If David Moyes was ‘The Chosen One,’ Louis van Gaal was ‘The Necessary One.” After such an insipid and bleak season the Dutchman – one of the finest and most charismatic coaches of his generation – was the tonic to the Scotsman’s blight at Manchester United.
And indeed, van Gaal seems to have – generally speaking – re-energised the club, with United well-placed for a top four finish following a 10-game unbeaten run. The swagger that came to define the club in the Sir Alex Ferguson has returned.
But with defeat to Southampton on Sunday a peculiar anomaly surfaced. With 21 Premier League games played Van Gaal has accrued 37 points, the same tally David Moyes achieved by the same mark last season.
In fact, the Dutchman has actually won one less match this term (10 compared to 11) than Moyes had amassed by this time in 2014, with his considerable summer transfer haul meaning United have spent £4.59 million per points this season as opposed to just £0.77 million under Moyes.
Gaal Mouth, No Trousers?
So have United progressed at all under van Gaal? Has the man billed as the club’s redeemer made any worthwhile impression in the Premier League? It’s a reasonable line of questioning given the statistical correlation with Moyes’ ill-fated spell at the club.
“So you have waited until this moment so you can put this question,” van Gaal said after the draw with Southampton, clearly irked at the points comparison between his team and Moyes’. “All the weeks, you have waited to put this question, the moment I have the same points as David Moyes, that I haven’t made better.”
Advocates of Van Gaal insist that the Dutchman’s impact at United can’t be quantified. After all, the former Ajax and Barcelona coach didn’t just arrive at Old Trafford with a proven track record of success at pretty much every team he has been at. He also pitched up in Manchester with his famous philosophy – the tedious buzzword of his six-month reign at the club thus far.
There were ancient Greek theorists less concerned with philosophy than van Gaal. But what does the Dutchman mean when talking about his distinguished philosophy? Because if his 3-5-2 formation is designed to harness a free-flowing and dynamic style of play, it is failing. Contrary to what is widely claimed, Van Gaal’s tactical stubbornness is holding back United. His philosophy is a nonsense.
The Dutchman’s arrival at Old Trafford was meant to herald a new age of brave and bold attacking play, yet United have since become a decidedly ponderous side – a criticism of Moyes’ management at the club too.
Despite signing a wealth of attacking talent in the summer, van Gaal’s side are actually averaging less goals per game than Moyes’ was at this point in 2014 (1.62 compared to 1.67). Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 shape is having a detrimental effect on United, with their frontline bearing the brunt of its affliction – illustrated by their failure to muster a single shot on target against Southampton, despite Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie all involved.
A Slack Attack
And therein lies another concern for van Gaal. On the face of it United have the best strikeforce in the Premier League, with Radamel Falcao, Rooney and van Persie all elite forwards. Not even Manchester City can boast the same standard of attacking force, given their recent injury troubles.
And yet, Van Gaal still needs a new striker. With van Persie ageing and Rooney’s conversion into something of a central midfielder already under way, Radamel Falcao – signed on loan from Monaco on transfer deadline day – was seen as the future of Man Utd’s attack. But 13 appearances and just three goals later, that forecast now seems ill-judged, with the Colombian omitted from van Gaal’s squad for Sunday’s loss to Southampton.
Given his injury struggles and apparent incompatibility with van Gaal, United would be foolish to sign Falcao on a permanent basis, especially for a fee of around £39 million (the reported option-to-buy clause written into the Colombian’s loan contract). And with van Gaal’s ethos so reliant on strong attacking options, a new forward could be just as much of a priority as fresh defensive blood this summer.
Of course, Man Utd have indeed made progress under Van Gaal this season, even if the Dutchman’s philosophy hasn’t taken root. Quite simply, their performances have been better than they were under Moyes, with their improvement most notable in games against top-end rivals like Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool this season.
Football sides aren’t judged by their points tally but by the league positions those points take them into. And by that measure, with Man Utd currently placed in the Premier League’s top four, van Gaal is doing just fine.