Ferguson in his first full season in 1987-88 was unfortunate not to win the league with United only losing 5 games and coming second to a Liverpool side who only lost twice which in the days of a 40 game season was a remarkable achievement. I am not suggesting for one moment that the United van Gaal took over was in the same state as when Ferguson took the reigns but never the less he has had to put his own stamp on his team as well as understand the culture that is Manchester United. There are also many similarities between that season and the current one. Ferguson had spent around GBP15 million on various players which seems a small amount now but in the late 80's early 90's it was a fortune. Louis van Gaal has also spent with the current bill sitting in excess of GBP200 million but he has also recouped money selling the likes of Hernandez, Di Maria and Robin van Persie.

Louis van Gaal


The Chosen One

Prior to Louis van Gaal, his predecessor David Moyes tried to put his own stamp on the side but he succeeded in inadvertently alienating his senior players and over thinking his domestic tactics. Dubbed 'The Chosen One', Moyes first major error was dispensing with Rene Muelensteen and Mike Phelan, the first team coaches, who commanded huge respect from the senior players, and replacing them with Steve Round and Jimmy Lumsden and adding Phil Neville and Chris Woods to his management team. Chris Woods stint is relatively overlooked but it is he who deserves a lot of credit for the development of David De Gea. Moyes was gifted a successful team which perhaps needed a couple of changes to keep it refreshed which is something Ferguson did each transfer window. He started off reasonably well with a Charity Shield win and then an emphatic 4-1 win at Swansea. However it quickly went downhill from there and it would seem that Moyes ultimately appeared to have lost the dressing room. In truth I do not know if that is really true but how can a side who won the league convincingly the previous year capitulate so badly the following season? I think many of the players let Moyes down though I also think his decision regarding his coaching team played a major role in the teams performance.

David Moyes ability as a master tactician should not be overlooked and his success in taking United to the quarter finals of the Champions League, where they lost to Bayern Munich, should not be discredited. United actually turned in some good performances away from home in the Champions League. In the League Cup too Moyes was a penalty shoot out away from taking his side to Wembley for the second time that season. Yet in the Premier League Moyes just appears to have over thought his tactics and instead of letting his side play their game took the approach he took at Everton. There the aim was to stop his opponents playing and stick to a game plan that often led to his weaker side causing some shocks against the stronger Premier League sides. At United, it is up to the opponents to stop United playing not the other way round. Against the top sides United were vastly outplayed and were a shadow of the side from the previous season. Home defeats to Man City and Liverpool were amongst the worst performances with the side appearing to show no desire against two bitter rivals.

Moyes clearly does have some good man management skills having been able to get the best out of Adnan Januzaj and also persuading Wayne Rooney to renew his contract at United just when it seemed as though he would leave for Chelsea. This is even more remarkable when you consider that Moyes and Rooney had a legal battle a few years previously. Despite this and with everything that went on in Moyes first season and with United languishing outside the top 4 (eventually they would finish 7th) it came as no surprise to see him sacked and replaced eventually with van Gaal.

David Moyes in his Everton Days


Louis van Gaal's First Season - 2014/15

Louis van Gaal joined United after leading Holland to the semi finals of the 2014 World Cup. They were a penalty shootout way of making the final and whilst at times his side were very structured and disciplined, in the 5-1 pasting of Spain they showed that offensively they were extremely powerful as well. At United, given everything that had proceeded him, van Gaal made the solid decision of keeping Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Warren Joyce as part of his coaching team but he did bring in Frans Hoeck and Albert Stuivenberg. Given the players performance under Moyes, and likely under Giggs guidance, he has proceeded to strip the decks. There should be no place for players who let a manager down in the manner some of the United players did in the Moyes season and therefore this tough approach was needed. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same when he arrived getting rid of fan favorites Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan which caused supporters to be aghast at the time. In his first summer, Patrice Evra, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Nani, Hernandez were sold or sent on loan. Shinji Kagawa returned to Dortmund having apparently been told by van Gaal that he saw him as a number 6 as opposed to an attacking midfielder or number 10. Louis van Gaal views all positions as numbers rather then quoting the actual position which I suspect is his way of simplifying everything and perhaps a subtle way of emphasizing that they are just a number in a team and the team is the most important thing. Kagawa would have suited van Gaal’s system in this less advanced role with his quick thinking and eye for a pass but chose to return to Dortmund.

