A shadow looms over Old Trafford. The greatest manager in the history of the club, perhaps even the world, has become an unrealistic yardstick for any manager who dares take the job. While David Moyes has already found this out, Louis Van Gaal is now in the hot seat but why are United facing a barrage of criticism when they are sitting in a Champions League spot?
United’s results up until the Swansea match this weekend, were second to none in the Premier League. With 35 points and one loss in 15 games the Red Devils were top of the form table, leading LVG to declare his side were ‘the best in the league’, a claim which was undoubtedly distorted by the statistics. Two schools of thought can be subscribed to here. Either Manchester United are able to win games despite not playing well, or they have simply been lucky. The reality is somewhere in between. No self-respecting fan could claim that United have deserved every point they have gained this season, though a run of 16 games with two defeats suggests there is more than just good fortune about this side’s results.
Just how then has LVG created a dichotomy between performance and results quite so distinct?
As a man who has won league titles at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he is not short of confidence. Displayed in his unwavering belief in some players (Van Persie) alongside his style of play, Van Gaal has created a team which adheres to his utterly pragmatic system. When the team is set up to play 3-5-2, United tend to dominate possession, which the manager is adamant on achieving. Criticism stems from the slow tempo instilled in the play. Not only do the fans despise this irrefutably boring style of play, but the real problems emerge when United lose the ball. While David De Gea has shown his world-class goalkeeping on a regular basis this season, he has had little choice but do so.
Playing a back three invites attacks from wide players who can easily pull apart the defensive shape of the team. This will always be exploited in the Premier League which has traditionally and continues to value the talents of the tricky winger highly. The British obsession with attacking and hate for slow, possession based football means that United endear themselves to no-one. Their formation makes them unnecessarily weak against lesser opponents who need only throw a ball into the wide channels to cause problems, while the Wing-backs who are so key to this system cannot get forward and provide width for their own team’s attacking play.
Having seen David Moyes handed a six year contract before being sacked 10 months into it, the Dutch pragmatist knows he must finish fourth or risk suffering the same fate. In his desperation to find ‘balance’, playing three in defence has proved a vulnerable formation in the fast paced premier league. Whilst it may have worked for Holland in a slower international game, LVG’s obsession with balance is affecting the performances of a traditionally exciting attacking team.
By retaining the ball, he foresees United winning most games as the players in the final third have the quality to convert chances. The poor form of United’s strikers has tested Van Gaal’s philosophy however- one need look no further than a reliance on Marouane Fellaini when the chips are down- but as long as he finishes in the Champions League places, he is for all intents and purposes, (not at least to himself) a success.
Patience, above all is now required. To replace one of the greatest managers ever in Sir Alex was always going to be a nearly impossible task. With the players at his disposal, Van Gaal faces a choice between pretty football or finishing in 4th place. Placing a premium on the latter in a time where he has no real choice, fans will hope further down the line he can match up to his predecessor and bring back exciting football to Old Trafford.
The formation is not totally to blame for United’s poor play this season. It does not work because the playing staff are simply not good enough. In order to successfully play a back three, you need defenders with great communication and positional abilities, attributes which the likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones unfortunately don’t possess. A lack of discipline in the back line has been responsible for so many of the goals conceded this season. Also, one of these defenders has to be responsible for starting attacks and feeding more creative players in front of them. Many thought Evans would fulfil this role early on, but this season has been one of his worst at the club. The only centre-back who can claim to have been solid, if unremarkable, is new signing Marcos Rojo, who has shown the required discipline and ability to follow directions needed for this formation.
Things are little better going forward. It is no coincidence that Man United’s good form came when Michael Carrick was at full fitness. He can protect his defence and start attacks from deep and has proved crucial to United’s ability to play well. While Daley Blind has tried to fulfil this role, his lack of pace really hinders him in defensive scenarios where a player need only be quick to beat him. Ander Herrera has made greater contributions in the final third this season and the use of Rooney as a central midfielder offers little in the way of defensive protection. There is no doubt that United’s problem in midfield (much like defence) is a lack of definitive roles and discipline. Big teams in the modern era use one creative midfielder and one capable of putting in the hard yards. Modric & Khedeira, Fabregas and Matic, Toure and Fernando spring to mind. It is little surprise then that United have not stood up to the big teams in any of their games against them this season. Even a 3-0 win at home to Liverpool came courtesy of a man of the match performance from David De Gea.
United struggle against the smaller teams too. Slow build up play means that the sides United would expect to beat have time to get into the defensive shape they have practiced all week on the training ground, making it very hard for United to break them down. Teams who dominate possession like Arsenal and Barcelona, find success when they play one and two touch football moving defences around. The difference for United is that their strikers are not mobile enough to enable the team to pop the ball around quickly and create space. Robin Van Persie has struggled for fitness all season, while Falcao’s efforts often seem full of promise, but ultimately futile. Ironically now the sale of Welbeck and loaning of Hernandez look to be poor decisions, as they would provide a lot of the mobility up front that LVG’s men require.
The common theme throughout United’s ‘problems’, seems to be LVG’s insistence upon his philosophy. Club legend Gary Neville made a great point this week when he said United fans need to stop pining for Ferguson’s roll-the-dice attitude towards games. Whilst it was exciting and ultimately successful for the Scot, people now need to accept that LVG is the boss. Just as uncompromising and filled with self-belief as Sir Alex, he believes in a different, more measured style of play that he is convinced allows his team to dominate and ultimately win games.
Most importantly for a man with such an ego, it is vindication for Van Gaal. It may be dull; it may be scientific, but the results are hard to argue with.
Simon is a freelance sports writer. Visit his blog www.thefansview0311.blogspot.co.uk/ and follow him on twitter @SimonWhite14