How much has Louis van Gaal improved Manchester United?

Louis van Gaal was confronted with a rather tricky question prior to the West Brom game in mid-October. Given that van Gaal officially took charge of the club in mid-July, his venturesome notion which he shared with the media in the early stages of the season – the ‘three month plan’, a building process declared by the Dutchman – had technically reached its conclusion.

The manager batted away the question placidly – ‘it is too early to say this’ was the manager’s response. But surely this was a valid question; he had no right to refute it like he did? Louis van Gaal said it would take 3 months for the team to reach its potential, and it’s been 3 months, hasn’t it?

But in truth, mid-October didn’t signify 3 months at all for the Dutchman and that’s exactly why Louis van Gaal didn’t really bother answering the question as firmly as one might have hoped. The outgoings and in-goings at Manchester United had been taking place right up until the early hours of the 2nd September; in total, 14 players exited the club in one way or another and 6 players came in – ’20 new relationships’, proclaimed Louis van Gaal.

By this logic, the ‘three month plan’ didn’t start in earnest until the severely unnecessary international break came to a conclusion – which has around 8th September. When all the new Manchester United players flocked back to Carrington, the real work began. Anything antecedent to that first training session after the international break was more or less just boilerplate, wishy-washy stuff; Louis van Gaal had spent most of his time figuring out the personalities and attributes of his players, weighing up what the most suitable formation would be, training methods, etc.

When Louis van Gaal had shifted out all the players he didn’t want and brought in all the players he did want, his tenure really began – namely, in the build up to the contest with QPR. Why he didn’t do all that a bit earlier is another question.

You can dismiss this notion all you like, but for the sake of this article the ‘three month plan’ came to its end following the unwarranted victory at St Marys. Louis van Gaal’s men sit in 3rd position – 5 points clear of Arsenal, 7 clear of Liverpool after 15 games in the Premier League. With around 40% of the season played that current predicament is most certainly favourable. With the three months up the team has seemingly reached its full potential.

It appears somewhat unbelievable that Manchester United has reached 3rd spot in the Premier League; a team stripped of all confidence and flair as a result of their dire predecessor, containing 13 players who went to Brazil in the summer, came back to a manager with universally different methods, and as stated already, 20 new relationships had to be made – alongside having to put up with an inexperienced, tentative defence and 42 significant injuries since July, this team has somehow managed to reach 3rd position in the hardest league in the world. I think Mr van Gaal deserves a pat on the back.

Louis van Gaal and his staff have done some excellent work in terms of restoring confidence and revitalising flair and cohesion within the squad – work still needs to be done, of course, but this team has reached a level far superior to anything achieved last year. The last two results can suffice for this exact opinion.

The game against Stoke signified change from last season like no other – Fellaini scored, Young was outstanding, Stoke only controlled the game for about 5 minutes, and most importantly, the home side didn’t succumb to pressure when it arose.

The Southampton game was predominately calamitous in terms of the performance, but the class of Louis van Gaal’s team salvaged the three points; namely, Robin van Persie. Manchester United had no right to win that game, whatsoever, but they did.

The difference revolves around big players in big moments having the bottle to deliver- Manchester United boasts that calibre of player, Southampton do not. That is the reason why Manchester United will finish above Southampton this season. A team can dominate a game all they want, if they can’t pull their finger out actually produce when it comes to the crack of things, its pointless. Arsenal is a team synonymous with this.

Those who possess that collective bottle and arrogance about them can go far, what followed Robin van Persie’s winner on Monday wasn’t pretty in the slightest, but it was gritty, resilient and tenacious. The ability to scrap through games like such against Southampton signifies a togetherness and mental fortitude that just wasn’t anywhere near Old Trafford last season. 6 points in the last 2 games came as a result of pure chutzpah.

As dodgy as it may sound, Louis van Gaal has indeed pumped the metaphorical spunk back into the Manchester United squad.

Further connotations of this can be spotted when one takes a look at Manchester United’s home form this season; the opening match at home to Swansea held dreadful similarities of home performances last season, but ever since that cataclysmic afternoon Old Trafford has witnessed a Manchester United team full of pomp and poise.

That isn’t to say nervy moments have arisen, of course they have, but in a 7 game period that has yielded 6 victories and a draw to Chelsea, Louis van Gaal’s side has broadly dictated proceedings at Old Trafford. Consistently good home form is without doubt obligatory for a team that has goals of finishing in European spots – under David Moyes, The Theatre of Dreams was so far from being a fortress that an away side could probably put out a 5-a-side team and still come out with a positive result. The first 8 home games under Louis van Gaal contrast immensely to what was overseen by David Moyes; the Dutchman has won 75% of his home games so far, the Scot only managed a 37.5% win rate in his first 8.

louis-van-gaal-press-conference

This increased win rate can be attributed to a lot of things, but it all ultimately stems from the psychological state of the team – Mr van Gaal’s personality, as well as his general attitude towards his players, has resulted in the squad being far more confident to go out and take the game by the scruff of the neck. The last 3 home games have yielded an average of 70.3% possession for the Reds. No reports of Phil Jagielka videos being shown at Carrington can only a good sign.