Into the side came Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Falcao and Luke Shaw. He also made Wayne Rooney captain. This was a particularly important decision given van Gaal’s relationship with Robin van Persie and Rooney’s situation 1 year previously. In fact you have to wonder what might have happened had van Gaal taken over instead of Moyes in 2013. I doubt Rooney would have stayed. Louis van Gaal also had Juan Mata and the much criticized Mauronne Fellaini, both of whom David Moyes had brought in, and also gave game time to youngsters Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett.

After a slow start, where United experimented with a 3-5-2 system, United finally began to click in the middle of the season and towards the last third of the season were able to put together a run that ultimately clinched 4th place. Victories against Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City were particularly impressive in the run in. Robin van Persie and Di Maria had stop start season’s hampered with injuries and dips in form, likely a fall out of the World Cup. In truth van Persie was never the same since the day Alex Ferguson left and I think it is fair to say that it hit him hard. Given the legendary number 7 shirt, marquee signing Di Maria found it tough to adapt to the English game which is not unusual for foreign players in their first season. He started well scoring in 2 goals and having 2 assists in his opening 4 matches winning two trophies for United's player of the month for September and also for goal of the month. In the first match of October he scored again and also assisted in Falcao's winner against Everton. He then went on to suffer a spate of niggly injuries which hampered his form. He also then had to deal with the unfortunate episode of his family being in his house when a masked gang attempted to break in which did not help him settle at all. I think many forget that he is was still only 26 and this would understandably affect any young man with a young family trying to settle in a new country. Falcao, a loan signing, also struggled with persistent niggly injuries. When he was fit he was never really given a fair run in the team and his loan was not renewed which was unfortunate. At times he looked sublime and a couple of the goals he scored were vintage Falcao. None the less United finished 4th and achieved their aim of Champions League qualification. Furthermore, van Gaal was able to revitalize Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini both of whom were tipped to leave the club during the summer of 2014.

Angel Di Maria - The Marquee Signing


Summer of 2015

After his first season it was clear, van Gaal expects his side to be disciplined and not give the ball away needlessly. He needs players who are adaptable and can play in several positions changing shape if needed. It is said that van Gaal requires that his players are able to play at minimum 2 positions. This was seen in the 2014 World Cup, held in Brazil, where he had a fluid 3-5-2 system that could switch to a 5-3-2 system. I never thought I would see the day when arch predator Dirk Kuyt, with 233 career goals, was deployed as a wing back. In Brazil van Gaal employed two field hockey coaches and his style of playing and his demands of his players are reminiscent of the style of this sport. The dutch have been a great field hockey power house in recent years and it too is a sport that demands quick thinking, accurate quick passing, speed on the attack and players who can play multiple positions. As a field hockey player myself, it was drilled into me from an early age that it was ok to pass back and keeping the ball was key. We would do countless exercises around passing and working the ball out from the back which at times I found boring but I have to admit they did improve me as a player from a technical basis. The ball never gets tired and travels faster then any player. It was fascinating to watch his United side in the pre match warm up last season as they play a game in the shape of their system with no opponents. I have done this exercise many times over the years during field hockey training and it highlights the level of discipline expected from a van Gaal team. In a recent interview for the BBC, Patrice Evra explained that this type of training is what they do at Juventus and he also explained how some of his ex United team mates were not receptive to some of the newer training methods. Paul Pogba also of Juventus has also highlighted how harder the training is in Italy to what he did at Man Utd. At United, prior to going on the pitch each player also receives a short briefing from Hoeck as to what is expected when they go on the pitch. After the first season, it was clear where the areas of improvement were needed. At right back, central midfield, perhaps center back and also up front. He also needed to resolve the transfer/contract saga with goalkeeper David De Gea.

