Kevin Palmer: Van Gaal sacrifices excitement for functionality, but winning all that matters
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal makes no apology for sacrificing excitement for functionality in a bid to implement his oft-mentioned philosophy and now he has a team performing in his image.
The myth that we are watching the best of European football in the Premier League each weekend has been well and truly banished in recent weeks as all of the top sides have fluffed their lines at home and in the Champions League, yet United are threatening to capitalise on the weakness of their rivals in the grand manner.
All of a sudden, opportunity is knocking for a manager whose tried and tested methods have divided opinions since his arrival at Old Trafford, with a door now ajar for Van Gaal to defy his doubters at home and in Europe.
United fans have taken time to warm to the functional, methodic and patient football that is part of the Van Gaal’s doctrine, yet their position atop the Premier League standings confirms that the veteran Dutchman is having the desired effect at the helm of England’s most popular club.
Now that he has added his first Champions League group stage win to his resume at Old Trafford, Van Gaal is starting to look like the winner United hired in the summer of 2014.
Their 2-1 win against Wolfsburg on Wednesday night was a classic example of a Van Gaal team at work; solid, gutsy and resolute to the end. Substance over style, many would suggest.
A reports filtered through suggested Manchester City were pushed to the limit by Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany, the prospect of all four English teams losing in the Champions League over the course of two desperate nights suddenly loomed large.
However, Van Gaal’s team are playing with a little more method than some of their Premier League rivals and that style should serve them well in this season’s Champions League.
Level at half-time after Caligiuri’s handball gave Juan Mata a chance to convert a penalty to ensure the scores were level at half-time, Chris Smalling’s 53rd minute winner was only confirmed as such after a nervous final few minutes that saw Wolfsburg push with increasing menace for a leveller.
German observers would have argued with some merit that the visitors deserved something from a game that saw then push United from first to last and yet in the end, it was Van Gaal who had prevailed once again in front of a relieved Old Trafford faithful.
Are United genuine contenders for Premier League or Champions League glory? On the evidence of this performance, you would doubt it and yet the presence of the 64-year-old tactician who proudly sits in the Old Trafford managerial hot-seat these days suggests nothing is impossible in the months ahead.
After spending ridiculous sums of money to assemble a squad that still looks less than balanced in several areas, Van Gaal has finally settled on a team that offers him flair and doggedness in equal measure. If you want to define that Van Gaal philosophy – and many have tried in the last few months – those two ingredients are crucial to his recipe.
The lavish signing of Anthony Martial on transfer deadline day last month has given the United team a focal point that skipper Wayne Rooney seemed incapable of providing when he was leading the line.
Juan Mata appears to have established himself as the creator in chief behind the lead striker and in Memphis Depay, Van Gaal knows he has a magician who will produce moments of magic that will win his side games. The Dutch youngster will also go missing from time to time, which remains a concern.
Morgan Schneiderlin has slotted neatly into the United midfield and his relationship with the battle hardened Bastian Schweignsteiger offers real potential at the base of the midfield, while the performances of Smalling continue to impress in front of immaculate keeper David De Gea.
After many months of tinkering and experiments, Van Gaal has a spine running through his team that should serve him well and in a season when so many of England’s top clubs seems eager to push a self-destruct button, one manager are threatening to return to the top plinth he has resided on so often in his career.
The Van Gaal philosophy is many things, but winning has always been at the heart of it. Manchester United are discovering that at last.