Sunday, March 8, 2015

Van Gaal's Mancunian Mystery Tour

OR TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MAN UTD KEEPING THE BALL FOR TOO LONG

I am usually bored to tears by talk of anything Manchester United, but Louis Van Gaal's debut in English football is for me the most intriguing story this season.

The former Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern and Netherlands coach is undoubtedly one of the world's best, but has eschewed England for years, admitting in interviews the country's football did not impress him. Now he has finally landed on our shores the results have been confounding.

First impressions count and Van Gaal does not just not speak like English managers, let alone Dutch ones, whose English skills are typically flowing if not near-native. This is the first obstacle in making sense of Man U this season.

We understand him but he is still speaking a different language. Just take what Van Gaal told journalists what he liked most about England, a reply which understandably left them open-mouthed: Chinese food and wine lists.

We get the familiar bluntness of a Dutchman but he does not remind us in any way of the other Netherlanders who have made a name in English football, whether Arnold Muhren, Ruud Gullit, Martin Jol or Ronald Koeman. Van Gaal is his own man all right.

I asked Dutch friends for enlightenment and they joked that Van Gaal was a dictator, which explains why Man Utd homed in on him in their pining for the familiarity of the Alex Ferguson regime after 'nice guy' David Moyes' failed audition.
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Van Gaal has three Dutch assistants with him in Manchester yet his relationship with the very British Ryan Giggs remains perplexing. Giggs has never played abroad and was a winger in the 'fantasista' tradition, a type of player Van Gaal was not known to have favoured over the years. They are sat together on the bench as if chalk and cheese have been placed next to each other at a dinner party.

When Ashley Young netted an 89th minute winner against Newcastle this week the manager screamed with joy in the face of a stone-faced Welshman. What could that mean, wondered everyone.

Does Giggsy still harbour resentment at not being offered the job long-term after picking up the reins from Moyes' messy and premature divorce last season? The press went like bloodhounds after this simplistic line, leading to predictable denials from both parties of any rift, but left the public none the wiser.

The season started erratically with a home loss to Swansea, a draw at Sunderland, an embarrassing 4-0 mauling at third-tier MK Dons, albeit with a B team, then a 0-0 draw at Burnley. Hardly the stuff of champions.

But soon enough, the style of play into which Man Utd settled caused a tide of consternation which has never quite subsided, as if a continental club had been suddenly transplanted into the familiar red shirts, or dropped by for a Champions League tie and stayed.

A slow and patient approach in all phases of the game is a clean break with the attacking and entertaining heritage of the Red Devils, a real fork in the road. The Dutchman has persisted with this possession-first philosophy even when it is clearly paying no dividends, most notably in the FA Cup ties against lower-league opposition.

United bored their way to a 0:0 draw at fourth-tier Cambridge United and trudged to another goalless 45 minutes at third-tier Preston North End, before triumphing 3-0 and 3-1 respectively. Both opponents just shut up shop and let Van Gaal's millionaires frustrate themselves in front of the camera.

Despite apparently ample evidence that they are more dangerous when using wingers and are getting the ball forward faster, Van Gaal has been slow to tweak his favourite formation, which typically has a three-man back line and a single front man.

Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have begun on the bench many times but clearly transform the team when brought on, providing a refreshing change of pace and width to the laboured build-up. Van Gaal's juggling of the team suggests he is struggling to know his best side and has not been a fast learner.

On the plus side, the Dutchman has given new faces like James Wilson and Patrick McNair a chance and has not bowed to reputations by dropping Falcao when the Colombian had not impressed enough.

Wayne Rooney might prefer to be pursuing his boyhood dream of being a centre-forward but he is doing better in his new job working behind the front line. New recruit Daley Blind has quickly become the lynchpin of the side but too many players seem uncomfortable and unsure of their roles.

Not least the £60 million Angel Di Maria, whose pace is best employed on the flanks where he excelled at Real Madrid. At Old Trafford the Argentinian has been used more centrally and in tighter spaces where he has not proved as useful.

After sunny Spain, Di Maria is probably culture-shocked by the rainy North-West and following a traumatising burglary, is clearly not in the best frame of mind.

England international Luke Shaw was expected to dazzle at his first big club but has almost gone missing, while Marcus Rojo is running around breathlessy trying to avoid making errors.

While the much-slated Marouane Fellaini has stepped-up from last season to become one of Untied's key men, Robin Van Persie, whom Van Gaal knows well from Holland duty, has not been firing on all cylinders while Falcao and Juan Mata seem headed for the exit despite their large transfer fees and past glories.

£150 million has been spent since the 63 year-old was handed the keys to Old Trafford but as with Tottenham's spending spree following the sale of Gareth Bale, the expensive replacement parts do not seem to be fitting together smoothly.

Van Gaal's United had better be a far from finished work if this is the best he can offer and hopefully for the fans' sake he is learning to swallow his pride and adapt his beliefs instead of dogmatically trying to fit his players into his chosen system rather than the other way around, committing a cardinal error of coaching in the process.

The most bizarre fact of all however is that United are still on course for a Champions League spot, sitting fourth in the league and rising as high as third on occasion.

They are also in the last eight of the FA Cup and the season's script could well end with a heroic failure to make it to Europe while winning the Cup in style. The next five games will be key, against Arsenal in the Cup and against close rivals Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham in the league.

Two defeats in 22 games shows United are not doing badly under Van Gaal, but their soporific style of play is leaving so many supporters bored and frustrated.

There is some logic behind keeping hold of the ball long enough for the opposition to tire, but this continental tenet translates differently to English opponents, who tend to throw all their men behind the ball and create a stalemate scenario.

English fans too expect an entertaining 90 minutes in a full, compact arenas, and are loathe to settle for a cat and mouse show, which they interpret as possession for possession's sake.

That is not to say Van Gaal is doing the wrong thing, merely that his attempt to speak a foreign language from the off is being misinterpreted and having mixed results.

Playing a rigid system of possession at least gives the manager a sense of control, particularly if he is new to the club and country, as opposed to giving the players freedom of expression, and that could be the heart of the matter.

Perhaps the problem with United's see-saw season is that Van Gaal has bought badly. He is on record as favouring play-making centre-backs but Rojo and Johnny Evans are yet to become the new Frank De Boer or Frank Rijkaard.

This summer will surely see a clear-out at Old Trafford and new faces arrive, perhaps more personally selected than last year's recruits, who arguably had already been scouted under Moyes' tenure and were hastily signed after Van Gaal jetted in from the World Cup in Brazil.

Time is the precious commodity all managers need but are rarely granted enough of. It is the luxury all sacked coaches complain they were never afforded. It is the precious resource and key to success David Moyes' backers claim he was denied.

And it is also what Louis Van Gaal undoubtedly needs to sculpt Manchester United in his own image before he can fairly be judged. Given his exceptional track record at the world's best teams, he will be given another season at least to present his finished product.

But time will not wait for him forever, no matter how brightly his CV shines or how loudly his reputation precedes him.

Man Utd, ultimately, is bigger than this Dutch master.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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