United players must up their game to survive Van Gaal revolution
"A new manager with different ideas" was Wayne Rooney's first public assessment of Louis van Gaal yesterday, hinting at the kind of technical revolution we are about to see at Manchester United.
It is a revolution with which English football has not always been comfortable. When Arnold Muhren arrived at Ipswich from the Netherlands in 1978 and spent his first match chasing up and down the touchline after Liverpool's Terry McDermott, he promptly told manager Bobby Robson the linesman would have been better suited for that role and if he wanted to get the best out of him, "give me the ball". Robson did. Muhren flourished and went on to play for United.
Van Gaal's relentlessly attacking system has been characterised as more of a machine than a brand of possession football; a philosophy learned from his great Ajax mentor Rinus Michels that involves pressing and squeezing, constantly passing, running and reorganising space on the field until gaps open up in the opposition defence.
"With space so congested, the most important thing is ball circulation," is how Van Gaal has described the blueprint. "The team who create the quickest football are the best."
For players like Rooney, who observed that "we have to train well and listen to what he wants us to do and take that on to the pitch and show him what we can do", the days ahead will be a supreme test of technical and tactical ability.
Muhren, who helped United win the 1983 FA Cup, has explained how there is a requirement in this Dutch system for individuals to play football with their "brains" not their "feet" and think in advance of receiving the ball.
"Before I get the ball I can already see someone moving in front of me," he said. "So when it arrives I don't have to think about it. And I don't have to watch the ball because I have the right technique."
That is a good encapsulation of the more cerebral kind of football Van Gaal seems to be preparing to ask for at United.
Not all of their players have displayed such qualities in abundance. Phil Jones does not play with his head up. Tom Cleverley requires two or three touches before he ferries the ball. Michael Carrick, by contrast, looks like a Van Gaal player. But it will be a new generation who benefit from manager's capacity to tutor and develop young talent.
Reece James, Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane and Jesse Lingard are on their US tour, with defender Keane and attacking midfielder Lingard the most talented of that quartet and the latter perhaps best equipped to take Van Gaal's ideas on board. Blackett's inclusion becomes more relevant following Patrice Evra's departure for Juventus.
Beyond the touring squad, Ben Pearson, Andreas Pereira and Saidy Janko are other youngsters who seem to possess the technical component which could see them flourish under Van Gaal.
The Dutchman will spend hours explaining what he wants because, despite the autocratic image, communication with his players is at the core of his philosophy. He seems to be at his best with a young squad such as the Ajax group he took to Champions League triumph in 1995.
He likes to create a culture for which the Dutch word is 'gezelligheid' (roughly, cosiness). The difficulties occur when egos and personalities get in the way of the collective, democratic ethos, with Franck Ribery, Luca Toni, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rivaldo among those with whom he has clashed over the years. You cannot be a dictator in a Van Gaal team.
He also works scientifically at creating the conditions for a harmonious collective. When he became the Netherlands manager after a disastrous 2012 Euro Championships campaign, he became personally involved in changing a whole floor of the hotel in which the squad usually stayed.
Before his reign, players often stayed in their rooms. So he created a big room with table-tennis tables and a widescreen TV for them to watch football together. A "safe haven" as he described it.
It is an old-fashioned kind of togetherness he wants. He rails against what he calls "the computer society" – players consumed by the distractions technology creates.
In return he asks for players who think for themselves and come up with ideas. That explains why he has been so fond of Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen, Frank Rijkaard and Robin van Persie.
"There is always a manager but he is never really the boss" goes one Dutch saying that encapsulates the philosophy. (© Independent News Service)