Will the real Louis van Gaal please stand up


Louis van Gaal. Photo by Mikey, http://www.flickr.com

Liverpool v Manchester United, or was it the Dog & Duck v The Red Lion as Gary Neville suggested a while back? (Incidentally, if he doesn’t start getting a few wins in Valencia soon then he might find his next managerial job is a little closer to the pub leagues). There’s no question it was a decidedly uninspiring game.

The fact that both sides had drawn 3-3 the previous midweek suggested that the game would at least involve plenty of incident and perhaps a fair few goals. Alas, not so much.

Jurgen Klopp seems to be finding the English winter rather harsh and appears on the touchline with more and more layers of clothing. He increasingly resembles a budget airline passenger who’s attempted to beat the checked luggage charge by putting on all the items in their suitcase.

Moreno’s hairdo also causes me some wonder: largely regarding the essentially unfinished nature of it. Did a fire alarm go off halfway through and the cut was never resumed? Was the barber an Everton fan and only realised who Moreno was at the midpoint of the cut, upon which he downed tools?

Equally bemusing was the sight of Jones, Carrick, and Rojo sat (or rather stood such is the fashion again) in the stand with the away fans. Presumably a plush seat in the director’s box with a great view wasn’t so appealing since they’d be watching Manchester United – a less than riveting experience at the moment as Paul Scholes never tires of reminding us.

Fergie time at Old Trafford these days is nap time.

The game started surprisingly gingerly and although Liverpool were on top it was obvious just how much Coutinho is missed when absent.

Not long into the game, Fellaini went down (as it were) following a clash of heads with Lucas. Co-commentator Jim Beglin was moved to observe: “you just hope for Fellaini’s sake that his hair cushioned the blow.” Indeed, Jim, we can only hope.

Shortly afterwards, Lallana missed a sitter when clean through on goal. As the ball bounced up he headed it weakly at De Gea, making no attempt at the lob which was the glaringly obvious option in the circumstances.

Elsewhere, I remain unconvinced by Firmino as a false nine but I am convinced by his talent and his ability in front of goal. It’s just unfortunate that when Benteke comes on he plays rather as a false nine now as well.

Klopp was his usual animated self on the touchline. He definitely takes the kick every ball approach to coaching. Van Gaal sat mostly impassive throughout as he tends to. He recently said that managers screaming on the touchline have little effect and I suspect he’s right – it seems to me more of an outlet for their own nervous energy than anything else.

Still, sitting stony faced while your team produces another stony performance is not generally a good look for a manager.

I counted the number of saves required of both goalkeepers in the first half; it was not a taxing effort mathematically, there was one.

A more taxing question: Jordan Henderson, what is he? He’s not a playmaker, that’s for sure although he sometimes forgets that fact and tries to play Gerrard-esque long passes. They mostly endanger the front few rows of the crowd. He’s not a ball-winning defensive midfielder.

He does run around a lot. With the effort demanded by Klopp, maybe that’s enough for now but he’s a poor man’s Stevie G – the poor man being whoever sanctioned the transfer that involved paying Sunderland around £17 million for his services.

Talking of overpriced transfers, that brings me to Lallana and Clyne, both of whom seem to sum up the Rodgers era to me. They’re both decent enough footballers but no more than that. Lallana on his day is actually pretty good but most of ‘his days’ seem to have been used up when he was a Southampton player. I can only hope that Clyne’s day is still to come.

Too much money spent on not nearly enough quality. That was what happened under Rodgers.

Van Gaal has not exactly been reluctant to get the company cheque book out but as with so many first halves this season, the return on investment was nil in a very literal sense.

There were thus not many highlights at halftime, a shame for Paul Parker who does some of the analysis here in Malaysia. He was poised at the giant iPad (or whatever it is) that all studios must seemingly possess by law now, but no amount of knob twiddling could conjure up much to ‘highlight’ from a pretty forgettable opening 45 minutes.

The second half began with an example of Klopp’s love of near post corners. I think every Liverpool corner of the Klopp era has been chipped just short of the near post. I don’t recall any goals, or even highlight worthy chances, materialising as a result.

Beglin, not remembering the Gary Neville quote as accurately as me, pondered: “what did Neville describe this fixture as? The Dog and Duck v the Prince of Wales?” The Prince of Wales? I think Jim must have been in for a good few toasts to the prince before this particular co-commentary gig.

