Wednesday 24 January 2018

Van Gaal has turned Theatre of Dreams into the Temple of Tedium

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and his assistant Ryan Giggs after their scoreless Champions League game against PSV
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and his assistant Ryan Giggs after their scoreless Champions League game against PSV

Alan Smith

It is important to get one thing straight. Upon arriving at Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal knew all about Manchester United's rich history. How could he not as a vastly experienced student of the game?

He knew the club was built on a tradition of flamboyant football, of playing with pace and verve, not to mention width from where exciting wingers would be capable of beating their man to whip in a cross towards a penalty area crowded by willing runners from deep and expectant strikers.

The wily Dutchman was only too aware that the supporters had been reared on that kind of stuff.

At the same time, though, those responsible for employing Holland's former manager should have known that he is not the sort to follow the pack. If another road leads to the desired destination, Van Gaal will take it without a second's thought as to what has come before.


In short, he does not care one jot about criticism triggered by dull, pedestrian football bereft of flair and excitement. If a slow, possession-based style leads to success, he will take that all day. The end, if you like, justifies the means. And just look at the Premier League table. United could go top if they beat West Ham today.

That situation certainly does not constitute any kind of crisis. The fans are sensible enough to realise that, even if they are not enamoured by the football on show. For now, the Theatre of Dreams can become the Temple of Tedium if it means a return to the glory days.

As for the players in all this, well, they can be harder to persuade. Because it is they who must adhere to a strict regime that is said to involve repetitive training sessions and endless meetings. I know, your heart bleeds for them. Young millionaires simply being asked to follow instructions - how hard can that be? They don't know they're born.

And in many cases, that may well be true. But the other side to this argument is that in order to get the best out of people in any walk of life you must try to retain an element of enjoyment.

The concept of 'banter' gets a rough ride at times. Some see it as a sideshow, largely unimportant to the real business.

Not true. Laughs should always be heard amid the hard graft. The dressing room should buzz with cheerful chatter, not turn into a morgue where everyone is dreading the next couple of hours.

I know from experience that there is nothing worse than driving into training knowing the forthcoming session will be laborious and boring because, like yesterday and the day before, you are poised continually to practise tactics and shape. Of course, any coach worth his salt needs to address this aspect, but too much emphasis has the players quickly losing heart.

Spirits dip, shoulders sag, resulting inevitably in a counter-productive session. And by the sound of it, it does not end there at Carrington.

We hear Van Gaal absolutely loves a meeting. Or even three or four in the same day. Now, I have played under a couple of managers this way inclined. Bobby Robson, bless his soul, could talk for fun, as could Graham Taylor. When managing England, both were liable to get carried away once they got going.

Usually, however, they knew when to stop. And on the occasions they forgot, a kindly assistant would eventually intervene. Players, after all, are well known for their short attention spans. Concentration tends to wander after the first 15 minutes as instructions go in one ear and swiftly out the other.

Van Gaal must know that. He was a player himself. And nearly 30 years on the coaching side have surely taught him when to shut up. Yet the stories keep coming of protracted meetings testing the attention and patience of the United lads. Those get-togethers will feel even longer if training has been dreary. The end result, it seems, is a lack of expression and spontaneity when the games come around. Too many look more concerned with carrying out orders than thinking for themselves by diverting from the script.

A contrast in recent times is not hard to find. As someone competing in a rival camp, I thought one of Alex Ferguson's greatest attributes was his willingness to grant players the freedom to make mistakes, as long as they did it in the right areas. For any emerging youngster especially, this was a wonderful advantage. If you lost the ball in the final third after trying to beat your man or mishitting an ambitious pass, Ferguson would not jump down your throat.

This encouraged the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham to go out and express themselves, rather than always plump for the safe option. Looking at Van Gaal's United now, that does not seem the case.

Retaining possession, waiting for a gap to open up, takes precedence over risk.

The general mood might be helped if the manager desisted from playing two holding midfielders every single match.


No matter the opposition, two from Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin have so far always been picked to sit in front of the defence. You do not have to be Rinus Michels to realise that immediately robs the side of an attacking player whose very presence higher up the pitch increases the threat.

So when Wayne Rooney hears the crowd chanting "Attack, attack, attack!" I bet he thinks, 'I wish we would'.

Talking of Rooney, it must be so frustrating for long-serving players like him much more accustomed to an expansive approach. And as if to compound the situation, it must be all the more galling to see what is going on up the M62. At Liverpool, it looks like happiness all round, with radiant smiles on the faces of players loving the way Jürgen Klopp goes about his work.

Everyone wants to win. But everyone wants to enjoy it as well. For the most part, Van Gaal's players are achieving the first aim. The second is definitely proving far more elusive. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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