If you’re one who likes regularity and continuity in life, you probably despise Louis van Gaal. As a result of the Premier League’s nature being completely alien to the Dutchman, as well Manchester United players being susceptible to injuring themselves by sneezing, the manager has been forced to use a variety of formations and personnel; the first 5 matches under Louis van Gaal included 33 different players, and in 3 and a half months Louis van Gaal has used a 3-5-2 formation, a 4-4-2 diamond, an expansive 4-2-3-1, a positive minded 4-3-3 and of course a good old flat 4-4-2 when a game needs seeing out.

You’d think all this change of players and formation only leads to indecision and calamity, wouldn’t you? But it seems like the constant modification has provided Manchester United with a certain freshness and unpredictability – in most cases, the players have carried out their roles efficiently.

The unpredictability of Louis van Gaal’s selection, along with its success, exemplifies a couple of things: firstly, he doesn’t pick the same system and stick with it no matter what happens. The stubbornness of particular managers when it comes to selection and formation is tantamount to a team that will achieve very little.

If you make yourself some pasta and it turns out to be undercooked and a bit unpleasant, you wouldn’t keep eating that pasta, would you? No. You’d do something about it – you’d stick the stuff back in the microwave until it was better. The same logic applies in footballing management; Louis van Gaal will radically adjust the way the team shapes up if things aren’t going the way he wants. That style of management is invariably conducive to winning matches.

Secondly, it means that an increased number of players play in an increased number of roles, encouraging versatility within a team – if a manager sticks with more or less the same starting eleven every week, it may encourage a bit of momentum but it can lead to that team collapsing when slight alterations are made.

With 37 players already featuring for Louis van Gaal this season, mainly as a result of 42 injuries arising, players who are seen by some as unfit to wear the Manchester United shirt (Young, Fellaini, Smalling, Valencia) and young players (Blackett, McNair, Wilson) have been provided with the chance to prove themselves worthy of being useful to Louis van Gaal.

The proficiency shown by these players that I’ve namedropped when they have been called upon has proven to be invaluable. When senior players aren’t available, fringe players need to come in and carry out a job – the ability of many to do this provides severe juxtaposition to the large number of fringe players who retreated into their shells under David Moyes.

If I came up to you on 26th October 2013 (right after Manchester United scraped past Stoke City at home under David Moyes) and said that in exactly a year from now Marouane Fellaini would be playing against Chelsea and absolutely dominating Cesc Fabregas, you’d probably say I was insane.

With everything else swept to the side, Louis van Gaal has bettered Manchester United in a very ‘on the surface’ way. The general speed and fluidity of the football is such a welcoming contrast to what we all had to sit through last season (and maybe even a bit before then), it feels as if I’ve been woken up from an awful dream and been told school’s been cancelled. The sudden change in mood and confidence around the club has been overwhelming – it seems as if the only way is up for this confident and determined group of players.

About Leo Nieboer 89 Articles
Mourning the loss of Danny Welbeck

9 Comments

  1. When Manu, played City this season and City had beaten us, We never cried about it though we played better than them. I don’t see why the media is harping on our wins. A win is a win regardless who played however

    • Agree. It’s a beautifully put together piece, knowledgeable, thorough and thought provoking. Not such a big a fan of LVG as Leo appears to be, but I still enjoyed and appreciated the article. Good stuff.

  2. Louis van Gaal often refers to his philosophy and the need for players to adapt to it and learn to implement it.

    Can someone tell me what this philosophy is, apart from the obvious one of pragmatism, which is hardly a philosophy, anyway?

  3. LvG’s philosophy is possession football and isn’t really different than what’s being used at Barcelona or at Bayern. It’s more about controlling the tempo and limiting opportunities for the opponent while crowding one side of the field in attack.

    Characteristics are aggressive midfield triangular passing and pressure defense to win the ball back quickly. Fullbacks or wingbacks create width on the pitch. Intelligent centre back distribution and advancement of the possession. The purpose is to cut the field in half and attack with cutting, shorter quick runs or passing for unmarked open shots in or close to the box.

    It’s different than most standard English play. 4-4-2 with wingers to create vertical pressure. Attack built on speed counterattacking and corner set pieces. Midfielders generally poor at dribbling. Not so many triangular passing pieces, but rather long circular backwards passing at signs of pressure or long balls.

  4. Good article,VG is a good manager for United and maybe he can teach them individually as well to improve and he picks his players from training and not after name.The thing is have they got the players to play possession football,which is a bit boring and if Barca is anything to emulate it requires constant top players.Think United should copy Real Madrid instead which is much more entertaining.Whatever VG seems to be getting the confidence back,although still too many back passes at the moment.

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