Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has been in the job for 6 months now, and his side currently sit 4th in the Barclays Premier League, but is he actually doing any better than David Moyes?
The league standing is currently better than it was under Moyes. Manchester United are currently 14 points better off than they were this time last season, but the league table, some would argue, flatters United.
This weekend United had the opportunity to close the gap on Manchester City to just three points. Instead, they fell away into 4th place with a draw at West Ham. This isn’t the first time that United have failed to capitalise on poor results suffered by those above them, and now the race four the fourth Champions League spot is really hotting up, with just five points separating United from 7th placed Liverpool.
Tactically, United have been poor this season. While they have been difficult to beat, which was the opposite under Moyes, they look to be finding goals hard to come by. With the vast array of attacking options at his disposal, why is Louis van Gaal struggling to create opportunities in front of goal?
Historically, Manchester United have been known for their wingers. Down the years we have been blessed with ability on the wings with the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Kanchelskis, Sharp and Ronaldo – supplying balls into the box from the by-line for the strikers to feed off.
In van Gaal’s philosophy, there is no width. The diamond used in midfield sees the three more advanced midfielders working within the lines of the 18 yard box, the same is said of the strikers. With the three against West Ham, we saw Rooney, Di Maria and Januzaj all looking to push forward in central areas. The front two of Falcao and the ever static van Persie didn’t work the channels to free up space for the trio behind them to work in, which left things far too compact in the middle of the park. The lack of space also means that counter-attacks break down, as the passing becomes less free-flowing, and allows the opposition to get back in to position.
To compensate for the lack of attacking width, the full-backs were forced to push forward, leaving just Daley Blind to shield the centre-backs. This leaves us very susceptible to the counter-attack, which was exploited time and time again by West Ham, using the pace of Enner Valencia.
While van Gaal is determined to stick to his philosophy, at times to the detriment of success in games, he does have a plan B – albeit a plan B which is far too predictable, but is at times effective. When van Gaal eventually realises that his philosophy isn’t working, he resorts to throwing Marouane Fellaini up top and pumping long balls up to him, hoping for the best – a tactic that West Ham and Stoke have been berated for over the years.
While this can work, yesterday was an example of van Gaal waiting too long to make a change. Fellaini’s introduction didn’t take place until the 72nd minute, by which point the game was too far gone to realistically rescue all three points. The removal of Adnan Januzaj to facilitate this plan B was also a very strange decision – and one that immediately screams negativity. Robin van Persie was ineffective at best yesterday and for me would have been the obvious man to make way. I would have also preferred to have seen the pace of James Wilson introduced, rather than going straight to long ball tactics.
In his press conference today, van Gaal leapt to the defence of his tactics against West Ham, in what some would call Rafa Benitez meltdown fashion. The Dutchman came to the press conference with several pieces of A4 paper detailing his teams pass success against West Ham, claiming that this proved that they weren’t all long balls.
However, the stats showed that United were simply more successful with their long passing than West Ham and actually hit in excess of 80 passes over 25 metres in distance, 24% of United’s total passes in that game were over 25 metres. This is a move that reeks of desperation in trying to defend himself, and has only served to make him look foolish for attempting to do so.
Falcao and van Persie
The strike pairing that seems to be preferred at the moment has fundamental failings. First and foremost, they aren’t scoring enough goals. Between them, van Persie and Falcao have scored just 13 league goals all season, a meagre return when compared to Spurs’ Harry Kane who has 12 league goals to his name.
Falcao looks like a player short of confidence. His injury last year has been well documented, and he is clearly a player working his way back into form. He has only scored four league goals so far, but he keeps getting himself into goal scoring positions. He missed a glorious chance to add to his tally on 77 minutes after being cleverly put through, but scuffed his shot wide. A confident striker would have taken it on his left foot and probably scored.