Over the summer most areas were addressed but not in the ways we thought. Matteo Darmian arrived from Torino to cover the right back position and he is also able to slot in at left back. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived from Southampton and Bayern Munich respectively to cover the midfield engine room. Dutch forward Memphis Depay was signed from PSV Eindhoven and Argentinian Sergio Romero was signed to cover the goalkeeper position. As van Persie and Nani both left permanently United fans were concerned about the lack of forward power. The van Persie transfer illustrates van Gaal's ability to put the club before his own relationship with a player. He and van Persie had a good relationship particularly in the lead up to and at the 2014 World Cup but once van Gaal saw van Persie's game falling away then he was moved on. There is an air of Sir Alex about that type of move and over the years Ferguson moved on Beckham, Ince, Hughes, Kanchelskis, van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane. Each time eyebrows were raised but the team was refreshed and it moved on. During his short reign, David Moyes remarked that he was afraid to take van Persie off during a United home game because of the crowd reaction but at United there is no place for sentiment. The team comes first. Johnny Evans and Anders Lindergard were also allowed to leave and United fans were further aghast as Hernandez left for Germany on a permanent move to Bayer Leverkusen and Adnan Januzaj left for Borrussia Dortmund on loan. Fellaini was the answer upfront according to van Gaal. Then two things happened which in years to come may well be looked back on as incidents that shaped van Gaal's managerial career at United. First Anthony Martial joined in a move dubbed a panic buy and then David De Gea's move to Real Madrid, which had been rumoured all summer, collapsed at the last moment. A week later De Gea signed a new contract at United and 2 days after that United beat Liverpool 3-1 with Martial making his debut and scoring the third decisive goal. He managed 4 goals in his first 5 games and football fans around the country realized that this was a star in the making.

Anthony Martial's debut goal

United's Boring Style

Louis van Gaal in recent weeks has been criticized for his side playing boring football. I think that some ex players have been a little naïve in their comments in saying they and other ex players would not have enjoyed playing in that side. It is disrespectful to the current players, two of whom have World Cup winners medals to their name, so surely have some talent themselves. I also think some United fans are being very forgetful. When Sir Alex Ferguson was manager there were times when the side was very workmanlike and you could never see where the next goal would come from. The season before United signed Robin van Persie is one that springs to mind and I also remember some years ago the side being criticized for failing to attack enough and the “attack’attack…” chant echoed round the ground. Yes there have been some swashbuckling sides over the years with the days of Law, Best and Charlton in the 60's and Strachan, Whiteside, Robson and Hughes in the mid 80's. In the 90's we were treated to Cantona, Hughes, Kanchelskis and Giggs followed by the famous class of 92 along with Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solksjaer and then more recently there was the van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez years. However, I am not sure we have ever had a United side that keeps possession as well as the current side does. Last season Van Gaal was criticized for his teams inability to defend after he experimented with a 3-5-2 formation. Against Leicester City he fielded Falcao, van Persie, Rooney, Herrera and Di Maria in the same starting XI. His side lost 5-3 and he was slated for his teams poor defensive display. Last season the focus was on more offensive based players and perhaps he was trying to build the new team from the front. This season van Gaal has focused on getting the side set up to be rigid and disciplined and is really re-building from the back. It has been said that he does not allow his players to express themselves. This is nonsense. What van Gaal does not allow is the players to take chances in areas where they can be punished. Go back to the 2014/15 season and the match away at Liverpool which United were comfortably winning 2-0. Di Maria carelessly gave the ball away and Liverpool broke and scored leaving United with a precarious 2-1 lead to hold on to in a match which they could not afford to lose. This season I have seen flicks and tricks from Martial and in the Champions League match v Moscow, Rooney did a brilliant flicked pass to Jesse Lingard who was unfortunate not to score. There was also the clever back heeled flick from Juan Mata that led to Chris Smalling scoring in the match against Wolfsburg. What the United players perhaps lack at the minute is the confidence to do things off the cuff and I think they need to learn when it is ok to do that in the current system. This will happen as they grow in confidence and get used to the style of play. Rooney has the experience whereas Martial and Memphis are two others that fit the profile and have the ability but they are still learning and ways of the Premier League. Martial is something of on unknown and has been able to profit on that whereas Memphis came with a good reputation and so sides often double team him so he needs to adjust to that. United do need to add in the forward area and I am certain that van Gaal will address this in the coming transfer windows. He has the playmakers in Carrick, Mata and Herrera and the steel and power in Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlein and Fellaini. Getting that right player is going to be a challenge, since these days the tops sides don't want or need to let their top players leave. As a result I suspect that we will be buying players with potential like Anthony Martial.

