Van Gaal is not the superstar-whisperer United need
After Louis van Gaal’s appointment as the successor to David Moyes at Manchester United was greeted with an almost unanimous chorus of approval, it was inevitable he would face a backlash. The results of the weekend just past will leave him feeling twitchier than at any time since he took the job.
United had won 4-1 at Swansea in David Moyes’ first Premier League match as United manager. Their defeat at the same ground this time around meant that when you compare their performance over 26 league matches to the results in the same fixtures last season, Van Gaal’s team is now two points worse off than Moyes’s.
This is not a crisis – United have, after all, lost only two of their past 20 matches – so much as a gradual curdling of anticipation into disillusionment. The disappointment will be felt by the manager, who won the title in his first season at both Barcelona andBayern Munich, as much as by the supporters.
The problem is not so much that United are 12 points behind Chelsea and out of serious contention for the title. It is that they have not yet succeeded in consistently producing the sort of attacking football with which Van Gaal made his name. They are second only to Manchester City in terms of average possession and pass completion, but Chelsea and Manchester City are hitting roughly three shots on target for every two United produce.
United are passing the ball incessantly but their movement does not disrupt opposing defences. In recent weeks, Van Gaal has turned to Marouane Fellaini for an alternative route to goal, but it’s typical of the luckless Fellaini’s United career that even his modest recent success seems symptomatic of a wider failure. Sadly for Fellaini, he just doesn’t fit.
Even if United’s supporters were content to watch them play direct football towards a big man, Van Gaal has discovered that any deviation from the club’s traditional attacking approach will be met with taunts and mockery. The crowd at Swansea greeted every long ball towards Fellaini with howls of derision. Old Trafford’s legion of recently retired legends has lately been debating whether it’s fair, post-Ferguson, to keep talking about “the United Way”. But it’s clear that the rest of English football expects United to play in a certain fashion.
Certainly, the consensus is that with a squad that has been reinforced by £220 million of spending over the past four transfer windows, Van Gaal should be doing rather better than he is.
It should be remembered that Van Gaal has never really been a chequebook manager. He’s a developmental technocrat whose proudest boast has always been that he knows how to get the best out of young players. But United have recently been spending on a scale that means the job of their manager is not about bringing through young players, it’s about getting the best out of a squad of established stars.
It’s plain that United’s strategy last summer was to recruit the highest-profile players they could get, rather than to look for a mix of players that could serve their new coach’s tactical system. First get Di María and Falcao, then work out how they’re all going to play together.
They now have a squad that has been designed as much by Jorge Mendes as by Van Gaal. If that’s the way United is going to be run, maybe the job is more suited to a diplomatic superstar-whisperer such as Carlo Ancelotti than someone as awkward and confrontational as the Dutchman.
Top four finish
As long as his team stays in the top four, Van Gaal will be adjudged to have fulfilled the basic expectations, but results have opened up the prospect of being passed out byLiverpool on the home straight.
Before giving Liverpool too much credit for their recent resurgence, it’s worth remembering that they remain 16 points worse off compared to the same 26 fixtures as last season, which is a worse record than any team except Everton.
Their poor form over the first half of the season has at least accomplished the task of rapidly downgrading expectations, so that their current run of form feels like an upward curve. The return of Daniel Sturridge, the rejuvenation of Mamadou Sakho and the impressive introduction to the side of Jordon Ibe means the angst and recrimination over the well-documented failures of the transfer committee has, for now at least, been forgotten about.
Brendan Rodgers, a hunted animal at the start of December, has recovered some of his old self-assurance.
The manager’s response to last week’s drama surrounding the penalty Mario Balotellisnatched from the grasp of Jordan Henderson was considerably more adroit than the one Steven Gerrard produced as a pundit on TV.
Gerrard said that Balotelli had “disrespected” Henderson by demanding to take the penalty. In fact Balotelli, who has a peculiar genius with penalties, was right to insist on taking it; the problem was that by handing the ball over so tamely, Henderson, who is tipped to be the next Liverpool captain, was made to look like a wimp.
While Gerrard seemed intent on dwelling on the awkwardness of the situation, Rodgers skilfully glossed over it by cracking a few jokes. Balotelli deciding to demand responsibility for a change is the least of Rodgers’s worries.