How Louis van Gaal Fixed Manchester United.
Normal service resumed. After humiliation last season United climbed back atop their perch and Liverpool returned to their rightful place in our shadow. Aside from the joyous satisfaction at putting three past the enemy; the result confirmed United’s position in the upper echelons of the division. Title talk that seemed fanciful in October is now a legitimate topic for discussion among football’s ever chattering and twittering classes. As we eye a busy festive program it seems an opportune time to reflect on why United look a force once more. For all the excitement over tactical philosophy; it is the psychological management of the side which is most responsible for our resurgence. Quite simply, Louis van Gaal understands people. Here’s how he did it.
It might seem obvious, but without trust in the ideas of the ‘trainer-coach’ a player is unlikely to perform. When learning to drive you have total confidence that the terrifying maneuvers you are being asked to perform with little success will ultimately result in your goal of holding a legal licence. If that trust isn’t swiftly established the relationship is terminated. clichéd as the analogy might be; it reflects the first stage of the Van Gaal era. Players would be forgiven for feeling apprehensive at the arrival of the subject of so many anecdotes. In the statistical age we are quick to focus on tactical quirks but should not underestimate the unsettling impact of forging a new human relationship. Sleepless nights at the thought of becoming acquainted with the new boss’s testicles would be understandable. The swift introduction of previously alien concepts such as a three-man defence might have exacerbated these very human fears were it not for consistent reiteration of the vision. Confident declarations of domestic and continental success within three years might have been viewed by some as Mourinho showmanship yet for the players this was a welcome return to aiming for the stars after 18 months where such aspirations were frowned upon. I don’t need to recycle the Moyes quotes that we became so familiar with to remind you how difficult it is to gain or regain the trust of players whose abilities you have publicly denigrated. Five months into his tenure and the newspapers are free from the off-the-record complaints from disgruntled players that became de rigueur last term. The current squad has remarkably quickly placed their trust in van Gaal to get the best out of them; even when on-the-field indications have suggested legitimate cause for concern.
Trust is, of course, a two-way street. Woodward’s claims of a summer spending splurge were treated with great suspicion from several (including your’s truly) yet so it proved. Arrivals and departures dominated the summer and the indications are that there will be more to come. Ample grounds to suggest the new man has little trust in the squad he inherited yet the opposite has proved the case. A three goal triumph over Liverpool was achieved without starting any summer signings. Fittingly the only relatively recent recruits were players signed by Moyes and earmarked for departure under van Gaal. Contrary to expectation, after moving on the players who failed to gain his trust, players whose careers had stagnated under either Ferguson or Moyes have been reinvigorated. Young, Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick and even Rooney are all enjoying their best run of form in years. A large reason for this is the feeling of being trusted by the manager. Each has been deployed in a myriad of roles yet such is the belief that the boss has shown in them they have risen to the challenge. Potential disgruntlement also lay in the young players at the club. International stars seemingly arriving each week will have done little for confidence that chances would be afforded to homegrown players yet through a mixture of design (e.g. Wilson) and necessity (e.g. Blackett) the path from academy to first team has never looked clearer. On last week’s pod I voiced my disapproval of the early substitution of McNair; the gesture yesterday of enabling the young defender to receive the warmth of the crowd was a demonstration of the value the manager places on preserving trust.
The final – and arguably most important – element is trust in oneself. In high-profile public jobs you will never please everyone. The reality is that mild discomfort can escalate into full-blown crisis. United are often at the centre of a storm and this was a position to which David Moyes was entirely unsuited. Making decisions through fear of the reaction of the mob makes failure inevitable. Unlike his well-meaning predecessor, Louis van Gaal has total trust in his own capacity to deliver a long-term plan. Even those supporters who have most readily embraced the new chapter have questioned the continued faith in a three-man defence. Last week’s pod poll revealed 70% of United fans would like to see it binned permanently. The mob want to be obeyed; but they will not be caved into. Yesterday gave some indication of why; Jones and Evans admittedly looked rusty and the absence of a defensive midfielder left us exposed – yet the performance of Michael Carrick suggested the mob may have acted hastily. Whether right or wrong, the determination of the new boss to persevere with an unpopular system is to be respected. This should not be confused with rigidity or stubbornness; formation changes mid-game have been commonplace. van Gaal trusts in his judgment and that is an admirable quality in a world populated by millions who believe they know better.