Soon he was offering more insight, on Rooney playing at 10 this time: “as he gets older, that’s probably his best position.” You mean the position in which he’s played almost his entire career Jim?

The main commentator (I can’t remember who it was) suggested that the game had “rather trundled.” It was an apt description. Indeed the combination of a tropical storm plus a paper cut suffered by my wife meant that there was more blood and thunder at my house than at Anfield that day.

Then Rooney scored. A corner that made it beyond the near post (take note Mr. Klopp) was headed towards goal by Fellaini. The remarkable thing was not that the Belgian won the header but that he did so while surrounded by four Liverpool defenders. The header crashed back off the bar and Rooney hammered in the rebound.

One of those four Liverpool defenders might have been just slightly more usefully employed attending to Rooney.

Van Gaal still didn’t leave his seat. He just made a note. I suspect he’s writing a novel in preparation for life after management.

There had been much speculation that defeat at Anfield would have brought the Dutchman considerably more time to spend with his novel. A win saw him cling on but subsequent defeat at home to Southampton has again raised speculation to fever pitch.

I’m amazed that he’s still in the seat that he’s so reluctant to leave each match day.

There doesn’t appear to be a long-term future for Van Gaal at Manchester United but there surely is for Klopp at Liverpool. Progress has been stuttering so far but progress it undeniably is. Manchester United meanwhile are going backwards as steadily as their passing.

Liverpool may have lost this battle, but the more optimistic set of fans in the ground, even at the end, were not those sat alongside Jones, Carrick, and Rojo.

Rooney – more respected, less feared

Photo by: Brent Flanders www.flickr.com

Photo by: Brent Flanders

Wayne Rooney is set to win his 100th England cap next weekend in the European Championship qualifier against Slovenia at Wembley. He will do so as captain. He was handed the armband following Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football after the World Cup in Brazil.

Rooney is a player who divides opinion. For some he remains one of England’s few genuinely world class players and the most natural leader of the current England side. For others he’s a shadow of his former self who scarcely deserves a place in the England starting line-up.

I certainly think it’s true that he hasn’t fully fulfilled the promise that he showed when he burst on to the scene as a precocious teenager. With the exception of the European Championships in 2004, he has generally disappointed somewhat on the biggest stage at the very highest level.

There seems to be something a bit less swashbuckling about him these days which is not entirely explicable by the passing of years. The look on the faces of the defenders he faces has changed a little: a respectful wariness has replaced fear.

On his day he can still command a game but when he receives the ball these days there doesn’t seem to be quite that same anticipatory shift forward in the seat among the crowd. Di Maria is the one more likely to induce that movement at Old Trafford now. With England, Sterling is a more likely candidate.

Rooney has matured though. On and off the field he no longer embarrasses himself in the way that he once did. He appears more in control of himself, maybe a little bit too much in control sometimes. The leash has been shortened and he’s more disciplined but less dangerous.

Sir Bobby Charlton will present Rooney’s 100th cap (I’m not entirely sure of its origins but a cap has always struck me as a slightly odd thing to reward people with for international appearances). Rooney is a mere six goals behind Sir Bobby’s England record of 49 and there’s a very good chance that he will have overtaken Charlton’s haul by the end of the qualification campaign.

Rooney is also now captain of both club and country. He’s become an elder statesman of the game; entrusted by managers to lead by example and instruction.

Roy Hodgson is quoted today however as saying: “I worry that the responsibility is going to weigh him down.” It’s a strange thing for the England manager to say just a few months after appointing Rooney captain.

How much extra responsibility does the role really entail? The biggest decision that the captain has to make is heads or tails. Most of the other responsibilities (guiding young players, offering leadership on the pitch, communicating with the manager) would all be expected of a senior player anyway and there’s nothing to suggest that Rooney would shirk them if he wasn’t wearing the armband.

British football tends to inflate the role and importance of captain. I get the impression that it’s seen a bit more ceremoniously elsewhere. The fact that Rooney was seen as such an obvious choice for both Manchester United and England says more about his teammates at club and international level than it does about him.

Rooney will probably become England’s all time leading goal scorer. England will definitely qualify for the European Championships in France. Once there, Rooney and England will be respected but not feared by their opponents.

If Rooney does appear weighed down, I don’t think it’s the burden of captaincy that’s the cause. I think it’s much more likely to be the fact that he knows that considerably more of his career is now behind than in front of him and the heights he’s reached, impressive though they are, have fallen short of those that he hoped for and expected.