Earlier this week, reports emerged of disquiet in the United camp. Words like ‘mutiny’ and ‘crisis’ were thrown around, while some write-ups were more measured, referring to “early season tension and teething problems.”
Whatever really happened, Van Gaal has now moved to give the events a positive spin:
“Rooney and Carrick came to me and said the dressing room is flat — they told me because they wanted to help me.
“…It is very positive that they are coming to you and that they trust you.”
You can watch the relevant segment from yesterday’s press conference here.
There’s no doubt that Van Gaal’s methods are strict, and that he can be dogmatic and single-minded in his approach. He has alienated his fair share of players in the past, but you could say the same about Fergie, and there are suggestions Van Gaal has mellowed to some extent in recent years, as SAF did towards the end of his career.
Rather than relying on today’s headlines and media mischief-making to make sense of the situation, it’s worth taking a wider view on Van Gaal’s approach as a manager. Is his rigidity and meticulousness destroying Man Utd, or is he turning us into the most organised team in the league?
Much of the supposed unrest in the squad apparently centres on the prominence given to video analyst Max Reckers – this may be unfamiliar to many of the players, but for Van Gaal, preparation is key. Speaking after Holland beat Spain 5-1 at the World Cup, Van Persie said “The match went exactly as Van Gaal expected. He predicted this. It’s incredible. He tells you everything beforehand and then that’s the way it goes.”
Then there is the suggestion that players feel constrained – afraid to lose the ball – resulting in too much sterile possession. Jonathan Wilson recently wrote an insightful piece for the Guardian, attempting to shed some more light on the nuances of Van Gaal’s philosophy:
“For him, you don’t win games by scoring goals, you score goals by winning games. He is not concerned by moments of individual genius that can turn a match; what he wants is to dominate midfield to such an extent that the impact of such moments of freakish brilliance are minimised. Win the game of control in midfield and the goals will come.”
Johan Cruyff regarded Van Gaal’s interpretation of total football as “overly mechanised, too concerned with what might happen if the ball was lost,” but Wilson suggests that attacking inhibition is the default mode “until Van Gaal’s methods have been fully absorbed.”
One of Germany’s most controversial players, Paul Breitner’s description of Van Gaal’s Bayern side may also be ominously familiar for United fans:
“After half an hour, everyone in the Allianz Arena would be yawning at this display of constant passing. Our game was well executed but very, very predictable … the basic idea was sound. What we lacked was speed and regular changes of rhythm.”
Van Gaal himself has acknowledged that a high possession count doesn’t indicate tactical success on its own – for him, it’s all about luring defenders forward and executing attacks at the perfect moment, and that’s something his teams don’t get the hang of straight away:
“When you have 70% of the ball, then you are playing near (opposition goal) and you cannot score (due to lack of space in behind opposition defence) so you have to dictate where they defend and we can do that to go back (drop deep). Then they have to come, and then you have space.”
So what to make of the atmosphere within the squad? Are these just the predictable hiccups you’d expect as a self-assured manager looks to establish a new era in a milieu where Ferguson still watches over events and the fans still sing about Sir Matt Busby ever week?
In another piece for the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson points out that Van Gaal “emerged from a culture in which players were expected to raise their concerns,” suggesting that “even given his autocratic nature, it may – may – not be quite the signifier of crisis it would be at other clubs.”
Finally, take a look at this UEFA report, entitled ‘Van Gaal Does it His Way’, from April 2010, and you’ll see the manager’s been through all this before:
“Louis van Gaal and FC Bayern München looked incompatible. The Dutch coach was accused of adopting an authoritarian approach that had apparently left his players afraid to express themselves and the Bavarian side struggled to find form.
“Fast forward to spring and life in the Bayern garden could hardly be rosier. The four-time European champions are back atop their domestic league and through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League following a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Manchester United FC. Not for the first time in his illustrious career, the former AFC Ajax and FC Barcelona boss has been working his magic.”
I believe Van Gaal is genuinely trying to build something that will last beyond his tenure at United, and I’m willing to be patient whilst the team continues to adjust to his methods and his vision. Sure, he’s made some poor decisions as Man Utd manager, but he’s a strong leader, and that’s what a club like United needs.
He is creating an incredibly well-drilled team, which does need a sharper attacking edge, but there’s a lot to be said for beginning with a base of solidity and control. Just look at the brilliant football Liverpool played a couple of seasons ago, and how it quickly crumbled away when one world-class player left.
Van Gaal will no doubt have a clear picture in his mind of how he expects today’s game against Brendan Rodgers’ side to pan out – hopefully the team can realise this on the pitch.