EQUALITY FOR ALL
Poisonous dressing rooms are a recipe for disaster. David Moyes to his cost found himself presiding over a divided dressing room with enough axes to grind to feature in Game of Thrones. Rightly or wrongly, a common accusation made against Moyes was favouritism. The cult of Wazza, at least from the outside, threatened team harmony and disaffection was rife. Fast forward to this season and on the face of it, little has changed. Rooney has gone from undroppable golden boy to undroppable golden captain, van Persie is written in permanent marker on the tactics board, and bafflingly Ander Herrera has spent much of the season as a spectator. Faces should not always be trusted. Dig beneath the superficial and you find a united dressing room with nothing but praise for the new coaching team. The secret? Equality. Drawing up a code of conduct for modern footballers would seem akin to making a rod for your own back; yet expecting all to adhere to the same rules has fostered team spirit. Reports this week of Sinatra karaoke paint a very different picture from the stern Sargent Major we were led to believe was our manager.
On the pitch too, this belief in equality for all has been demonstrated. Marouane Fellaini is the personification of this. Earmarked for the exit door, his fortunes have dramatically improved. van Gaal has afforded him the opportunity to make a case for his retention and he has seized it. Get in, play well, stay in. Similar examples can be found when reflecting on the seasons of Ashley Young, Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair and Antonio Valencia. The established hierarchy has been set aside in the main; nationality and service meant no captaincy for van Persie, James Wilson was selected ahead of Falcao to suit a particular game plan and Luke Shaw was made to wait until he met the manager’s fitness requirements. The incongruous effect of recruiting six multi-million pound signings has been a harmonious squad.
Three and a half hours of diabolical football, concluded by a penalty shootout so poor that neither team deserved to go forward to Wembley. ‘I can sense the team getting better,’ said our manager. No he didn’t. We knew he didn’t. Taking supporters for idiots is never a wise move and so it proved for Moyes. Let’s not forget though that Ferguson was fond of the same routine; though admittedly he was much better at it. ‘Fergie’s mind games’ may have worked brilliantly on a handful of occasion but on the whole they were embarrassing and unbecoming of a man of his stature. Refreshingly, van Gaal takes a different approach. His approach to the press is no less abrasive, yet brutal honesty is the order of the day. We have become expectant that managers will seek to deflect attention after a poor result elsewhere, even ball boys. None of this from van Gaal; an unexpected delight has been his willingness to identify areas of dissatisfaction despite victories. A dangerous game admittedly, yet when played well it can have a galvanizing effect and guard against complacency. For all the excitement over the scoreline yesterday the manager was right to express disappointment in retention of the ball. The reverse is also true; although critical of ‘throwing the game away’ at Leicester, the manager still identified positives in the performance. Honesty also extends to self-evaluation. A highlight of his many illuminating post-match interviews this season was the tongue in cheek claim of being ‘a genius’ for opting for a three-man defence that was routinely cut to ribbons for half an hour at the Emirates. Whether the honesty strategy works in the long-term remains to be seen, but for now it is a valuable weapon against the sensationalist reporting that follows every Manchester United performance.
So there you have it. No stats or insightful tactical analysis (if you’ve listened to the pod you’ll be well aware of my limits in those fields.) It might be overly simplistic, but it is my belief that the installation of these three old-fashioned values have gone a long way to rehabilitating the whole staff and restoring faith that United are a club on the rise.
United at the World Cup
With the 2014 World Cup due to kick off this week, Manchester United have a number of players hoping to impress on football’s biggest stage over the coming month. With no fewer than 14 squad members in Brazil, a figure only surpassed by Bayern Munich, there is likely to be no shortage of players for United fans to get behind.
Javier HERNANDEZ (26) Mexico #10
After making just six starts during a frustrating season under David Moyes, Javier Hernandez will be hoping to brush off the cobwebs and rediscover the form that saw him burst onto the scene 4 years ago in South Africa. Since then, Chicarito has scored 59 goals in 152 appearances for Manchester United but it seems more than likely he will be allowed to leave Old Trafford before the start of the season.
