Tuesday 19 September 2017

EXCLUSIVE - James Lawton: Man United lifted by Louis van Gaal's belief in own philosophy

Louis Van Gaal insists he has no time for big reputations in his new philosophy
Louis Van Gaal insists he has no time for big reputations in his new philosophy
James Lawton

James Lawton

He calls it his philosophy but then who has the energy or stamina to argue with Louis van Gaal?

For him, with his industrial scale team and tactical tinkering, it is not a matter for debate just personal survival, a hard, implacable refusal to go the way of such notable football men as Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton, Ron Atkinson and David Moyes.

Over 45 years all of them became cannon fodder in the attempt to re-ignite ultimately majestic regimes of Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson - and everyone knows that Ferguson, who seemed so indestructible in the end, came within 90 minutes of also going down.

Under first Busby, then Ferguson, United became a monster of success, and more so because it was all founded on the romance and the tragedy of the Busby Babes.

United's eventual good luck was that they found another kind of monster in Ferguson. Now lightning may just have struck twice.

For there is surely more than a touch of the monster in Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal. Monstrous ego, monstrous indifference to any feelings of well-being beyond those he packs into his little briefcase as he marches to the touch-line, monstrous disregard for the well-known fact that professional footballers are among humanity's most insecure.

Here he was at a time when his former protege Robin van Persie fought poor form and injury, Radamel Falcao fretted over damaged ligaments and lost direction, and Wayne Rooney worried about where his next goal was coming from, "Names matter to the media but not to me. When there isn't any stimulation by a young group of players to stir things up you get stuck. That is why I'm always attracted to young players who automatically provide that stimulation.

"I continually play players who are most fit, not just those who are big names."

That was his new and entrenched policy when he took over the Netherlands for a second stint and led them to last summer's World Cup semi-finals in Brazil. His first move was to leave out Rafael van der Vaart, whose creative brilliance caused such a stir at Tottenham, and bench Van Persie.

He said at the time, "The old Van Gaal did give credit to and had faith in recognised players. But that was something I shouldn't have done. Now I do exactly the opposite and that works quite well. It also keeps everybody on their toes."

To an extent, possibly, but not remotely in the compelling way of a Ferguson team still shaped by the quality of midfield players like Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and, at his best, Michael Carrick.

There will soon enough be a point when Van Gaal's United have to do sharply more than hold its place in the race for a return to Champions League football. When Angel di Maria looks less like a Broadway star who woke up in a struggling road show. When Rooney begins to show, wherever he is sent on the field, that he can truly recapture his old destiny as a potentially great player. Time is, at least for a little while, on Van Gaal's side.

Philosophy

Enough so at least for him to declare, "The most important thing is my philosophy and when you stick by your philosophy every player has played in it and knows what is expected."

That, of course, hasn't been so blazingly apparent in most of United's performances this season, and most recently in the slow-burning FA Cup victory at Preston and the desperate draw at West Ham. But then the results are accumulating despite the fact that Van Gaal has now picked more than 30 players, worked six different formations, and seems increasingly attracted to the crisis-born Plan B which has Maroune Fellaini, a £27m disaster in the hands of his old boss Moyes, as a key figure.

But if this is snail's progress it is still progress, of a sort. It is the holding of a line, a heading off the kind of breakdown of will that left the fine career of Moyes in shreds after just a few months.

The former Everton manager's friend Sam Allardyce remarked that Moyes looked as though he had aged 10 years at Old Trafford and if the comment was unhelpful it could hardly be denied.

It is in this area of invaded confidence that United may well have made their best investment.

In the end Moyes seemed to be shying away from his own shadow. Van Gaal has never entertained such self-doubts. He made success on his own terms at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern and on the international stage with Holland. At Bayern and with Holland he was impervious to the wisdom and the prestige of men like Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff and now the presence of Ferguson in the stand is no cause for intimidation.

No more than was the ostensibly avuncular presence of Busby when Ferguson took his place in the dug-out. There were times when the revered Bobby Charlton was required to defend Ferguson in a sceptical boardroom but he did it with unbreakable conviction.

"I argued for Ferguson's appointment because I knew he had something special in him and I was always convinced that he would come through - that he could take the pressure."

Charlton has made a similar assessment in the case of Van Gaal. Most notably, he believes, there is the great weight of self-belief, and a natural authority which has, for all the failures of tempo and tactical coherence, inculcated a fighting spirit that was the Ferguson trademark.

Under Ferguson, despite the palpable signs of the squad's erosion, there was still a little of that monster of unbroken success.

Now it has to be remade and Van Gaal can certainly point to a growing fortitude without inviting derision. Tomorrow in Swansea a more assured performance might be one sign that the worst has passed. It was Swansea who inflicted Van Gaal's first sobering setback with a victory at Old Trafford at the start of the season and a better showing by United might be a augury of better days.

As it is, Van Gaal is obliged to go on talking the talk and keeping a certain swagger in his walk.

No doubt he will continue to believe that his philosophy is a gift which came directly from the football mountain top. He has to believe that and, for some time, so do United.

Irish Independent

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