Flexibility over Sentiment Will Dictate Louis van Gaal's Manchester United Reign

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Flexibility over Sentiment Will Dictate Louis van Gaal's Manchester United Reign
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When Louis van Gaal was placed in charge of Ajax in 1991, he took over a club desperately scrambling to live up to past glories.

He was unsentimental in his actions, culling established and popular players such as Wim Jonk, Jan Wouters, Brian Roy and Dennis Bergkamp and immediately imposing his own theories.

There is a school of thought that says the reason David Moyes failed at Manchester United was that he was too similar to Sir Alex Ferguson but wasn’t Ferguson: It’s not a mistake Van Gaal is likely to make.

The new Old Trafford manager demands submission to the team ethic, as noted in my book, Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics.

Van Gaal is quoted as saying:

Each player has to carry out his basic tasks to the best of his ability and this requires a disciplined approach on the pitch.

In my opinion this can only be achieved if there is also discipline off the pitch.

For Van Gaal, that meant punctuality, eating together and looking after physical fitness.

Along with discipline, Van Gaal prioritises communication and team building. To encourage players to discuss footballing issues, the current Netherlands coach, having noticed that players tended to chat unselfconsciously while seeing the physio, extended medical treatment sessions at Ajax.

Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

Team building, to an extent, followed on from discipline and communication: Van Gaal wanted players to have an understanding of the strengths and the weaknesses of their team-mates to make it easier for them to cover.

That was strengthened by a series of drills, perhaps the most notorious of which saw the players holding hands in a circle while heading the ball to keep it off the ground.

In terms of shape, Van Gaal favoured a 4-3-3 in which one of the back four stepped out to become, at times, an additional midfielder.

He is quoted as saying:

In modern football, the players in the middle of the back four…have really become playmakers.

They had space, whereas the No. 10, the advanced central midfielder, had become too restricted to control the tempo of the game.

When Ajax won the UEFA Cup in 1992, Van Gaal’s first major trophy, he had Jonk as what Dutch football regards as the No. 4 and later brought Frank Rijkaard back from AC Milan to play as the No. 4.

Jon Super/Associated Press

Van Gaal has shown a willingness to temper his approach, according to the players available, but the use of a holding midfielder as a central defender has become common at teams who follow the Van Gaal-Marcelo Bielsa-Pep Guardiola approach. It may be that the incoming United manager experiments using Michael Carrick in that role.

Giving playmaking duties to a centre-back, though, meant a change of role for the player who operated behind the central striker, who had to be an early line of defence, pursuing his opponent and transforming the 4-3-3 into a 4-2-3-1.

For Van Gaal, who initially used Bergkamp in the role, and then Rob Alflen, his ideal was always the industrious and skilful Finn, Jari Litmanen, who joined the club in summer 1992. Wayne Rooney, if he buys into the Van Gaal model, could be the ideal player for the role at Old Trafford.

Given the closeness of Van Gaal’s relationship with Robin van Persie, thoughts of the Netherlands captain leaving in the summer now seem extremely unlikely.

In turn, the duties of the centre-forward extend beyond scoring goals: They have to be prepared to hold the ball up and to play one-twos, looking always to bring midfielders into play.

@stighefootball
A LVG-esque 4-3-3 with United's current crop.

Van Persie, who is used to that from working under Van Gaal with the national side, is ideally suited to that role. 

Where Van Gaal’s philosophy differed from the Total Football that had emerged in the 1970s was that he was adamant midfielders should not run beyond their wingers to create overlaps.

That was partly for defensive security, so that a missed attempt at an overlap did not expose the full-back but also so that the winger always had space ahead of him to move into.

The midfielder was there for support, and to ensure that, if necessary, the ball could be switched quickly from one flank to the other.

Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press

Van Gaal’s wingers, as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery showed at Bayern Munich, have to be able to cut inside, which is probably good news for Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj and rather less good news for Antonio Valencia.

But in terms of personnel, the biggest issue is in midfield.

Of United’s present crop, it's likely only Carrick and Shinji Kagawa have the tactical intelligence and technique necessary for Van Gaal’s basic way of playing, and that’s surely where the bulk of his reported £150 million war chest will be spent.

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