Understanding Van Gaal’s Choices at Manchester United

There is little doubt in my mind that the most controversial manager in European football this season (2014-2015) is Louis Van Gaal (LVG) of Manchester United (Man Utd). As many people are aware, LVG took over as the manager of Man Utd during the summer of 2014 after his successful World Cup campaign with the Netherlands. From the onset of his appointment, concerns and skepticism were raised as LVG proclaimed that he would try to implement the back 3 system at Man Utd, the system that allowed him to take the Dutch team to the semi-finals in the World Cup. With 25 games (out of 38) played, Man Utd are sitting in third place and putting up a good challenge for the Champions League (CL), a great improvement from the previous season where they finished 7th and were effectively out of the race for CL at this point of the season. Despite these changes from last season, feelings towards LVG are far from favorable, and quite understandably so.

Multiple problems have been pointed out by fans and pundits alike, let’s try to name a few. During the summer transfer season, Man Utd spent a record amount in transfer fees and wages bringing in big names like Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao to name a few. Considering the economics of the investment, barely holding 3rd place and challenging for CL qualification is not a very good return on investment. Others have pointed out that although LVG has lead Man Utd to third place, the number of goals scored, conceded, and the number of points actually has not changed from last season under Moyes-implying that Man Utd aren’t actually playing better, rather other teams in the league are under-performing. However, the biggest complaints and confusion probably are directed towards the way Manchester United has been playing. Considering that the LVG’s influence in the team Man Utd field and the general way they play is the most prominent and direct of all the complaints, I will attempt to discuss that here.

There is much to discuss and point out about the inefficient way Man Utd seem to be playing this season all across the pitch except one. Everyone watching Man Utd play, regardless of their stance on LVG or Man Utd will agree that David De Gea is probably the most in-form goalkeeper in the league, and the only player in the Man Utd squad that consistently plays at a level once expected of Man Utd players under Sir Alex Ferguson. Unfortunately problems start right in front of De Gea’s nose. Questions have been consistently raised about LVG’s choice to field three center backs, something almost never seen before at Man Utd. Moving onto the midfield, the question of formation continues, on top of LVG’s choice of players. At the center of this discussion lies what I would call the ‘Di Maria Dilemma’. The dilemma centers around two questions: 1 – where should Di Maria play? 2 – who should be playing with Di Maria? Things do not get any worse upfront for Man Utd with the striking duo of Robin Van Persie (RVP) and Radamel Falcao combining to barely over 10 goals this season so far. Finally, the connection between all these different positions is another big question, very much related to the recent “Long Ball Press Conferences” between Sam Allyardyce and LVG after the two clashed in the 24th round to a 1-1 draw.

Rather unsurprisingly, all of these issues are offshoots of a singular problem: United trying to play a possession based, controlling football. As expected of a Dutch manager, LVG wants his team to control possession of the ball and thereby control the game. Such an approach to the game means that he wants all of his players playing ‘high-percentage football.’ Being patient, making careful choices to ensure that the opposing team does not get a chance to attack. At the same time, LVG does seem to emphasize balance and transition. The biggest reason he has consistently pointed out as refraining from starting with a 4-4-2 was ‘balance’; he was also visibly irritated at the suggestion that his team regularly thumps the ball forward, insisting that the primary use of the long ball in his team is to move the ball quickly from one side to the other.

Before any discussion of how this style of play is related to the problems discussed above, a question to ask would be: how well is Man Utd actually playing possession football? The most straightforward way to address this question would be simply looking at the possession stats in EPL this season. Surprisingly, Man Utd are 2nd place in average possessions at 59.2% just behind Manchester City at 59.9% and quite some ways off of the 3rd place in this category: Arsenal (55.9%). Similarly, Manchester United have the second highest pass completion rate (84.7%) again trailing only Manchester City (84.8%). There have been some criticisms that this is due to Man Utd simply passing between its defenders, taking advantage of the back 3 and not offering meaningful possession closer to the opposition goal. In order to assess this claim, it is useful to look at action zones; this allows one to look at which third of the field the ball was handled for each team. Of the 20 teams in EPL, Man Utd action zone stats place them at 17th for playing in their own third, 14th for playing in the middle third, and 5th in playing in the opposition third. If we award one point for playing in the middle third and 1.5 points for playing in the opposition third, Man Utd are in 4th place in this scoring system for rewarding playing closer to the opposition goal (City lead followed by Chelsea and Arsenal with Burnley and Southampton trailing Man Utd). The criticism that Man Utd are simply increasing their possession stats by passing in the back is only half true. The top ten players with the highest average passes per game in the Man Utd squad this season are consisted of players who’ve played in the defense line or as a central midfielder. This is indicative of a team that attempts to play a possession, yet attacking football. The defense line and midfield line stay rather compact and push further up the field to reduce the area of the playing field.

