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Van Gaal: The change Manchester United Needed

Moving on from the Ferguson era was always going to be hard for both players and fans and the 2013-14 campaign under David Moyes showed how badly things could get for the Reds. Louis Van Gaal was appointed as the manager of United in a desperate hope to change things around. Rwiddhi Chakraborty talks about the changes that the Dutchman has brought to Old Trafford and the positive impact he has had. 

Van Gaal Moyes 2014 Change

The air around Old Trafford smacks of optimism nowadays, and it’s not without reason. In the last 10 games, United have collected a total of 24 points from a possible 30. That’s not disappointing by any means, especially when compared to the team’s situation at exactly this stage of the season last year, under David Moyes.

Although the purchase of world class players like Di Maria, Blind, and Falcao remains an important factor, it is beyond conjecture that much of United’s improvement this season has taken place under Louis Van Gaal’s philosophy.

Firstly, Van Gaal’s famed man management policies have triumphed, yet again.

This is the prerequisite of any manager aiming to set a high standard for himself/herself. Sir Alex Ferguson was a maverick man manager. He tolerated no nonsense in the dressing room, or outside of it. This is why players like Jap Staam, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and most notoriously, David Beckham couldn’t survive at Manchester United. Sir Alex demanded respect, and when his demands went ignored, commanded it.

Louis Van Gaal adopts a similar philosophy. Only a tough manager (and hence a successful one) could have played down the performance of David De Gea against Arsenal at the Emirates this season, a game United won 2-1, where De Gea was adjudged the man of the match. While football fans and pundits alike marvelled at the excellence of the young Spanish goalkeeper (recently Spain’s number 1), it was reported that Van Gaal had said to De Gea “You have a lot to improve on” after the match. This did not necessarily mean Van Gaal was downplaying De Gea’s performance. He was making sure the young goalkeeper didn’t become overconfident, and hence kept his feet firmly on the ground. The same case could be made for Robin Van Persie, the recently out of sorts United striker. Van Gaal criticised Van Persie before the game against Hull City at Old Trafford, and Van Persie promptly replied to his critics with the best method possible: scoring a wonderful goal from just outside the 18 yard box. He scored a brace again two weeks later, at St Mary’s, against a resilient Southampton side, and hence helped United win 2-1.

Van Gaal is a stout, frank manager. He points out the errors and let them be known to players. He does not beat around the bush. In the demanding world of professional football, managers need to act tough to squeeze out positive results, a technique Van Gaal has used to his successes before at Ajax, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. So far, his unquestioned ability of man management is working at Manchester United.

This brings us to our next change the Dutchman’s regime has brought about: A definite philosophy.

Van Gaal has always been a stout practitioner of what he calls “my philosophy”. He believes in giving chances to players who are in promising form, instead of discriminating them in favour of the “stars” at the club. This belief paved the way for youngsters like Paddy McNair ad James Wilson make the United senior team. Although McNair’s form has been wanting of late (he was substituted before half time at St. Mary’s), what is important here is the message Van Gaal is trying to send to the youth academy: play well, work hard, and you will get selected for the senior team. This strong and reassuring message will spark a lot of confidence among the teenagers at the club.

Van Gaal also believes in experimentation. He believes, unless a player tries out different roles, he will never be able to recognise his position of strength. This philosophy has seen the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo play in various positions in the course of the season. Also, Van Gaal’s frequent experimentation with United’s formation has brought in some magic changes. He shifts from 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1 to an unorthodox (but effective) 4-3-1-2. This constant, shifting, criticised by experts due to the lack of consistency, has sparked a few unexpected wonders, which brings us to our next point.

Louis Van Gaal is Dutch. It is therefore unsurprising, that he has tried to adopt this wonderful system of football in the United team, the system honed to perfection under the “Flying Dutchman” Yohan Cruyff. The concept of total football demands every player in the team play at every single position, or at the least, having within oneself the ability to play at every single position on the pitch.