Robin van Persie, for me, looks a shadow of his former self. He was never the quickest, but he seems to have lost a yard of pace this season. He now struggles to switch the ball back on to his left foot, which takes away his biggest threat. His right foot is clearly just for standing on. He may be United’s top scorer in the league this season with 9 goals, but that is like being the most handsome man in the burns unit at the moment. But the most frustrating thing this season has been his lack of movement. He seems very static both in and around the box, although this may well be due to the amount of time the ball is taking to get to him and the amount of players now operating in the same space.
I would be tempted to start James Wilson a lot more regularly. His pace and movement off the ball, coupled with his impressive record at Under-21 level may well prove valuable moving forward.
Louis van Gaal came to Old Trafford with a reputation for clashing with players, Luca Toni at Bayern for example. During his tenure at Old Trafford, he has openly criticised both Luke Shaw and Radamel Falcao for fitness levels. Falcao was criticised more for his lack of match sharpness, which should be expected with the Colombian missing the majority of last season with a cruciate injury. How did van Gaal combat Falcao’s lack of match fitness? By denying the Colombian game time – Brilliant.
This season we have seen Rooney take up more responsibility in his role as captain, which has seen him move back into midfield. This is a move that I have called for for a number of years, as I have long seen him as the heir apparent to Paul Scholes’ throne. However, with Falcao and van Persie stuttering, it is frustrating for United fans to see the 3rd top goalscorer in Premier League history playing so deep, especially as he isn’t even being played in the most advanced role of the midfield diamond.
It is Angel Di Maria who is currently being played in that role. Di Maria signed from Real Madrid for a rumoured £59 million. He started out as a winger for United, quickly scoring three goals. However, van Gaal has tinkered, and as a result, United now miss his threat out wide. Di Maria’s ability to beat a man in wide areas, then deliver a quality ball into the box is very much needed at the moment. Let’s not forget that he was Man of the Match in last season’s Champions League final, playing on the left of a midfield three.
Adnan Januzaj was one of the bright sparks of David Moyes’ tenure. However, this season he has seen his opportunities limited due to the system. Januzaj has always maintained that he sees himself as a number 10, but competition is fierce there with Rooney, Mata and apparently Di Maria contending for the spot. The Belgian is also a very capable winger, as we saw last year, but van Gaal’s system doesn’t allow for this. Instead, he has been botched into a makeshift central midfielder in the past few games, but doesn’t have the physical requirements necessary to thrive there. Hopefully this doesn’t hamper the development of one of Manchester United’s brightest prospects.
One player who certainly doesn’t lack the physicality required to play in the middle of the park is Marouane Fellaini. The big Belgian is arguably playing his best football in a Manchester United shirt, and has even started to chip in with a few goals. However, van Gaal seems to be content to use him simply as a contingency plan when things have soured. Yesterday would have been the sort of game that Fellaini should be starting. West Ham are a very strong, physical team and Fellaini would certainly have been a better option than Januzaj in that postion.
Arguably, one of the most confusing things this season has been the omission of Ander Herrera. The young Spaniard has rarely featured since making the switch from Bilbao in the summer for a rumoured £30 million. In the handful of games that he has played, he looks to be the sort of player that we have been crying out for over the years – a box to box midfielder. Not since the days of Roy Keane have United have a player who can pick a pass going forward, but also put themselves about in defensive areas, and the diminutive Spaniard loves a tackle. You could argue that he has been restricted by Rooney’s new role, but questions certainly hang over Herrera’s involvement in the current investigation by the Spanish FA into match fixing. Whether or not this is on van Gaal’s mind remains to be seen.
Earlier this week, the boss read an excerpt from a poem by Pete Martin at a memorial service at Old Trafford to mark 57 years since the Munich Air Disaster.
The last lines of the poem read:
“You are the strengths and inspirations for those who play your roles today. We look for flair and pace and passion to play the game the United way.”
This certainly hasn’t been the case this season. Manchester United need to play the Manchester United way, not the Van Gaal way. They need to go back to what has made them so successful in the Premier League era.