The basic setup of Man Utd in terms of possession stats, high defensive line, and emphasis on quick transitions and switching sides is reminiscent of the way LVG’s previous teams have played. In more recent memory, his Dutch side played so effectively against Spain and Chile in the World Cup based on this mantra. Slightly further in the past, we can think of Bayern Munich. Although more fans will remember the way Bayern currently play an extremist version of possession game under Pep Guardiola or the domination of the team under Jupp Heynckes, a team of passing and power, the foundation for both of teams were outlaid by LVG in his Bayern Munich side that progressed to the CL finals (incidentally beating Man Utd in the quarter finals with a stunning Robben volley), that eventually lost to the historic Inter Milan side lead by Mourinho for the treble. Digging further into his history we can look at his Barcelona team in the late 90s and Ajax in the early 90s where he started his career and can see that the philosophy has been consistent in his teams.

So far I have argued that LVG is trying to play a distinct style of football and Man Utd, and on the macroscopic level Man Utd are responding to his requests and playing a possession based football. The question at this point becomes one of analyzing Man Utd’s performance and adherence to LVG’s philosophy on a more microscopic level. As Pep Guardiola has said earlier this season, a possession based team isn’t a team that just looks to hold on to the ball and connect as many passes as possible. If there is neither a direction nor purpose with the way the entire team constructs a play, then even a 1000 passes are meaningless. This is one of the largest problems Man Utd and LVG are facing this season. Watching any game this season makes in painfully apparent that there is at most only two players in the current squad who instinctively understand how passes need to be strung together from a deeper position and connected for an attacking move. Michael Carrick is most definitely the player who best understands this concept, he may even be the best suited footballer for this philosophy in all of EPL right now. It is a pure joy to watch Carrick choosing to receive a ball from the defense line at the right moment and position as to direct the next set of passes Man Utd will play. The only other player with a similar kind of understanding of the game is Daley Blind (unsurprising considering he was raised in Ajax). No other players in the entire squad have the kind of understanding of possession football to play quality passes, not just to an open player to keep possession, but move the ball around in a way for the Man Utd to cohesively attack and drag the opposition around the entire pitch. Even when Man Utd did not play an entirely possession based football, Man Utd always boasted players who understood the concept. Even when he emphasized pace and transition Sir Alex Ferguson understood the need for such players. One of his first transfer signings to improve the team was Roy Keane. Although mostly remembered for his fiery character and strong tackles, Keane’s greatest asset in the game was his ability to dominate and dictate passes at all parts of the field. As Rio Ferdinand recalls, during his first training at Man Utd, when Ferdinand played a back pass, Roy Keane got furious at him; apparently saying that although such lame passes may have been acceptable at Leeds, United do not play passes like that. United play with purpose and look to attack. Incidentally, along with Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand is probably the other player during Fergie’s era who understood and controlled the passing game of Man Utd under Ferguson.

The need for such players cannot be emphasized especially when trying to play a possession based game. These are the true leaders of the game, the players who dictate when and how the team will use the ball (recall that Ferguson referred to Michael Carrick as the true successor to Roy Keane although Carrick was never as energetic or vicious as Keane, or how LVG referred to Blind as a ‘natural leader’ during his signing). It is my personal opinion that for a team to truly play possession game at the highest level, the team needs at least two players on field with such an ability. Previously at United it was at least Carrick and Ferdinand plus Carrick’s partner. In the case of Guardiola’s Barcelona they field at least four: Pique, Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta. Real last season had Ramos, Alonso, and Modric. Bayern the season before boasted Lahm and Schweinsteiger. Chelsea struggled prior to this season precisely due to the lack of a player to play this role. Considering that both Carrick and Blind are suffering injuries this season, it becomes painfully obvious that Man Utd do not have a proper leader to play the game that they are training to play. The lack of a player who can play meaningful passes from the defensive line is a large contributor to the shaky defense this season. Watching a Man Utd game this season, it becomes painfully obvious that many players do not inherently understand why they are playing a pass. Often times passes are made because 1 – no other options seem to be available other than pass, 2 – there is an open player (sometimes not even). When the first pass out of the defense has no purpose other than to hand the responsibility off to someone else, then the job becomes increasingly difficult for the receiver of the ball. The ball is not going to be at a position conducive for a next meaningful move, which means the receiver again has a high probability of making another pass because ‘I can’t do anything here. Here you take the ball and figure it out.’ Such passes are the passes that kill the tempo of a move, and provide the opportunity for the opposition to take control, even when they do not have the ball. With meaningless passes like that, the opposition can get into a better organized shape to defend and press, so when that the passing move breaks down, as all passing moves eventually will, they can attack with purpose. Often times it is even the case that defenders are so flustered and out of ideas they will try hand the ball off to a player who is tightly marked just because they don’t want the responsibility of the ball any more.

Playing a back 3 is an attempt to alleviate this pressure. By forcing an extra player to play in deeper positions, LVG is effectively baby-sitting his defenders to provide them more passing options so that they would panic less and even if they can’t play a purposeful pass, they at least won’t hand the ball to the opposition without thought. Gary Neville has criticized this approach saying that it is the false sense of security that comes from having an extra man at the back that has been at the root of Man Utd not playing more dominating, purposeful passes. I would argue that it isn’t the fault of the system, but rather the players in the system that are failing to play such passes. There are too many examples, even in recent memory of teams that have played terrifyingly effective and purposeful, attacking, dominating games with a back three (think Uruguay in the previous Copa America, Chile in recent WCs or any of Guardiola’s teams). In this respect, the biggest complaint should be directed towards Jonny Evans. At the beginning of LVG’s appointment, he praised Jonny Evans as a central defender who is technically able with both of his feet with an eye for passing. To anybody who remembers how Evans played alongside Vidic would be able to attest that Evans indeed has said abilities to play at the highest level. Unfortunately, after a set of injuries and unconvincing first few performances defensively, Evans seems like a completely lack luster, unfocused defender. There seems to be more hope in Paddy McNair as a defender with purposeful passing, but he is still too young and inexperienced to be a leader of a defensive line for the Champions League level team.

This problem of maintaining purpose in passing extends itself up to the midfield line, which is probably the area of most controversy. As previously mentioned, Man Utd have only had one leader available for almost all of their games. For a manager that prefers to field at least three in the center of the pitch, this presents a big dilemma as for his other two options. With the passes coming out of the back inconsistent and poor, and (as we will discuss more later on) the movement of the forwards inefficient, how should the midfield be balanced? Do you try to compensate for the lack of possession and passing from the back, or do you try to compensate for the lack of physicality and pace up front? Players that LVG have fielded in midfield all fall under one of the two categories. In the technical category would be Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney; Angel Di Maria, Marouane Fellaini, and Adnan Januzaj fall in the latter category. This is possibly why there are constant rumors that LVG is eyeing players like Kevin Strootman despite his injury and AS Roma’s seeming unwillingness to open up in discussion. Strootman is a player who can add physicality, power, and technical quality to the midfield at the same time. With these options, LVG has always decided to choose the former pairing. This is the more conservative and safe options. Neither Mata nor Rooney know how to dictate passing as Carrick does, but both have the passing ability to send the ball accurately to any position they want anywhere on the pitch. Despite both players being known for their attacking and scoring prowess at earlier points in their career, watching them play this season, it is very evident their foremost game play style is in safe passing and possession. Essentially, LVG has chosen to play a low-risk low-return game to compensate for the instability at the back. Instead of having players who can throw themselves into the attack, Man Utd have opted instead to hold on to the ball for as much of the game as possible. Despite the lack of ineffective combinations up front, they have enough individual quality in deeper positions to score from. LVG seems to think that with De Gea cleaning up for most defensive mistakes at the back, as long as the midfield holds possession and does not give too much for De Gea to deal with, Man Utd can scrap in a few goals and collect points. This is probably why Man Utd have been able to rack up so many points (the most number of points in the last 15 games), with an underperforming striking partnership (the most proficient goal scorer in the team is RVP with 7).

