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Van Gaal: Square Pegs, Round Holes

When Louis Van Gaal channelled the spirit of Rafa Benitez in Tuesday’s press conference, he demonstrated once more a stubbornness and unfaltering belief in his own abilities as Manchester United manager. Louis Van Gaal does not get it wrong, and he has the dossier to prove it.

And who are we to argue? Van Gaal has called on this self-belief throughout his long and glittering career. He’s already made it quite clear, that when it comes to team selection and tactics, nobody elses opinion matters; not the press, not the pundits, and certainly not the fans. The small team of coaches and assistants that Van Gaal has assembled around him, are the few permitted to advise him on his ‘philosophy’.

Van Gaal Square

Ah, there’s that word again. Much has been made of the Dutchman’s ‘philosophy’, indeed it’s often used as a stick to beat him with, though it remains to be seen whether this philosophy is a help, or a hindrance to United’s Champions League aspirations.

Van Gaal has a plan. His meticulous planning and confidence in the systems he deploys are nothing new. Pep Guardiola alluded to it in his recent autobiography, revealing how, when Van Gaal was in charge at Barcelona, each player had a rigid, predetermined role in the team. There was little room for the fluidity that we see so often in the European game.

So we’ve established that Van Gaal is meticulous, gives his players direction and has complete faith in the systems he uses.

The problem at the moment seems to be that Van Gaal is not using players in positions they’ve been accustomed to for the majority of their career. The obsession with sticking to his tried and tested methods – never in the Premier League it must be pointed out – leads to Van Gaal building his team around a strategy, rather than the world class talent in his armoury.

Take Angel Di Maria. Last season’s man of the match in the Champions League final has been a ghost for United so far this season. He’s had injuries of course, like the rest of the squad, but he’s also been played in completely unfamiliar positions. It begs the question; why smash the British transfer record on a midfielder who is equally adept on the wing or running from deep in the centre, to play him as a striker, or a number 10? Surely those funds could have been used on a striker, or a number 10? Di Maria won United’s penalty against Burnley after running at pace down the left of the pitch before committing the defender, the otherwise impressive Scott Arfield. Playing Di Maria up front also neutralises his (normally) superb crossing ability, service that Falcao and Van Persie so desperately crave.

Playing two ‘number nines’ is also stifling United’s swagger. Surely Juan Mata or Wayne Rooney (don’t get me started) would provide a more effective link between midfield and attack, or even drop either Falcao or Van Persie, and play Mata and Rooney.

Ander Herrera can not get in the team, despite him being the only midfielder who looked comfortable on the ball against Burnley, Rooney included.

United’s defence looks shot to pieces. Playing in an unfamiliar three man defence has caused the players no end of problems, and since reverting to a back four, the crisis of confidence has continued. Injuries too have caused inconsistency of course, but Van Gaal’s tinkering at the back has removed one of the vital elements of a successful defence – stability.

Van Gaal has plenty of time to turn things around of course, and some players have adapted to his methods successfully. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia look far better in Van Gaal’s team than they looked at any time, and in any position, under David Moyes. Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair and James Wilson have all benefited from Van Gaal’s insistence that if you’re good enough, your old enough, and the creaky defence has demonstrated just how good a goalkeeper David De Gea, albeit entirely unintentionally.

Van Gaal has always said that he will need time, and it may be that the players do adapt to the positions and roles set out for them. It just seems to be the hardest, and slowest possible way of doing things.

If it continues, United fans should brace themselves for more below-par performances in the immediate future. They’ll just have to hope that the dossier containing reasons that United didn’t qualify for the Champions League never sees the light of day.

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