I think van Gaal is building a base and this is a side that was criticized for its inability to defend after they were taught a lesson by Arsenal and then conceded 1 goal from open play in their next 8 games. They gained an impressive 3-0 win away at a decent Everton side (where they had not won for 3 seasons), were unfortunate not to beat City and gained a point away against a Palace side who will take points and have taken points off the big boys this season. Ok they did fall out of the League Cup on penalties but sit close to the top 4 in what is a very competitive league this season. The 2015/16 home match against West Brom illustrated the challenge United often face. West Brom created one good chance all game but sat back with 10 men behind the ball and Rondon the lone runner upfront. Had United been gung-ho offensively they could have been caught out on the break and chasing the game against Tony Pulis' defensively solid side would have been extremely difficult. Instead they were patient and scored through two moments of brilliance from Lingard when he scored and Martial when he won the penalty sealed the points.

Statistically, prior to the recent Newcastle game, United had an average of 57% possession in their games which was the most in the Premier League. They also play the most passes in the final 3rd of the field which is in line with similar figures for Barcelona and Bayern Munich. With this in mind they are only 14th in terms of the numbers of shots taken and dribbles attempted and Juan Mata has a career high number of passes completed but his risk/chance creating passes are down. It seems that United have not yet mastered the quick passing style needed to take advantage of their territorial dominance. Many of United's opponents play in the manner of West Brom particularly when they visit Old Trafford and that is the problem as it makes them hard to breakdown. The Premier League sides also have much stronger first XI's then they did historically. Who would have thought Stoke could have attracted Shaqiri and Crystal Palace Yohan Cabaye and that Leicester City would be holding their own at the top of the league. That is the calibre of the opposition and more frequently the big sides are taking a tumble at one of the perceived lesser sides. There are really no easy games in the Premier League at the moment.

United certainly need a little depth offensively which van Gaal in recent press conferences has made no secret of and I suspect the finished Man United will be a defensively solid one which are fast offensively. I actually thought United were probably the best suited out of all the English sides to have had a good run in the Champions League but they fell short due to their ability to score goals in the end. They do have the Europa League to aim for which should not be sneered at and the only trophy United have never won. If they can steer clear of injuries, get some luck in the draw and find some consistency in front of goal their style makes them a nightmare to play against in Europe.

Despite his critics, historically van Gaal has been an advocate of attacking football which is evidenced by his Ajax side who averaged 91.8 goals per season in the first 5 seasons he was coach. At Barcelona he maintained their average of 78 goals per season in the 3 seasons he coached them and at Bayern the team scored a then record 81 goals in just 34 games. At these sides little rebuilding was needed but at United he has practically rebuilt the team, a process that is ongoing. Remember he has managed the attacking talents of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Boudewijn Zenden to name a few. His sides have also sometimes relied on centre forwards who are not necessarily flashy but solid reliable goalscorers. Sonny Anderson, Ivica Olic and Mario Gomez are some of the players who have performed this type of role for him and don't be surprised to see a player of similar ilk show up at Old Trafford sometime in the future. The excellent video clip below is taken from You Tube and gives an insight into how van Gaal sets up his teams. Thank you to Tactics Focus for sharing this.

Louis van Gaal's Philosophy

The Future

So what does the future hold for van Gaal and his team? They are without doubt still a work in progress and whilst Martial is an extremely talented player, it is too early yet to see if he can maintain his fine start and develop as it is hoped. United need now to add 2 or 3 depth players to the squad as well as bring through the young players. Louis van Gaal has been accused as not adhering to United youth policy and buying players instead of developing. I think the perceived United youth policy is a myth. Other then the famous class of 92, which it is acknowledged are likely a once in a generation, only Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher, Rafael and Johnny Evans can truly be seen to have made it through the ranks. That is 7 players in 23 years. I suspect if you looked at several of the other Premier league clubs they would have comparable records. Even Sir Alex Ferguson bought several players as he started to build his United side and he did not completely rely on players who United had developed. Arguably van Gaal has the finest batch of young players seen since 92 given that they are all of a similar age. Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett, James Wilson, Andrea Pereira, Adnan Januzaj, Jesse Lingard and goalkeeper Sam Johnstone are all around the first team or in the case of Blackett and Januzaj (though Januzaj has since returned in the January transfer window) have been sent on loan to help their development, something that United did with Welbeck, Evans, Beckham and Cleverly. More recently Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Axel Tuanzebe have been in recent first team squads with Jackson recently becoming the 245th youth team player to make the Man United first team squad. Goalkeeper Joel Pereira is also highly rated and Will Keane has been recalled from his recent loan spell scoring 5 goals in two recent reserve games and 5 in one game in a recent fixture against under 21 fixture Norwich. Keane seems to now have the build and confidence and could be ready for a crack at the first team.

