Van Gaal’s pragmatic approach may not be winning over critics but it could well bring Champions League football back to Old Trafford. 

  • By Andy Booth
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00000 lvgThe Dutchman arrived at Old Trafford in July 2014 carrying a reputation for tactical inventiveness; he is infamously focused on high pressing, fluid, attacking, ‘total’ football. Upon arrival, his immediate objective was made clear: qualify for the Champions League.

So far van Gaal remains on track to achieve that; his side are currently 3rd in the league, 6 points and more importantly 4 places better off than this time last season. His side have also picked up more points than any other team in the league over the last 15 games. Yet he is routinely hounded by the press for not having stamped his footballing philosophy onto the club. The van Gaal sceptics remain convinced that combing the two should be fundamentally straightforward.

Manchester United certainly boast an array of attacking talent but they simply have not clicked into the formidable force so many expected so far this season. But who is to blame for that? Is it a systematic issue or are the personnel actually not good enough?

The first question to address here is what ‘system’ is van Gaal actually trying to deploy? It increasingly seems difficult to tell. The fluctuation between 3-5-2, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-4-2, and anything in between has been as unpredictable as it has been surprisingly rewarding. This contrasts sharply to Mourinho’s rigid commitment to his 4-2-3-1 formation that has proven so successful so far this season. Is van Gaal demonstrating ingenious tactical flexibility or does he simply not know his best formation?

The answer is probably somewhere between the two. As we saw against West Ham, where long balls were fired up towards Fellaini as a target-man, he is more than prepared to abandon ‘Plan-A’ in order to grind out results. And it is this determination to win, at all costs, that has come to define his season more than anything else.

Recently he has opted for a variant of the 4-4-2 diamond which has also failed to convince. Di Maria, Januzaj, and Rooney made up the midfield ahead of Daley Blind however none appeared comfortable operating in such deep roles. Against stronger opposition their defensive vulnerabilities would surely have been exposed. However they acquired 7 points from those 3 matches and it proved effective enough.

To really improve there needs to be a change. Leading the line, Falcao and van Persie have played like two negative magnetic charges constantly repelling, with no cohesion or understanding. There has been nothing to suggest that they are capable of playing together and their continued selection is a reflection on van Gaal’s lack of imagination with the squad, rather than his faith in their partnership. These are not washed up players. They have performed incredibly well recently for Man Utd or previous clubs, the balance is just wrong.

The desire to add a combative centre midfielder to the squad is no secret. United were priced out of a move for Strootman in January, but a player of that ilk is still on van Gaal’s radar. Michael Carrick’s return from injury at the end of the month will provide van Gaal with an interesting decision to make. With Blind’s place in the starting line-up looking fairly secure, he will likely operate alongside Carrick in a fairly deep role, which should allow Rooney and Di Maria more freedom to express themselves. With Rooney in a more natural, advanced role, Falcao could make way for Mata or Herrera, providing much needed balance to the side.

In contrast the defensive concerns of the early part of the season have eased slightly. Injuries have been less severe and less frequent whilst the previously chaotic organisation has also largely improved (with the notable exception of the win over Burnley). Since the infamous 5-3 defeat against Leicester, United have only conceded 2 goals in a game once in 22 matches, losing just twice in that period. There has been some degree of fortune to that success and David de Gea has single handedly earned several points, but there has been improvements overall.

Van Gaal will go into this weekends match, against Preston in the FA Cup, as second favourites to lift the trophy in May, whilst also occupying a healthy league position. Success on both fronts would be deemed an excellent achievement given that this is a transitional year for the club. Re-qualifying for the Champions League remains paramount though, and to van Gaal, how they get there is largely irrelevant.

Andy Booth (27 Posts)