Paul Scholes: 'Madness' of Van Gaal has restored fear factor at United
Early signs of Dutch master's rebuilding job are positive but Red Devils still need quality midfielder to have any hope of challenging for title
At Old Trafford tomorrow lunchtime, I will take my place alongside the rest of the home support in the belief that my old club have a man in charge with the requisite status and strength of personality to be the manager of Manchester United.
Louis van Gaal has the respect of the players. He got it as soon as he arrived. This is a man who has managed some huge clubs: Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and he has just taken the Netherlands to third place in a World Cup finals. He is a man with presence. He looks a bit of a scary man. Good. Alex Ferguson was a scary man too, at times, and it is possible to push players into performances. From what I've seen in pre-season he looks a bit mad. He's a bit like a mad genius, he looks a bit crazy.
It is inevitable that when you talk about Van Gaal, you start to look back at last season and David Moyes. I don't want to spend the next year criticising Moyes. For whatever reason, it did not work out for him. By United's standards the season was a disaster. But there are some basic observations to be made about Van Gaal that have given him the ideal grounding at United.
With the greatest respect, it is a very different prospect going to United having managed Barcelona, Bayern and the Netherlands at a World Cup finals than it is going to United from Everton. Van Gaal has instantly got the respect of the squad. Players should perform whoever the manager is, but the reality is often very different. Last year, the fear factor was not there for the United players. It is now.
I played against Van Gaal's Bayern Munich team when they beat United on away goals in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2010. I believe I first encountered him when I was part of an England team that lost to Van Gaal's Dutch side at White Hart Lane in 2001. The first thing I noticed about his teams was quite striking: they seemed to have more men on the pitch than us.
It is the Dutch way, they create an extra man in midfield. With his 3-5-2 formation at United, Van Gaal is doing something similar. Watching United against Real Madrid this month I found myself asking, "How is it United seem to have so many men on the pitch?" It is easy to read too much into pre-season but the early signs have been positive. United beat Roma, Madrid and Liverpool in the United States. This time last year they were losing to the Singha All-Star XI.
For all the benefit I believe Van Gaal will bring to United in the long term, I find it hard to see them as Premier League title contenders this season. My instinct is that the title will be between Manchester City and Chelsea, with United, Liverpool and Arsenal in competition for the two remaining Champions League places.
The chief reason I see little prospect of United winning the title is that they have not signed enough players in this window. I accept that more than £60m has been committed to the signing of Luke Shaw, who is now unfortunately out for a month, and Ander Herrera. To my mind, United needed to buy a top-level midfielder, of which there were very few available this summer. Just two, in fact. And Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos have already made their moves.
Having said that, I like the way Van Gaal has set his stall out. He has said to the players: "This is it, 3-5-2. I am going to play you in the position that you're best suited to. If you can't play it, then tough." He has played Wilfried Zaha, he has played Nani at centre-forward. Van Gaal is not playing with two wingers and players are being asked to adapt, like Ashley Young at left wing-back, where he has done well. If you don't want to play the position he wants you in then it will be a case of "Off you pop".
Glenn Hoddle played 3-5-2 when he was England manager. In fact, that was the last time in my England career when I knew game to game how the team was going to play. The 3-5-2 system is a good way of getting your two centre-forwards into the team. When you have two forwards of the quality of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie you have to find a way of playing them.
Behind them United have Juan Mata and two holding midfield players. As a player, I never liked it. I was a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 man. A basic English player who enjoyed that system. But the United players seem to have really taken to it. You do play against a lot of teams with just one up front as well.
The most worrying thing is the injury records of the three centre-halves, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. They do seem to pick up a lot of knocks. United have already tried, and failed, to buy Thomas Vermaelen. But if those three can stay fit, they are more than capable of doing the job.
On the new signings, I haven't seen lots of Herrera before this summer. When United played Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, he looked good technically. I am not sure if he has loads of goals in him. I hope he will prove me wrong. I am not sure he is a playmaker either. I think he is probably in the category of Shinji Kagawa or Mata, a No 10. I don't see him as an out-and-out midfield player.
Shaw had a great season for Southampton. But United is different. He is at a massive club. He has to perform every week and the spotlight is on him. It is a lot of money for a left-back but that is the way the world has gone. His potential is fantastic. I would have liked him to have had Patrice Evra to guide him through. Evra is a top professional and a great lad to have in the dressing room, too. You could understand his point of view in leaving. He wanted to play football.
No Champions League football for a season at United is unthinkable, but it has happened and they must move on. I have no regrets about my old team not being in the Europa League. All that offers is an opportunity to give some minutes to the squad players. It is not a competition that excites me. As for last season, I try to think of it as a top horse having a bad race. Sometimes the only way to deal with it is to put a line through it and move on. Van Gaal has given United fans hope. (© Independent News Service)