Robin VAN PERSIE (30) Netherlands #9
Coming back from injury, van Persie has been in fine form leading up to the tournament and will be hoping to lead Holland out of a difficult group along side Spain, Chile and Australia. After scoring just 1 goal in South Africa en route to the final, the Dutch captain will be hoping to better his tally this time around under the tutelage of incoming United manager, Louis van Gaal.
Wayne ROONEY (28) England #10
So long hailed as England’s hero, saviour and messiah, Wayne Rooney has repeatedly failed to live up to expectations in major tournaments. Due to injuries, red cards and poor form, Rooney has never reproduced the form he showed during Euro 2004, after spectacularly bursting onto the scene, and with his body already in physical decline, this could well be his last World Cup.
Danny WELBECK (23) England #11
Despite being one of Roy Hodgson’s most trusted deputies, many armchair pundits have already been scapegoating Danny Welbeck during England’s warm up matches. However, due to the extreme heat and humidity in Manaus, Welbeck’s athleticism, skill and diligence is likely to be needed if England are to stop Andreas Pirlo and co from running circles around them in Group D.
Shinji KAGAWA (25) Japan #10
With the sight of Kagawa playing on the left-wing almost bringing Jurgen Klopp to tears this season (apparently), it will be interesting to hear how the German reacts when he sees him playing to the left of Honda in Brazil. Nonetheless, with 2 goals in consecutive warm up matches, Kagawa will be hoping to make an impact from out wide and will be a decent World Cup free bet to score against one of Columbia, Greece or Ivory Coast.
Juan MATA (26) Spain #13
Having been sidelined by Jose Mourinho, Juan Mata helped push through a move to Old Trafford in order to secure his place in Spain’s World Cup squad and, after scoring 6 goals in 14 appearances, managed to knock Manchester City’ s Jesus Navas out of the final 23. Although likely to start matches on the bench, Mata is a trusted member of Vincent del Bosque’s squad and, if needed, will be more than ready to come on and give the Spanish midfield an extra dimension.
NANI (27) Portugal #17
Despite signing a new five-year contract in September, Nani was the forgotten man of Old Trafford last season. Nonetheless, he is a key member of Portugal’s squad who certainly has the skill and speed to worry USA, Ghana and, to a lesser extent, Germany (blame a certain Phillipp Lahm). With van Gaal apparently on the lookout for a speedy goal scoring winger, the World Cup would be an ideal place for him to find the form that made him so devastating during the 2010-2011 season.
Marouane FELLAINI (26) Belgium #8
The victim of Edward Woodward’s incompetence, Fellaini has been labelled as all that was wrong with Manchester United under David Moyes. He will be hoping to show he is better than this season’s form suggests by anchoring Belgium to victory.
Antonio VALENCIA (28) Ecuador #16
With Ecuador’s expectations resting heavily on his broad shoulders, Valencia seems intent on guiding his country to victory and, as shown in England’s recent friendly, will stop anyone that tries to get in his way.
Patrice EVRA (33) France #3
As the most enigmatic player left in France’s squad, after the post 2010 clear out, Evra has managed to hold off stiff competition from City’s cliche to hold down a starting place and will be hoping he can guide the likes of Varane and Pogba through their first major tournament.
Chris SMALLING (24) England #12
Often blamed for being too weak, clumsy or ordinary to play for both United and England, Smalling is seemingly Roy Hodgson’s third choice centre back in Brazil and will be hoping to make a positive impact if he is needed to replace one of Jagielka or Cahill.
Phil JONES (22) England #16
Drafted in as a utility player capable of playing in three separate positions, Jones may well be needed at some point in the tournament to do a job either at centre back, right back or defensive midfield. Either way, the scorching heat is unlikely to stop him from making kamikaze tackles left, right and centre.
David DE GEA (23) Goalkeeper #12
Seen by many as the heir to Casillas’ crown, De Gea is getting closer and closer to Spain #1 Jersey. If he is called upon, he has shown this season that he is more than ready.
Adnan JANUZAJ (19) Belgium #20
Having belatedly made his debut for Belgium at the second time of asking, Januzaj is a game changer for a Belgium team already oozing with attacking talent. Given his skill and unpredictability, he will be hoping to get some minutes from the bench if his team need to find a goal with the clock ticking down.
Who do you expect to have the biggest impact at the World Cup?