There is no doubt that Louis van Gaal is a significant improvement on David Moyes, and he has steadied what was a sinking ship by getting United back into the Champions League, instilling a defensive solidity and replacing dead wood with superior players.
However, can he build on that by winning trophies and playing attacking football? The evidence suggests not.
While some people suggest that supporters need to move on from the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson, attacking football is part of Manchester United’s DNA, which can be traced back to the Busby Babes. Supporters have a right to demand a much better quality of football rather than what is being served up to them.
Van Gaal arrived at United after the 2014 World Cup with an impressive success rate and a reputation for attacking football as his Champions League-winning Ajax team did. The Summer transfer window of 2014 brought much hope to United fans with the signings of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao in particular.
There was genuine cause for optimism after an impressive 4-0 victory over QPR and the first half of the Leicester game where Di Maria scored that beautifully chipped goal. United played some swashbuckling football but were extremely opened and this was ruthlessly punished by Leicester in that famous 5-3 defeat.
It is clear that game had a deep effect on Van Gaal and perhaps it made him change his mind upon his approach to the job as United gradually became more conservative and functional.
This coincided with the struggles of Angel Di Maria who is one of the most creative and dynamic players in world football, he eventually became perhaps the biggest flop in Premier League history as he struggled to adapt to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’. It seemed that the life was slowly being sucked out of Di Maria, and this is akin to United’s style of play this season.
There is the fear that this is currently happening to Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial, who are two of the most promising young players in European football but you can’t help but feel they are being constrained by Van Gaal.
While the signings of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger to bolster the midfield generated great enthusiasm, the fact that Van Gaal signed them both was perhaps a sign of his conservative approach. His use of two holding midfielders alongside the form of Chris Smalling and David De Gea has turned United into the best defensive team in the Premier League, but you have to question if United actually need two holding midfielders at home against the likes of West Ham and Newcastle – one should suffice.
The short period last season when United beat Tottenham, Liverpool and Man City, the 4-3-3 system was used with Michael Carrick screening the back four, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini further up the pitch with Juan Mata and Ashley Young either side of Wayne Rooney.
It seemed to work to perfection and proved to be very effective from an attacking point of view. It’s very strange that Van Gaal has abandoned it this season instead of building on it. United are generally a much better proposition when Herrera is playing with Mata – the link up play between both Spaniards is almost telepathic. However, there is the feeling that Van Gaal distrusts Herrera who is a firm fan-favourite. Herrera is arguably United’s most creative player and he should be one of the first names on the team sheet over Wayne Rooney who has been dreadful this season, yet he is always in Van Gaal’s team when fit.
Can the manager’s ambition be questioned? His style of football displays a certain lack of confidence in his team’s ability to open up and play fluid football, this was also the case with his Netherlands side at the World Cup who seemed to grind out wins, aside from that 5-1 victory over Spain.
Van Gaal’s interviews also hint at a lack of confidence in his players: “I don’t think that we are able to win the Champions League now.” While he is likely to be correct, this is something no Manchester United manager should ever say. United are one of the biggest clubs in the world and should aim to win every trophy, comments like that will never encourage great confidence in players either.
Van Gaal has also constantly made comments on improving his squad, in particular bringing in a world-class attacker like Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar. While either player could take United to the next level and United certainly need a Ronaldo or Neymar, would Van Gaal also put the shackles on them? Ronaldo has been strongly linked with a return to United as he appears unhappy at Real Madrid, but how would he fit into Van Gaal’s system?
You would imagine that the boss and Ronaldo would see things differently and not get on, similarly to Ronaldo with Rafa Benitez and Van Gaal with Rivaldo at Barcelona. A return to United for Ronaldo would be a dream in an ideal world but realistically it does not make much sense with the current regime at Old Trafford. The position United need to strengthen in the most is up front, as there is a severe lack of options. Rooney is past his peak and Martial still has to develop, the sales of Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez seem bizarre considering an experienced striker was not brought in. James Wilson’s loan move to Brighton also has to be questioned and the fact he scored against Charlton while United drew 0-0 with West Ham rubs salt in the wound.
It is likely that United supporters will have to endure another 18 months of methodical, possession football as the club appear to think very highly of Van Gaal and want to keep the stability at the club. However, the club are planning ahead for the future with Pep Guardiola, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville the main candidates to replace Van Gaal.
Ryan Giggs or Gary Neville would be ideal in the sense they are club legends and know the club inside out, however their inexperience would make them risky appointments. There is no doubt that United will keep a close eye on Neville’s time at Valencia. Some supporters might question Guardiola as he is also associated with the possession game but you just have to look at his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams to see that his possession game is much easier on the eye than Van Gaal’s, as it is played at a fast pace instead of a United player dwindling on the ball before passing it backwards or sideways.
There have been suggestions Guardiola may leave Munich in the summer and if he becomes available United need to do all in their power to get him in the door, even if that means cutting Van Gaal’s contract a year short.
For the time being, the Dutchman is here to stay and he may well keep United in a solid top four position as the side is well organised and extremely hard to beat but the hunt for trophies could be beyond his grasp as United struggle for flair under him.
The tense relationship with the fans is likely to continue but there is hope in that he could build a solid foundation for the next manager to turn into a success.
Vincent O’Shea, Pundit Arena