When Stuart Attwell blew the final whistle at Stadium:mk on August 26, the final score read: MK Dons 4-0 Manchester United. It was the very same day that United smashed the British transfer record to land one of world football’s hottest properties in Angel Di Maria.
One can be reasonably sure, the winger hadn't heard of the slayers of his new club or what the MK (Milton Keynes) in MK Dons stood for until that day.
To put things into perspective, total cost of MK Dons squad is equal to week's worth of Di Maria’s wages. Louis van Gaal being outmaneuvered by Karl Robinson was a sight not many thought they’d witness in their lifetime.
That inept performance from 20-time conquerors of English football’s top flight even prompted Ghanaian footballer Emmanuel Frimpong, who was struggling to find a club at the time, to tweet: “Might turn up at United tomorrow for trials”.
On his way to the dressing room, Louis van Gaal did the unthinkable. He stopped in his tracks and signed a few autographs for fans. Sir Alex Ferguson would never do that. