Devil’s In the Details: LvG and United
It was only last summer when the devotees at the Stratford End rejoiced at the prospect of finally witnessing their team being led by a man who was reputed for being mercurial genius. The man in question is a certain Mr Louis van Gaal. The World Cup in the sambaland did his reputation no harm. His unabashed interviews and press-conferences, his fearless and often amusing tactical decisions and a team devoid of any real superstars (save Robben, van Persie and maybe Sneijder) lit up the global extravaganza. What began with a surgical dismantling of the reigning champions, ended with an almost effortless whacking of the hosts; all this in spite of losing their midfield lynchpin through a long-term injury as a result of which they had to change their formation weeks prior to the tournament. With every passing Dutch game, the Old Trafford faithful had their expectations heightened. Yet 7 months into his reign, LvG has hardly had the same impact he had on his nation of birth. The reason can be attributed to van Gaal’s authoritarian approach and an overt necessity to force his players to stick to their jobs.
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On his arrival, the Dutch made all the right moves that won him the backing of the fans. Appointing the legendary son of the club, Ryan Giggs as his understudy, handing over the armband to the much adored Wayne Rooney, and massively upheaving the squad that many considered to be ageing and stagnant with an influx of young, expensive and rising stars, everything looked to be on the up. He quickly realized that in the absence of a strong box-to-box midfielder, United needed a formation change, and for the first time in the long, illustrious history of the club, the fans were treated to the 3-5-2. A highly successful pre-season was however, not a pre-cursor to the main season.
The Moyes era problems of injuries to key players, lack of forward thrust (despite the heavy investment) and an absence of general flair in the game United had so often treated its fans to in the seasons past, resurfaced again. The very fans and the media, who had been so lofty in the praises for van Gaal months ago, now turned on him. LvG demanded a period of 3 months without any scrutiny on his club to impose his philosophy, a statement he later admittedly came to regret. Months have passed since the self-imposed deadline, and the only positive that the team has to show for is a decent defensive record and a top-4 standing. The defensive organization has come at a price though. After more than half of the season, the fans, the team and to some extent even the manager are not sure of the best starting XI or the most suitable formation. The attention to detail and the manager’s clear definition of roles has stifled a lot of the creative flair in the team. The players do not seem sure of their own duties, and there seems to be no telepathic understanding in the final third. The biggest victims to the manager’s authoritarian approach have been-
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- Angel Di Maria– the British Record signing has more often than not been thrown in the middle of the park, negating his dangerous balls in from the wings, and the searing break-away pace he was once renowned for. After the initial show of brilliance in a few fixtures, his lack of influence in the final third has come to haunt him in the recent games (lowest point being his half-time substitution against Sunderland at OT). When LvG ultimately did play him out wide, he tended to tuck in and played well within himself. He never enjoyed the freedom he did at Real. The manager is sure to take some of the blame here.
- Radamel Falcao– The man came with a lot of hoopla. The “most complete striker in the world” was expected to light the Premier League on fire, and yet he did not play. When he did, he seemed a mere shadow of his former 30+ goals-a-season-self. He was restricted to be the focal point of attack, whereas in Porto or Atletico, he would often drop deep and get involved in the build-up. His much renowned prowess in the air remains just a stuff of lore. The fans have backed him, but his stifled role and his lack of form and gametime has unfortunately all but justified the tag of “luxury-signing”.
- Adnan Januzaj– The sole bright spot under the Moyes regime and the heir to the recently vacated mythical no. 11, Adnan was supposed to be United’s breakthrough performer of the season. But puzzlingly, LvG decided to deploy him as a wing-back (in a 5-3-2) in the major chunk of the few games he could play. Adnan is never going to be a great defender, and his brilliance going forward was choked in this unfamiliar role. Recently though, the manager has shown greater faith in the kid by giving him more games, and thrusting him out wide as an out-and-out winger where he seems to enjoy more. Fingers crossed United fans, fingers crossed!
- Wayne Rooney – When he’s played, he has been really good. But to accommodate the likes of van Persie, Falcao and Wilson, Wazza has been deployed deep. Quite amusingly, he was preferred over the talented Herrera to fill the void left by the injured Blind and Carrick in a recent league fixture. Wazza, being Wazza didn’t complain. But one sees the true class in him, only when he is played upfront by the Dutchman. LvG, get an extra midfielder and push Wayne up top already.
- Juan Mata and Ander Herrera– the gifted Spanish duo face the same problem. Despite the statistics to back their case, they just haven’t played enough. Their passing and vision would add some much needed guile in the center of the park. Whenever they’ve played together in a diamond, United have looked a different beast.
Although, the manager does have a bloated ego and a seemingly dictatorial approach, he does boast of an enviable resume to justify it. And not everything has gone south for the team. Under his tutelage, some of the players have come back from the dead and face a sort of sweet Renaissance. The likes of Young, Fellaini and Smalling do not seem the waste of space they once were. The team has also somehow managed to hang onto the top 4 so far by the skin of their teeth. Just maybe, the “project” that LvG refers to again and again might not be a mere means to hide the underperformance and the inefficacy of the squad. Just maybe the man will uncork the bottle and let the Champaign football flow which the fans have been clamoring for. The Devil’s in the details they say. Maybe the detailed approach that LvG adopts with these Devils might lead the team to glory someday. The fans just hope that this day isn’t far.