For the first time since his arrival in the red half of Manchester, Louis van Gaal was under serious scrutiny. The condemnation came from about 1,800 travelling fans at Loftus Road. After another 45 minutes of insipid football, their patience snapped.
“4-4-2,” shouted Manchester United loyalists, as their team struggled to get past Queens Park Rangers’ defence. United had over 60% of ball possession, but they were too slow and predictable to break the deadlock.
Only about 24 hours ago, van Gaal had given another round of lecture on his favoured 3-5-2 formation. He was adamant that the tactic offered more balance in the rearguard. The fans, however, had a point and the manager did change to 4-4-2 after the break. James Wilson arrived to pair up with Radamel Falcao upfront. United won 2-0. Van Gaal insists his decision to make a switch at Loftus Road had nothing to do with fans’ impatience. Against Rangers, it was a horses-for-courses measure and no way it was the end of his experiment with 3-5-2. “You cannot take into account 600 million opinions. To look at the players, to communicate with the players, to observe and to analyse—that’s my job,” he asserted at the post-match press conference.
Fair enough. But we are past the halfway stage of the season and the United boss is still experimenting. Also, there has to be a limit to stubbornness. Van Gaal has a fantastic pedigree as a manager. From Ajax to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he has won everywhere. Not very long ago, he had presided over Holland’s march to the World Cup semi-finals. But Premier League is a different kettle of fish. This is the toughest football tournament in the world and van Gaal is relatively new to its intensity. His 3-5-2 worked well in the World Cup, but it’s not working in England. The formation is taking his players out of their comfort zone. It’s forcing Angel Di Maria—at £59.5 million, he’s the club’s biggest-ever signing—play out of position. Di Maria is one of the world’s best attacking midfielders. Van Gaal is using him as a roving centre-forward.
Creativity has been compromised in the name of injecting pace at the top. United have been creating very few chances and, with a truckload of sterile possession in their own half, they’re losing their cutting edge. Little wonder then that even former greats are sharpening their knives.
“They play the ball out from the back, but the tempo is too slow. They haven’t been taking risks in the 3-5-2 system and in the first 57 minutes at QPR, there were no goals, only five shots, four on target and 68% possession.
“Then when they go to the back four, there’s less possession, but goals, more shots and, generally, a far better performance from them in the last half-hour.
“It’s partly the system, but it’s a mentality thing as well. I’m not a fan of 3-5-2. When you play that, you end up with your centre-backs being the free men and that becomes a careful option. Then it kicks into your mentality, ‘I’ve always got a safer pass’,” Gary Neville said on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football.
Move on to Andrei Kanchelskis. “With Louis van Gaal in charge, they will not become champions for another 10 years.
“I don’t understand the type of football he’s instilling into his players. I don’t fancy their chances with him in charge—they aren’t going to compete with Chelsea and Manchester City.
“United’s players from 1993, the likes of Paul Ince, Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs, would be tearing their hair out,” said the former Red Devils winger.
United spent over £150 million in the close season, but have achieved very little so far. After 21 matches, they had 37 points, exactly identical with what the team managed under David Moyes last term. The win against Rangers has taken them to 40 points from 22 matches. They’re placed fourth and a top-four finish is still possible. But United are expected to be title contenders. The star quotient they’ve at Old Trafford, just clinging on to a Champions League qualification spot would be hugely underwhelming.
“People keep saying they’re going to get a top-four finish and that was the aim. But that’s the absolute bare minimum. Top four for Manchester United!” Michael Owen told BT Sport.
“After spending £150 million and having the players they’ve at the stadium, they should be first, second or third. Third should be a bad season. How are they accepting that they’re not challenging for the title, having spent that money on those calibre of players? It’s not a good season,” he added.
United have scored only 36 goals in 22 matches. The match against Southampton was the lowest point when the team failed to hit a single shot on target. Yes, they’ve conceded 21, one fewer than defending champions Manchester City, but that’s down to David De Gea’s brilliance under the bar. Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 has done very little to remove uncertainty in defence. And it is taking the sting out of the attack as well.
The Dutchman has had a reputation for arrogance. Here, in the Premier League, he’s running the risk of being too clever by half.