Who would have thought, therefore, that Marcos Rojo would be played as a full back, but also frequently deployed as a centre half? Who would have thought, that Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, players who had underperformed in large parts of the previous season under David Moyes, would flourish in Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system, where they are deployed as wing backs, rather than wingers?

Marouane Fellaini, a player we shall discuss in a subsequent stage of this article, has been deployed as a defensive midfielder, and also further up the match, frequently adopting a box-to-box role, positions which have helped him deeply. Daley Blind has also filled in as a defensive midfielder, while sometimes being deployed as a traditional central midfielder too.

These above examples prove that most players in the Manchester United squad are proficient at playing according to the demands of the team, a technique which sees United sit at 3rd position in Premier League table two weeks after to Christmas.

As and when the formations are tweaked, most of the players have succeeded in adapting to the changes.

Although this system hasn’t worked perfectly at the club (yet), courtesy a scrappy performance against Southampton, it is well understood what Van Gaal is trying to bring to the squad, and the United fans are welcoming it with open arms.

The response of his players to this system has been encouraging, especially the ones who were in poor form last season.

Under David Moyes, in the tumultuous 2013-14 season, whilst most of the players underperformed, the forms of the Fellaini, Young and Valencia were criticised the most. Fellaini had been purchased for 27 million pounds, yet all along the course of the season, he never showed an inspiring spark, prompting many pundits to wonder whether he fit into Van Gaal’s plans at all.

Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have been around for quite some time now. While Valencia has had patches of good form playing as a full back, and found wanting while playing as a winger, Young has never really got himself going, deployed on the wings.

Cut to the ushering in of Louis Van Gaal. His varying formations have proved wonders for the forms of these three players.

Young and Valencia have been outstanding in all the matches they have been deployed as wing backs. Fellaini has sparkled in the shoes of a defensive midfielder, with the flexibility of making attacking forays according to his discretion. Van Gaal has also made full use of Fellaini’s physical prowess. Whenever long balls would be sent in and around the 18 yard box, one would inevitably find Fellaini attacking the ball, a constant aerial threat (remember the stunning goal at The Hawthorne’s?).

Young and Valencia have put in crucial tackles, winning balls from opposition wingers, and simultaneously aiding attacking moves as well. Young chipped in with a match winning clearance off the line in the game against Stoke City at Old Trafford; with a minute of injury time remaining, Young cleared a shot just off the line, a shot which had beaten the human wall David De Gea. United eventually won the match 2-1.

It is therefore an exciting prospect for United supporters, the resurgence of these players. If the title has to be won, it has to be won with these players (along with the likes of Di Maria), and so far, they are performing incredibly well. One cannot deny the influence Van Gaal has had on his players. His no nonsense approach has worked on these hardened professionals.

Lastly, Manchester United has established itself as a successful club with the help of great players, and an unwavering belief.

Old Trafford, especially the Streford End, is used to a huge fan mosaic containing the letters of the word: BELIEVE, on the occasion of a league victory or, as recent as 2008, the Champions League victory in Moscow. For quite some time now, the belief has faded from United supporters—the belief that their beloved team can perform on the biggest stages, the belief that their team can win matches with the same swagger and dominance as they did during the time of Sir Alex, the belief that they are Champions, and they play like Champions.

Under David Moyes, there was a shocking lack of belief amongst the supporters, and this went a long way in sealing Moyes’s fate. Neither the fans nor the Glazer family could believe that United had it in them to perform on the biggest stages of world football.

With Louis Van Gaal, Old Trafford is buzzing with excitement. There is an air of real positivity and optimism around the stadium. If one surfs through the United website, and watches some interviews of players and fans alike, one can feel the optimism; if not this year, maybe the next.

The belief is back, and one can see who’s responsible for it.

Written by Rwiddhi Chakraborty

Rwiddhi Chakraborty
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