Monday 22 January 2018

Van Gaal has made bigger impact than Moyes in two weeks

Dutchman hits ground running on American trip as his demands for raised standards at all levels of club bring expectations of instant title success

Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal
Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal
James Lawton

James Lawton

Even at Bayern Munich, where they cut him down because his medicine – and his style – was too strong for the ruling cabal of old football aristocrats who ultimately ran the show, no one ever suggested he didn't know how to win.

He has won wherever his formidable ego has landed – and who now is prepared to question Manchester United's decision that he was the man for their most critical moment since Alex Ferguson began to reshape the club 28 years ago?

Louis van Gaal wasn't able to walk on water when his new team, just a week or so under his command, ran riot in the Pasadena Rose Bowl in the small hours of yesterday morning – it's a an arduous drive up a cluttered freeway from the Santa Monica seafront – but he did the next best thing. He brought back something resembling vibrant life to a team which died on its feet under the ill-conceived regime of his overwhelmed predecessor, David Moyes.

The harsh truth for all the admirers of Moyes' managerial career is that Van Gaal has done more in a few hectic, travel-stained days than was achieved in nearly a full season of vertiginous decline.

He has done more than Moyes ever looked like managing however long he stayed at the helm. He's got the United players – including a Wayne Rooney who smashed in two goals in the 7-0 ransacking of LA Galaxy – to understand that they simply have to play for their lives as hugely rewarded professionals.

Also, on top of handing down the flexible 5-3-2 system with which he guided the Netherlands to an unexpected third place in the Brazilian World Cup, he has delivered a powerful lecture to the Old Trafford hierarchy which was caught so short when Ferguson suddenly called it a day.

Appalled by the draining travel across great swathes of North America, Van Gaal invited United to reassess their priorities.

Did they want to turn United into a weary cash cow attempting to exploit every scrap of commercial potential in every corner of the world? Or did they want to revert to the old, but still vital, truth that all wealth, all kudos, has to be created not in deal-making executive suites, but out on the field – that place where United, so soon after Ferguson's last Premier League title, were shockingly revealed to be no longer fit for purpose?

When Ferguson briefly suggested he was about to retire – soon after delivering the historic treble of 1999 – he was saddened by the haggling of the club's finance committee when they came to consider his future rewards for acting as the club's chief ambassador and consultant. He returned to the battle front after noting that, with some anger but less-than-total surprise, in the boardroom there had not been much dwelling on the fact that in scarcely a decade, he had moved the club from being the target of a £13m takeover bid to being worth the best part of a billion pounds.

Van Gaal, at 62, has clearly seen beyond the possibility of such an ambush.

His lesson to chief executive Ed Woodward was terse enough in California. United were in danger of being 'too big' – commercially – for their own good.

The Dutchman, naturally, was quick to report that his views had apparently registered, with Woodward at least, if not the American owners who long since decided that Old Trafford represented nothing so much as a mighty cash-point.

It was, as it turned out, a bold punch in a dazzling one-two combination which saw United playing with both urgency and style in the Rose Bowl.

Suggestions that it had been unrealistic to expect United to return immediately to a serious title challenge were, surely, left as crumpled as the players of one of a supposedly burgeoning American game's most important clubs.

Does Van Gaal really have the means to make United an instantly revived force despite the so-far modest outlay on Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw? Certainly, it is made modest enough by the huge speculation of Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers as he seeks to compensate for the departure of Luis Suarez, but then Van Gaal has always represented a force of nature in his own right.

Wherever he has been – and most significantly at Ajax, Barcelona, Munich and the Dutch touchline in Brazil – he has left the traces of a natural born winner. Quarrelsome, didactic, eccentric, perhaps, but also a winner.

A charm offensive of notable proportions was launched in the direction of the dressing-room after the powerful performance in Pasadena, but then there was another reality beyond the honeyed words of the coach.

It was that their new chief had not only hit the United ground running, but also with a full set of the most strenuous demands.

Rooney's idea of himself as the proprietor of United's best hopes – most staggeringly revealed a few years ago when, from the middle of a massive slump in form, he sought to redirect Ferguson's signing policy – plainly didn't survive his first conversation with the new boss.

Van Gaal may have purred this week, but no United player was unaware of his tendency to snarl at the first hint of poor performance or tactical inattention. It was only long after it was too late that Moyes directed his players to their own responsibilities. With Van Gaal, such a demand is implicit.

He declared: "Last week, 10 players who played tonight were not even in our training complex. But when you see us train, you can expect something – but not 7-0. It was a surprise, but they were beautiful goals. But it was not the goals – it was the beautiful attacks. When you want to change a system, you must start at once. With such a result you get confidence – and confidence in a new system."

You also believe you may have bought yourself a little time to prove that you are still worth the trouble. It was Louis Van Gaal's first challenge in what might just be the most brilliant phase of a long and rarely less than tumultuous career. United to challenge for the title? A week of Van Gaal and it hardly looks like a debate.

Irish Independent

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