In a dimly lit room at the Carrington training ground early in the season, Louis van Gaal sat across from Gary Neville for an interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper and was everything you’d expect. Intimidating, like the manager who angrily dropped his trousers to a Bayern Munich dressing room to show he literally and metaphorically had balls; controlling, like the father who has his daughters call him by the formal version of the Dutch word for ‘you’; arrogant, like a serial winner, as he whipped out a notepad and pen and asked Neville to show if he understood his distinct vision of the beautiful game.
But lost among all that was a key pointer to the months ahead, one worth dredging up at hyperbolic crisis moments such as this. “As coaches we have to give a lot of information,” Van Gaal stressed assuredly. “Too much, I think. Compare it to when you go to an airport for the first time. If I go to Manchester, what terminal, where is my flight, where do I have to park? How long is the queue at the desk? You know all that. You know the place. All that information, you have to tell me. I go away and know one or two things. I have to drive on the other side [in Britain]. Now I have to watch the road. It’s the same with the players. That’s the process my players are in and it’s not so easy.”
On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier, but that’s where criticism of Van Gaal at this juncture is, for the most part, too easy, and some is a little lazy. So instead, why not scratch and chip away a little?
Since he arrived at the club, the Dutchman has talked at every turn about philosophy and process. As of now, one can only be solved with transfers, the other only with time. And given Van Gaal is his profession’s great egomaniac, he’d rather struggle in the present and wait for results than change ways that have forever worked. Thus, to understand what’s happening, you need to understand what both unwavering words mean to the manager and will mean to United.
In terms of philosophy, the way he plays the game has long been gin clear – the creativity of his total football in attack is like the wild artist splashing paint across a canvas, the obsession with defence like a dusty-coated bookworm cocooned in a library corner. But Van Gaal’s early failing has been a lack of defensive signings and that’s forced him to rein in his entire gameplan to the point where progress has stalled. Indeed it’s meant, too, that the curious charm of both sides of his philosophy has been dumbed down by circumstance and United are almost as ineffective as they are dull. For now.
Although he started out in August playing 3-5-2, that had to change as Ed Woodward didn’t come up with a centre-back and defensive midfielder to make it work. Switching to 4-2-3-1, he has two centre-backs plus Daley Blind or Michael Carrick, but that’s not enough. With a need for four defensive-minded players, Blind, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera won’t sit in the same team. Changing to 4-2-2 would accommodate them but it would mean a defensive player in his keystone position of a creative 10. Sure enough, over £140m (€197m) was spent, but wanting more to get players that fit his philosophy will faze neither him nor United and one source says similar money will again be available in summer if needed and it’s likely it will be when considering Van Gaal’s process.
It’s an area where the pedantic and ruthless side of the manager emerges. Every player needs to perform to his exact wishes, no matter their skillset, or it won’t work out. It’s why across his career Luca Toni was given a free transfer, Marc van Bommel was driven away, Franck Ribéry was traumatised and Rivaldo ran. His micro-management even left Ruud van Nistelrooy furious at being told the best-fitting socks to wear but it’s tended to lead to success. So, all those transfers have made it hard for two reasons. Firstly, he can’t be sure even big-money imports can adapt to a formula where they must know instinctively what they can and can’t do in each situation on the pitch and if they can adapt to his army-like routine off the pitch. Secondly, if they are to adapt to all this, it’ll take time, just as his analogy about an unfamiliar airport explained when it all began.
That’s why this was never a short-term project and given how things rotted away behind the scenes during the latter days of the Alex Ferguson era – a distressing site somehow covered over by Ferguson but exposed to the world by David Moyes – this was never about a quick fix, rather rebuilding from the bottom up with assuredness and a vision for the future. And it’s why regardless of present-day results, Van Gaal is the right person, even if it jars with a negative narrative.
While some compare his results and performances with those of his predecessor, his ego means he will never see it that way. Even with a trophyless season ahead after Monday’s capitulation to Arsenal, unlike Moyes, the job isn’t too big for Van Gaal. Even with a battle for fourth that could affect future finances as the club had marketed itself on being a Champions League side, he’s so self-confident there’s no way he could contemplate failing. It explains his tetchiness at the press conference after the FA Cup exit, not formed from pressure but from frustration that some in the media didn’t understand what he was doing. But the key stakeholders do, with strong suggestions from the club that his position is rock-solid and that he’s hugely popular with the players.
Back in that dimly-lit room in Carrington in August – while fans naively presumed an immediate return to the glory days despite the structures and ideology of the club falling apart – Neville asked Van Gaal would it all work out and got a sensible answer. “It always depends on the level of the players. I’m not a magician. It depends on the personality. At the end of the three years we shall have that kind of player. And I shall select them through. I say that to the players.” He asked the manager too what he’d leave behind, not at the end of the season, but at the end of his stint. “After three years? A very good basis, and a very balanced selection.”
That much may be hard to envisage as he goes to run the gauntlet against Tottenham today followed by Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City across the next month, games that could see this season’s one remaining aim slip away. But Van Gaal’s bigger goal was never about the here and now, rather it was a stepping stone back towards what was once normality at the club. United need to realise they are in transition and throwing money at such deep-rooted problems won’t solve them completely. But with money and Van Gaal at the helm, time and patience certainly can.
Sunday Business Post
15 March, 2015