Louis Van Gaal is as students of the game go, top of the damn class. He just does not realise that others quite are not where he is. Wedded to his much-derided philosophy, which simply requires that his players apply thought to action in a quest to override the primordial feature we know as ‘instinct’. Of course, part of his philosophy calls for mastery of the ball, keen appreciation of space and a system which designates specific roles, and spaces, to players. It requires an unparalleled depth of thinking and practice, something Jonny Evans recently acknowledged is, not only mentally tasking, but has taken a while to get accustomed to. When Gary Neville interviewed him early on in the season for The Telegraph, he confessed to feeling ‘drained’ after the nearly one-hour exposé into the way of Van Gaal.
When the Van Gaal showed up at the pre-match press conference on Monday armed with a dossier indicating the statistics on his side’s ‘long-ball tactics’ against West Ham on Sunday, the collective response was not so much one of curiosity as it was one of bemusement. His protestations, if they could be called that, were fairly valid – many of the team’s long balls, prior to the introduction of Marouane Fellaini were accurate sideways passes as he sought to shift West Ham about and open up space. Hence, not quite ‘long ball’, the stylistically abhorrent style of many a Bolton. As has often been the case, the efficacy of this approach left much to be desired but there was a method to it. Resorting to Fellaini up front was born of necessity; even Pep Guardiola has found succor in the aerial nuisance that players such as Javier Martinez and Gerard Pique can generate in times of high desperation. However, to be lulled into a slanging match with Sam Allardyce (who still insists Manchester United is a long ball team), a manager with a much under-reported inflated sense of his own self-importance (hard to see where it comes from) betrayed his own instincts – he is a teacher at heart. It is why he has always enjoyed coaching young players, immediately more receptive and malleable than older, more seasoned professionals. It is why, with a touch of frustrated irritation, he set about ‘educating’ those journalists at his pre-match press conference on Monday.
Van Gaal, the Teacher
One of his first coaches in professional football, Barry Hughes (who, by the way, fancied himself the musician), always “thought he would go back to teaching” and never “marked him down for a career in management.” “Not for a minute”, he added. When Van Gaal played under Hughes at Sparta Rotterdam, he also worked part-time as a PE teacher with young children. During that time, he developed a keen sense of tutelage, gradually acquiring the ability to mould individuals with information and ideals. It has been a trademark of his career – a rather clever graphic from Jonathan Liew of The Telegraph illustrates The 6 Degrees of Van Gaal among Europe’s cadre of elite managers. Pep Guardiola? Former player and on-field brain at Barcelona. Jose Mourinho? Kept on as interpreter but rose to level of de facto assistant manager. The list goes on and includes the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Luis Enrique and Ronald Koeman, to name but a few. Not only does he teach the game to his players, its nuances, its systems, he teaches future managers. And as the less-than-cerebral English game has come to see, he will happily teach the impoverished collective of resident journalists and fans about tactics and philosophy. As he told Gary Neville, he has no secrets. When it comes to matters of tactics and philosophy, he is always keen to share. Not that many in the English game are willing to listen. To some he had lost it, his marbles not falling far from the tree of Rafa Benitez’s FACTS. But does he care? His unflappable demeanor would suggest not but as Gabriele Marcotti wrote, more important may be the perception of him, and by extension his team, after LongBall-gate.
In light of the disdainful manner in which Van Gaal’s lecture was received, a victory against Burnley became even more paramount – it had to be done in style as well. Strikers, Van Persie and Falcao, badly misfired against West Ham but Wayne Rooney lined up in midfield again, tasked with providing a balancing presence to the marauding Paddy McNair on the right side of a rough midfield diamond. As history will tell, Wayne Rooney eventually gravitated to the base of midfield as Daley Blind went off injured. Fate conspired, as it often does, to provide a situation ripe for exaggeration of the stubbornness of Van Gaal. In what was one of the weirdest sights in football, Wayne Rooney, 2nd highest goalscorer in Manchester United history (and not yet 30), cluttered around in front of the back four, manfully fulfilling a duty hardly suited to his specific gifts. A player at his best when playing on impulse, these were reined in as he served a functional purpose – the provision of balance, LVG claimed – for the better part of 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, we glimpsed the best version of Angel Di Maria. The ‘Wild One’, I call it. While he can be an admirably disciplined player (as we saw last season with Real Madrid), some of his best individual performances (twice against Barcelona and his Man of the Match performance against Atletico Madrid in the final of Champions League) came when he was set loose, using his powerful dribbling and indefatigable running to destabilise defences from a deeper position. In the last month and a half, LVG has attempted to tame this player, reducing him to a role of providing a vertical outlet to long passes. As failed as experiments go, it was up there with the best – Di Maria was utterly hapless at it. So it was a relief to see Di Maria continue in midfield, continuing a run of 4 games there and he excelled. This deeper position meant that he had what he craves most – space. He ran Burnley ragged in the 2nd half, his direct counterattacking resulting in a couple of yellows for Burnley players as they resorted to cynical fouls to stop him. He set up Chris Smalling’s 2nd goal with a lovely right wing cross, could have won a penalty after dribbling past two from the right flank, and eventually did win one, Manchester United’s first of the season, after a driving run down the left flank. While Di Maria’s consistency remains a sticking point, occasionally his touch and decision-making letting him down, allowing him to play more of his natural game can only be a positive for this side.
Manchester United visits Preston North End next in the FA Cup. Fans will be hoping to see Ander Herrera start the game with Daley Blind’s involvement in doubt. Not that the Spaniard’s involvement should depend on the availability of Blind. Wayne Rooney will probably continue in midfield while the hapless duo of Van Persie and Falcao continue to toil fruitlessly. The former’s continued involvement, perhaps, betrays another human instinct which his manager holds for him – affection. Van Gaal will have to rein in these instincts and take more logical decisions than those he has taken so far. Till then, players out of position, doing unnatural things, may continue to be the norm.