Many people claim that David Moyes failed to last at Manchester United because the job was too big for him. Sir Alex Ferguson’s boots were too huge to fill, and the void left by his departure required a man of similar stature and boldness. It’s safe to say that in Dutchman Louis van Gaal Manchester United fans have the charismatic dictator they always wanted, but that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed since his arrival…
Louis van Gaal is, on the face of it, pretty similar to Sir Alex Ferguson. He has the same confidence, the same charisma, the sheer force of will and the belief in youth which brought about an unparalleled era of success at Old Trafford. Where he definitely differs, though, is in his tactical philosophy. While the Scot founded his reign on high-intensity, attacking football and a penchant for late revivals and last-minute comebacks, Van Gaal has taken an altogether more considered approach.
This considered approach has led to Manchester United developing the tag of the Premier League’s most boring team, which is perhaps somewhat unjustified, but definitely reflects the change of style from the once expansive Red Devils. Just a few years ago you would have watched in awe as they attacked relentlessly down the wings, forcing opponents into mistakes due to the constant pressure. Now though, things are much more measured. Van Gaal’s side dominate the ball, and as a result dominate their opponents as well. Instead of forcing mistakes with high-intensity and relying on the creation of chances being constant enough to guarantee goals, they build up attacks slowly and methodically.
This tactical approach is unique within the Premier League at the moment. Part of what makes English football the most watched in the world is the intensity and the thrill as unexpected drama unfolds. Former United defender Patrice Evra, now at Juventus, recently described Premier League matches as a battle between two boxers, constantly throwing punches at each other until one was knocked out – Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Because of this it’s understandable why many English fans are feeling slightly negative about Manchester United at the moment, especially after such huge investment in the squad in previous years.
But it is working. They’ve conceded the least amount of goals in the Premier League so far this season, and are restricting their opponents to very few shots on target simply by virtue of retaining possession. In September they scored a goal after 45 consecutive passes against Southampton, a feat incredibly difficult to achieve in the frantic, end-to-end cauldron of the Premier League. They currently sit just two points off the top of the league, and look on course to progress in the Champions League as well. And this is all with an attack made up of an out of form Wayne Rooney and a French teenager in his first season at the club. It looks like there’s a lot more to come moving forward, and it’s certainly true that Manchester United have the most room for improvement compared with their title challengers.
Whatever the purists may say, there simply isn’t one single, right way to play the game. Indeed, clashes of style and strategy are what make football such an entertaining, unpredictable sport. For now at least, the days of Alex Ferguson’s rampant, swashbuckling sides are over. Louis van Gaal is beginning to mould a team in his image, and as long as they continue to win and intrigue in equal measure, the fans won’t mind too much.