Seeing the team-sheet for Manchester United’s game at the Emirates back in November 2014 was a bracing experience.
Arsenal hadn’t lost a game at home for 15 months. And van Gaal’s side, with a taxing Christmas break on the horizon, hadn’t even looked close to winning an away game all season. If that notion wasn’t excruciating enough, the Dutchman – his side beleaguered with an injury crisis that United fans have henceforth grown so accustomed to – was forced to throw in youngsters Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett into a back three alongside a confidence-sapped Chris Smalling. This, I thought to myself, could get ugly.
Fast forward two hours and the unthinkable has happened. United somehow soaked up all of what Arsenal’s attack could muster and went 2-0 up – despite managing just one shot on target – before holding on to the unlikeliest of wins.
Astonishingly, McNair and Blackett didn’t look out of place. And I’m not paying a discredit to them for saying that. Everything imaginable was stacked against them; they made their debuts a mere three months ago; they were playing away to a side with one of the best home records in Europe (for a side with one of the worst away records in the Premier League); and, most hazardously in my view, they were playing in a formation – a rigid 3-5-2 – that nobody understood or believed in.
McNair and Blackett are just 2 of the 19 players from the youth system to be given their debuts since van Gaal came to the club in July 2014 – 6 more than Liverpool, 9 more than Arsenal, and 13 more than Chelsea.
But before you hand praise to the manager for fulfilling the engrained ideal of ‘giving youth a chance’, remember that this plethora of youngsters emerging at United hasn’t materialised in the authentic, romanticised way that made the Class of ’92 so incredible.
Rather, the agonising sight of van Gaal’s multi-million project crumbling under the weight of injuries and, more pertinently, under the weight of a turgid, behind-its-time system was what fostered the rise of a younger class.
The question as to how the influx of youth players happened is, however, a bit beside the point. The question is this: in a game characterised with financial power and won through finding the cream of the crop from abroad, why have they blossomed in the way they have, whilst older – and presumably technically superior – players have struggled so woefully under van Gaal?
If anything, it feels like the demographic most inhibited by van Gaal’s restrictive system would be the kids; the ethos United are forced to play under requires things like patience, a cool-head, excellent technical capacity with the ball, and an ability to absorb and execute a madly convoluted game plan in front of 75,000 irate supporters. Such facets are usually developed by experience.
And yet the younger players are the ones who make United a bit more watchable, who make van Gaal’s system seem a bit less devoid of purpose. The most potent example, perhaps, was United’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal last Sunday. As the team-sheet filtered onto Twitter fear was once again palpable, with litany of youngsters set to go up against odds-on favourites Arsenal, who simply had to win to keep their title charge on track. Most of Old Trafford expected to go home to play with their Gala Casino bonus in sullen disappointment; they ended up leaving the Theatre of Dreams incandescent over what they saw.
Marcus Rashford, just 18-years-old and virtually unheard of until last Thursday, ripped the heart out Arsenal’s title challenge through virtue of making the No.9 role look easy, scoring two goals that brimmed with sheer striker’s instinct. Guillermo Varela nullified the same Alexis Sanchez who tore Matteo Darmian to pieces back in October with exceptional ease. Jesse Lingard, a far more established figure than the other two despite only breaking into the first team last November, was once again bursting with energy and commitment to the cause. And Timothy Fosu-Mensah, on his debut from the bench, bulldozed his way through Arsenal’s established elite, making light work of adjusting to a notoriously physical level of football.
Matched up against a bloc of raw and unyielding prodigies, a languid Arsenal couldn’t cope. The mentality of these youngsters – amongst others throughout the season – to battle without fear is largely a product of Warren Joyce’s youth set-up, which forms players into not just technically gifted players, but technically gifted players with the right attitude.
But even youngsters such as Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw (arguably United’s two best performers this season, despite the latter only featuring eight times), who have never gone through United’s famous development sector, are excelling under van Gaal.
The reason, then, appears to stem from not just having the right up-bringing (though that certainly helps), but also from something as simple as a state of mind.
Indeed, the more experienced class of United players – think of Juan Mata and Bastian Schweinsteiger – are far less adept at absorbing what the manager wants. After all, these players have earned their trade and won the Champions League through playing under a completely different system. To them, van Gaal’s structure is relative to other structures that saw them attain more success. For those who have excelled elsewhere, this current footballing ethos probably comes across as counter-intuitive and difficult to grasp.
Now take the younger variety; playing under van Gaal represents a first experience of top-level football, which means two things: firstly, their attitudes aren’t cluttered by another system they preferred, and secondly, they’re fresh, unproven, and determined to assert themselves on the world stage. With this mind-set, van Gaal’s methodology is easier to take in your stride.
For van Gaal, then, it seems that (to quote a mediocre 2010 comedy drama) the kids are all right. But how long will this burst of positivity surrounding United’s next generation last? If the rumours are true, and Jose Mourinho is sitting pensively in his London estate, lounging around in his boxers and twiddling his thumbs until the summer, you can’t imagine for much longer.
If the unanimously unwelcome Dutchman is to stick around for a bit longer, though, continuing this streak of blooding promising youngsters might be the best way to alleviate some of the ire generated during his reign at Old Trafford.