On the 19th of May Louis van Gaal was announced as the successor to David Moyes as manager of the 20 time Premiership Champions. A sigh of relief and a wave of optimism was the general feeling around Old Trafford and the global fan base. So, is LVG the man that can?
The ill-fated Moyes era came and went and nothing more need be said about that. So what lies in store for the Man United faithful?
Well they can rest assured that they have a manager that has total faith in his ability, will tell it how it is, and will be ruthless to anyone who is not on board with his methods. The days of last season’s dressing room unrest will be no more; the unrest is still currently sat in the stands.
Like last season United’s transfer activity seemed to start late. With LVG at the World Cup, Ed Woodward and the board may have been hoping for an early Dutch exit so he could get to work, however this was not the case. Hererra arrived before the World Cup had finished although reports suggest this just required LVG’s ok and Shaw followed a day later. These signings provided early optimism that they would not be left holding the Fellaini this time when the transfer music stopped. A centre half and a central midfielder seemed the most pressing requirements.
The opening fixture, a home defeat to Swansea, a team many fancied to struggle this year highlighted this need even more. A more than encouraging pre-season campaign had maybe led the fans to believe that Shaw and Hererra would prove sufficient additions with the emergence of young talents such as Reece Jones and Blackett doing well on the US tour. Morale boosting wins over Roma, Inter and the Galacticos of Real Madrid had United fans chomping at the bit for the new season. 3 games in and it feels like last season all over again. The usual suspects reared their ugly head from 2013/14, good possession with no penetration, a lack of cutting edge and a defence that’s shakier than Shakin’ Stevens.
So why should this season be any different to last? Because LVG is a man with a plan. A man that has enough self-confidence to drop his trousers to make a point to a player, hardly a tactic you can envisage the great Sir Alex doing, but maybe just as effective a way to get a point across as the Hairdryer. He gives an air of confidence and authority at his press conferences, no sign of the squirming demeanour of Moyes when facing such questions a little over a year ago. He is either incredibly confident or very naïve but he walks the walk (clipboard in hand) and he looks the part.
When Holland turned up at the World Cup, they did so without great expectation. Yes they have world class players in Robben and RVP, but with a number of youngsters and a somewhat unknown defence, coupled with a group including reigning world champions Spain and the much fancied Chileans, getting out the group would have been considered a success.
So fast forward a month, and Holland finish a very worthy 3rd place in the tournament playing a disciplined yet attacking brand of football in an unconventional 3-5-2 formation. Van Gaal raised eye brows along the way by substituting Cillessen for Tim Krul with a minute to go in order to be in goal for penalties. This shows the confidence that he has in his own ability.
Arriving at Old Trafford mid-July, LVG quickly moved to implement his favoured 3-5-2 formation at United on the US tour. On arrival he felt he didn’t have the right players for it although playing some players out of position seemed to pay off pre-season. For example Young played well in a wing back role but for this to work , and by that I mean qualify for the Champions league, LVG still appeared a few players short.
The transfer window has now slammed shut and it remains uncertain whether the deals completed (Falcao & Blind) are enough to resurrect Manchester United’s season. For a start, who does he drop? Will he continue with his 3-5-2 system? Van Gaal has already stated he was restricted with personnel, so do the latest signings change this? 4-3-3 is widely suggested as a suitable alternative but this may well lead to playing players out of position (something Moyes was constantly slated for), or leaving some big names out altogether.
Seen as a saviour last season, a big question mark now hangs over Juan Mata, although a player of his ability surely has to be included. Will Blind take on a central midfield role or will he play at the back? I guess Van Gaal has a pretty good problem in the fact that when everyone is fit, he now has several options in terms of personnel and formation. Below are options available without even mentioning the likes of Carrick, Fletcher, Januzaj, Evans, Young etc. All of a sudden Manchester United have a very healthy squad:
(4-3-3) De Gea – Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw – Hererra, Blind, Di Maria – Rooney, Falcao, RVP
(3-5-2) De Gea – Jones, Blind, Rojo – Valencia, Hererra, Mata, Di Maria, Shaw – Falcao Rooney
Defence is still the main issue although it is expected that Hererra or Blind can provide bite in the midfield which should take some pressure off those behind them. Van Gaal appears to still have faith in his defenders, including young Blackett. I have never heard a manager use a word as repetitively as Van Gaal does with “philosophy.” The only thing close to this I can recall was Rafa Benitez’s love of “Focus”, or going back to my Sunday League days, the coach’s most used phrase was “Neil, offside!” but that’s another story.
The club, the players, the fans have all been asked to have patience until the new “philosophy” is embedded which as we are constantly told will take time. With his faith in his own ability and proven track record, I am sure he will stick with his slow build up play from the back, working to make United’s defenders comfortable on the ball, bringing the play into midfield and trying to create space for their “strike players” in Di Maria, Mata, Rooney, RVP and Falcao. If the players can grasp the philosophy it is hard to see how even the most stringent defence will cope with that forward line.
So what will be a successful 1st season for LVG? Champions? Top 4 finish? Or will the fans and board settle for a steady improvement on last season, providing they can see a change in philosophy being put into practice? With the signing of Falcao, I think that United have sealed their own fate and now have to finish in the top 4. A signing of that magnitude and with a squad that possesses the attacking talent they have, it would seem unimaginable that they finish outside the top 4. Things need to click quickly, 3 months according to LVG.
3 months of course is a long time in football but if LVG can embed his philosophy before the turn of the year, and United are not too far adrift from the top of the league then there will be reason to hope that the manager will keep his trousers up when the season reaches squeaky bum time.