An immediate problem as a consequence of choosing a conservative midfield presents itself in the form of Di Maria. Man Utd’s biggest transfer signing, and a hero of Real Madrid’s ‘La Decima’ side, there is very little justification to not play Di Maria. LVG has played Di Maria in at least three distinctly different positions this season: as one of the front two, attacking midfielder in a diamond, and as a left ‘half-wing’ in a diamond midfield. Unfortunately, Di Maria has not consistently been the player he was at Real the past season. Fans have pointed out the fact that at Real last season, Di Maria played as a sort of a ‘half-wing’ in Ancelotti’s 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid system, where as LVG has only played Di Maria in a similar position sparingly. Instead, Di Maria has been pushed up higher towards the opposition goal and his season with Man Utd so far has been below expectations. I believe that the fan’s request to play Di Maria further deeper in a ‘half-wing’ role for Man Utd this season comes from a deep misunderstanding of Di Maria as a player, of his role in Real Madrid last season, and Man Utd’s situation this season. There is no doubt Di Maria is a brilliant footballer, with incredible pace, directness, and flair. However, he is also a very typical high-risk, high-return kind of a player. Di Maria is always looking to run at defenders and play the exquisite final pass. This was the primary reason he was considered a very inconsistent player before last season. In a Mourinho side which relatively emphasized controlling the game through speed and power, Di Maria’s pace and work rate fit in nicely with the team. However, his tendency to always look for more attacking options often made him ineffective. He looked to take on defenders too often, sent in too many ambitious crosses, etc. Under Ancelotti, Real had a different approach; Making the most out of Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric they had complete domination of the ball in the center of the pitch and were much more adept at controlling the tempo and direction of the game. When the rest of the team was balanced and dominated possession intelligently enough to compensate for Di Maria’s risky plays, his risky plays became the edge that added a lethal taste to a side that could have easily become too predictable and boring. It is also noteworthy to remember that the other two players who made up the left flank of Real Madrid last season were in-form Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo. In this system, Ronaldo drew the defenders centrally and presented a terrifying goal-scoring presence and space on the flanks for both Marcelo and Di Maria to combine. Now compare this to the current Man Utd side. The midfield of Utd to possess the ball, but are not intelligent, and are not defensively stable. The forwards do not make any runs of any kind to open up more room for Di Maria. There has not been a consistent left back presence for Di Maria to form a partnership with Luke Shaw, while the likes of Ashley Young and Rojo are temporary fill-ins with definite limitations to their play. With Carrick and Blind both suffering from injuries all season, and the other midfielders unable to control the tempo of the game at all, having Di Maria play from a deeper position in midfield presents an unnecessary level of unpredictability and risk in the already fragile Man Utd midfield.

The final and deeply related problem and dilemma for Man Utd are the forwards. If both Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao were in-form, they would be a striking duo rivaling any other team in the world. Unfortunately, it seems evident that after a series of injuries, both are very far from their glory days. After Jurgen Klopp’s first match against Arsenal, he openly expressed admiration for RVP saying that he was amazed at RVP’s ability to play in three different positions in one game, and considered him to be the epitome of a modern striker. Radamel Falcao had received similar praise during his years at Portugal and Spain, where he was often picked out as a complete package of a striker. However, neither strikers have been in form this season at all. RVP genuinely seems to be suffering from age and fitness issues. His shots from open chances demonstrate he still has the technique, but physically he is not able to provide movement to drag opposition defense out of position or receive passes with a defender marking him. Situation seems even worse for Falcao. After two serious knee injuries, it seems that Falcao has not managed to get his physicality back at all. With Rooney having to play back in midfield to provide passes and switch the ball from flank to flank and James Wilson far too young to regularly start in the league, this lack luster striking partnership has been a greater concern for United than their defensive problems. It is the lack of physicality and movement from the striking duo that had forced LVG to try play Di Maria as a forward, since Di Maria is the only player in the current squad with mobility and technique enough to qualify as a forward playing in a wingless system as Man Utd currently are forced to. However, Di Maria has struggled to quite understand the movement required of him in the more forward positions. Part of the reason possibly being that he does not have the upper body strength or power of Arjen Robben, who successfully carried out the role in the previous World Cup. Simply put, with the defensive and midfield instabilities of Man Utd this season, Di Maria is too risky to play further down field, and he himself is less effective as he needs to take on more defenders. As an attacking midfielder, he has suffered from the lack of movement from the forwards, which makes it easy for opposition to man-mark Di Maria. As a forward, he has suffered from not being able to make the runs he prefers, receiving the ball facing and running towards goal, rather than facing or moving away from goal.

If you have somehow read this far in this ridiculously long post, you may recognize that I have not been mentioning a player of great interest in Man Utd this season: Ander Herrera. It has been very difficult for many to understand why Herrera is not playing more often this season. The most superficial argument is that LVG sees Herrera as more of a ‘physical midfielder’ rather than a ‘possession midfielder’ in the categories discussed before. In this sense, Herrera provides less height and power than Fellaini, less speed and width than Januzaj, and less technicality and goal scoring potential than Di Maria. Indeed despite being very good with the ball, Herrera doesn’t seem like a Xavi-esque midfielder, but rather a more British box-to-box type midfielder. Still, Herrera shows very good control of the ball and was an integral part of the memorable Bielsa’s Bilbao side that dominated possession against Man Utd just a few years ago. In a recent interview, LVG had said that Herrera is unlucky because he is competing against Di Maria, Mata, and Rooney. To me, what this interview says is that Herrera is suffering from a very classic problem of an all rounded player. Herrera is a very versatile and talented player who can probably pull his weight wherever he is played, but he is not specialized enough. Rooney will always start as a captain, Herrera does not have as much attacking flair as Di Maria, and Herrera does not have the passing range and accuracy of Mata. He holds advantages against all of the players as well, but when the team is considered, the advantages he brings by replacing one of these players tend to be smaller than the specialty these players bring. If the team were more settled with consistent performers up front and in the defensive line to provide width and pace, Herrera can and should become an integral part of the team. Until then however, it is going to be a tough battle for Herrera to prove himself.

