After £150m of poaching, time for Van Gaal to do some coaching
Every one of us has formed an opinion in the early stages of this volatile Premier League campaign and wanted to retract it a week later. English football teaches us never to be definitive but we never heed the lesson.
Case in point: Manchester United 4 Queens Park Rangers 0, in whichLouis van Gaal’s new team bonded like a room of freshly hired salesmen, minus the cheese and wine. Excitement, energy and enterprise were restored (admittedly at the expense of a mundane QPR side) and Daley Blind stepped into the boots Owen Hargreaves ought to have worn more often in front of the back four.
The praise for United was hardly eulogistic but it did acknowledge a shift. A week later, a team newly adorned with household names were conceding four in 21 minutes at Leicester City and Blind was being lumbered with the thankless task of covering the width of the pitch against pugnacious opponents who jumped on United’s weak defensive structure.
So Blind was wrongly credited against QPR, yes? Well, no. Same with Tyler Blackett, the young centre-back who lurched in some people’s eyes from statuesque automatic pick to exposed colt.
With the disparity between the Leicester and QPR games comes the end of Van Gaal’s honeymoon. Surely it must be his job now to come down from the philosophical Olympus and coach this United into shape – starting with the defence. Van Gaal has been through more incarnations in three months than most United managers see in a lifetime.
He has been, in no particular order: the clean-up guy, the statement of intent, the antidote to David Moyes, a stylistic bridge to Barcelona, the purger of misfits, the free-thinking innovator (3-5-2), the signer of household names and now the livid despot whose tirades can reportedly be heard in the corridor outside the United dressing room (at Leicester).
In this abundance of roles Van Gaal has still to find the ideal one. He has switched from mode to mode according to circumstance. But he cannot escape the results: the fewest points in the club’s Premier League history, and the lowest ever position after five games. The defeat at Leicester was an implosion on a scale that would leave any coach embarrassed, never mind a former master of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
So rebirth has slipped back into woe, with a new list of distractions, including rumours that some United players questioned the removal of Ángel di María after 76 minutes, and turned on Rafael for stupidly conceding a penalty. Equally Rio Ferdinand has confirmed an untold story about Robin van Persie’s reaction to Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. “The person it hit more than anyone was Robin. He’d come the year before, tasted that success and wanted more,” Ferdinand says. “Visually you could see it hit him harder than anyone else at the time.”
Van Persie has found it easy to hide his own poor form behind the wider turmoil; and Wayne Rooney has concealed his own struggles by working even harder and shouting at other players in the official capacity of captain rather than as unofficial megaphone. This issue – the becalming of Rooney and Van Persie – is becoming apparent to Van Gaal, judging by his comments about the front of his team; but attention has shifted more dramatically to the back, where he has clearly misjudged the quality and potential of his centre-backs.
Nobody ever believes it, but Ferguson built from centre-half out. He wanted organisers and enforcers who would play together every week. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
For reasons that are hard to fathom, Van Gaal seems to have convinced himself that the “philosophy” or grand plan would bring Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and the rest up to the requisite level. But the combinations keep changing and the stability is not there.
These are strange times at United. On Facebook, Juan Mata performs the role of priest to the fans, telling them how sorrowful he was on the road home (“the way back from Leicester to Manchester on the bus seemed really long”), and: “Honestly, I feel very sorry that the weekend ended up for our fans in such a sad way.”
This is a very modern way to communicate, and an unnerving one, because supporters want more than a mass cuddle and a mug of tea. More pertinent to them is that only £16m of the £156m spent during the summer went on a possible centre-back, Marcos Rojo.
Short of another splurge, only Van Gaal can solve this, by displaying his talent for the thing he says he was born to do: coaching, not as a “philosophy” but an organisational process to stop the ball going in the net. His introduction to English pinball is over. United need him to grab the controls.
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