Creating a squad with good depth is a little harder then in the days of Sir Alex as the reserve team structure is very different. Now in the reserve team it is predominantly under 21 with each side allowed 3 over age players. It is therefore difficult for clubs these days to have a squad of 25 experienced players as many would not get enough game time to be ready to jump straight in the first team when needed and it is not always beneficial to consistently rotate the team extensively each week. One or two you can get away with but four or five is a challenge. That is why we are seeing van Gaal blood his 18 and 19 year old players. The likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid do not carry big first teams squads but the problem in England is that the game is faster and more physical then on the continent and that is perhaps an area that van Gaal is struggling to adapt to in terms of managing his squad. There is no doubt that United tried to take the ready made approach last season in signing Di Maria and Falcao but have taken an approach of buying potential future stars in the purchases of Shaw, Depay, Darmian, Martial and Schneiderlin. Louis van Gaal has surrounded them with experienced professionals in Mata, Young, Carrick, Rooney and Schweinsteiger whilst keeping faith and developing the likes of Blind, Smalling and Jones in addition to the home grown youngsters.

Will Keane - one for the future?

So is van Gaal the right man?

Overall I think van Gaal is the right man to take United forward. He is building a disciplined side that I believe will play with more attacking fluidity the more confident they get. We have a great collection of young players coming through and van Gaal has the ability to attract the top talent if they want to come and if they want to play in the way he demands. The capture of Bastian Schweinsteiger is a master stroke and the ability to turn around the De Gea situation and find Anthony Martial has been nothing short of brilliant. As United fans we need to be patient. We have no divine right to win a trophy every season and we need to recall the days of the 70's and 80's when we only had a few FA Cup wins to crow about. The side he is building reminds me of a German side in that the players are big and powerful and keep possession well. If you look at the set up, their formation is the same as Arsenal, City and Chelsea and the key is to fine tune the personal and for the personal to get used to the system. I recently listened to a podcast on radio Manchester called Blue Tuesday which is for Manchester City fans and their fans were saying the same thing that the style of football was boring, they kept the ball but were not going anywhere. Chelsea fans have said the same thing. Really only Leicester City play with a different formation of the top sides who all play a 4-2-3-1 set up if you truely look at them. Offensively, the United players are learning to take chances at the right time and play a more patient and disciplined style but this change of style will take time too.

Recently it has been said that United are looking to replace van Gaal with Mourinho and you cannot rule out going from the 'Chosen One' to the man who professes to be the 'Special One'. I believe this would be a grave error. Many United fans were aghast and concerned that City have appointed Pep Guardiola. However, they would be wise to remember 2 things. Firstly Mourinho's style is exactly the same as van Gaal but Louis has a superb record of developing young players. Mourinho worked with van Gaal at Barcelona and so has had him as a mentor. I am certain that if Mourinho takes over at United he will be a success but I also believe that the success will happen anyway and we will continue to develop our young players if we stick with Louis. The style of football under Mourinho will not change. Secondly, the sides that Guardiola inherited at Barcelona and at Bayern Munich had their foundations built by van Gaal. Whilst I do not doubt Pep to be a good coach, I am sceptical that he is as good as people believe and also that the squad he inherits at City is capable of playing the high intensity football he demands and even if it is possible to play that style of football on a consistent level in the Premier League due to the physical demands and intensity of the league itself. Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool has found his style of football hard to maintain so far. I think when van Gaal leaves, United should stick with Giggs as his replacement. He is not quite ready just yet though in 15 months time I believe that will be the right time for him to be the next man in the hot seat.

Thierry Henry's thoughts on van Gaal

What do you think?

Is van Gaal the right man to take United back to the top?

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