Finally then, about LVG himself. LVG’s recent tirade against Sam Allyardyce, which Big Sam masterfully handled, seems to be an indicator of the stress and irritation LVG is facing currently. The media and fans have been very tough on him, but as I almost always say, I believe LVG needs more time and faith. LVG is one of the most successful and proven managers alive right now, and his basic philosophy of possession and using the ball intelligently is a trait that has, throughout the history of the sport, been an integral feature of all great sides. The macroscopic statistics show that Man Utd have started to integrate the philosophy into their playing style, but it will take time for such drastic changes to become fully natural and intuitive. Protecting consistency, legacy, and developing a coherent culture of a team is crucial to its success. The reason Barcelona has been able to be a major force in Europe for so long is because all of Barcelona is dedicated to a certain philosophy which has been studied, cultured, and developed for decades. Despite minor changes in management, players, and even the board, Barcelona will always play like Barcelona. Having a simple standard to always adhere to provides an incredible advantage to a team. This means the team always has a collective direction and philosophy. Bayern Munich’s recent resurgence from their dark ages in the mid-2000s came from a simple boar decision. When Philip Lahm publicly accused the Bayern Munich board of having no direction and vision for the way Bayern should play, the board recognized set up a goal, to play a more technical and possession based game, but coupled with the pace of a German side. This was the reason that Bayern Munich hired LVG, Heynckes, and Guardiola in succession and achieved the phenomenal position they are in now.

For the last 25 years, Man Utd had a very simple vision and philosophy: Sir Alex Ferguson. Contrary to popular belief, and even the belief of former players, I believe that there has never really been a “Man Utd way” of playing football. That seems like it conflicts with my statement of having a consistent philosophy for a club. But really, if there was a global “Man Utd way” of playing the game, it has to be as general as simply “playing well.” Man Utd did not always attack. They did not always rely heavily on fast wingers. They did not always play a strict four at the back. They did not always play two up top. They did not even always play 4-4-2 (SAF has said in interviews he has never used 4-4-2 at Man Utd at one point). They simply played the way SAF wanted and imagined a team should play, based on his observations and intuition. That was the greatest ability of SAF, and probably his greatest tactical ability. SAF was always able to point out the tactical trends of the time, and figure out exactly how it needs to be implemented at Man Utd. I do not believe there is any manager out there any more with such a level of flexibility and management skills. Sadly, the days of SAF are gone and Man Utd need a new legacy and culture to build upon. This does not mean that all of SAF’s legacy’s need to be forgotten, of his influence over the club, tactics were probably the least significant, and the legacy of professionalism and determination definitely need to be kept. However, in terms of tactics and playing style, I believe LVG has the right approach. It will not be an easy change. Playing an intuitive possession football is a difficult challenge as it is with players having brought up in the culture needing to spend months in training to adjust to a slightly different manager (see Barcelona or Bayern Munich). LVG needs more time until he has a balanced and trained squad available for him, which will take much longer after the abrupt changes over the last two years in management at Man Utd.

Man Utd did not handle the aftermath of SAF’s retirement well. The combination of a new manager, David Moyes, and a new executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward (also new to the football market), led to a number of bad choices that has had far reaching impacts until now. The pressure of David Moyes to perform, and the inexperience of Woodward with football was distinctly evident in the transfer market fiasco. Almost all of transfer and contract renewals since Ferguson’s retirement can only be described as panic responses without much thought for the long term vision of the team. Matters seemed to get better this season with Woodward actually making successful deals rather than breaking them, but with LVG joining the team after the WC, and an already broken squad from the previous year, transfers have tended towards buying players of high-profile with hopes of immediate impact. The attempts seem to be backfiring at the current moment, and Man Utd desperately need to stick to a longer term vision and slowly build up to that goal. And for building such a foundation, there are few more established than LVG.

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