Monday 18 December 2017

Van Gaal must set early pace to silence doubters

Manager’s reshaping work needs instant impact in high-noon Spurs showdown

Presenter Conor Morris with pundits Kenny Cunningham, John Hartson and Matt Holland at the Setanta Sports studios in Dublin to mark the return of Premier League Central
Presenter Conor Morris with pundits Kenny Cunningham, John Hartson and Matt Holland at the Setanta Sports studios in Dublin to mark the return of Premier League Central
James Lawton

James Lawton

Louis Van Gaal may have reached that age when birthdays are not so much cause for celebration as regret but when he reaches his 64th tomorrow he will no doubt be reminded that sometimes for an old football man the clock does stand still.

It returns him to those days when his reputation still hovered between success and failure at high noon at Old Trafford when Spurs take the measure of the Dutchman's first year of restoration work at Manchester United.

He has crossed the bridge of achievement many times. He led Ajax to the Champions League and was promptly voted world coach of the year. He passed others when leading Barcelona and Bayern Munich to the Spanish and German titles - and only last summer he brushed against immortality with an audacious World Cup challenge as manager of a previously ill-considered Dutch team.


But then few question the fact that as he moves to within a year of a popular retiring age, Van Gaal is locked in what seems likely to be his last great, and maybe most testing challenge of an extraordinarily driven career.

Last year his first work with a disordered and fragmenting United concluded with a deflating defeat by Swansea City.

Tomorrow, such a pratfall would be doubly crushing as an already split jury seeks a verdict at the end of a turbulent summer.

Inevitably, there are two factions.

One says that Van Gaal has hugely enhanced the competitive fibre of the United squad. They see in the signings of such as Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger midfielders of both character and vision, despite the warning of Bayern coach Pep Guardiola that the German World Cup winner Schweinsteiger has been waging war with his battle-scarred body for the last three years.

The optimists also believe that the impending signing of Barcelona's Pedro will give the team a bite it lacked at crucial phases of last season.

Another potentially huge plus, they say, is the promise of free-scoring 21-year-old Dutchman Memphis Depay.

Depay, a waspish, vibrant performer who this week had the nerve to apply for the number seven jersey once graced by George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo, and to mention a lesser mortal, David Beckham, certainly believes that in Van Gaal (below) United have a leader to restore the team to the elite of Europe.

"I don't want to say he is a father figure to me but he is a great manager. I know he can make players better," said Holland's top scorer last season.

"I was a better player every time I trained with him. I felt stronger. I felt fit.

"I am very hungry and I want to be doing everything better so that I become a much better player - and this feeling is heightened when I am with Van Gaal.

"I want to be a legend in the game, sure, but Van Gaal has told me that the most important thing is to focus on the next game. The manager has underlined to me that that is the most vital thing of all in my job."

When PSV Eindhoven let it be known that Depay was for sale, Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham Hotspur came in the first rush but Depay says: "When Van Gaal came into it my decision was made. It was all very clear."

Another Van Gaal booster is Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu. He is emphatic that United have acquired a true football heavyweight, a man of both fierce discipline and fine vision.

"There is no doubt in my mind, it was an excellent move by United to hire Van Gaal. All his experience was perfect for the challenge ahead of him.

"We know him from when he was at Barcelona and you have to remember that one of our best players of the last 15 years, Xavi, was brought through by Van Gaal, and he also gave first games to such important players as Iniesta and Carles Puyol.

"Van Gaal did something very good, vital to our progress as a great club, when he put a lot of confidence into our young players of the academy, La Masia, and he was proved right because they have been the best players in our team.

"We know how strong and intelligent he is, that he gets the best that is possible from his players. This makes me believe that once again United will show that they are one of the top clubs this year."

Bartomeu made his speech after United delivered an impressive defeat of his club, albeit one with Lionel Messi absent, in San Francisco recently but then a few days later the promise of that performance was reversed by defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain.

It means that the Spurs game is likely to give a truer guide to the new strength, and maybe some of the old weakness, of Van Gaal's re-shaped United.

There is certainly reason to be concerned about the uncertain approach to the new season of goalkeeper David de Gea, a source of consistent strength through the ebb and flow of the last campaign. The handling of the Spaniard's desire to move to Real Madrid has certainly been less than sure-footed.


Van Gaal, though delighted by the progress of Luke Shaw, the big signing last summer whose fitness he brutally disparaged, and the technical accomplishment of fellow full-back Matteo Darmian from Torino, is candid about his worries in the matter of who should partner Daley Blind, himself hardly a proven specialist, in central defence.

Chris Smalling is favoured to get the nod over Phil Jones, though it has scarcely been a battle of titans. Indeed the United keenness to detach Sergio Ramos from Real Madrid has surely been fuelled by Van Gaal's yearning for players of the most implicit authority in such a vital area of the field.

Van Gaal insists that the picture he is attempting to paint is far from complete. However, at 64, he knows his time is hardly unlimited. His ageing bones would certainly welcome a flyer at noon-time tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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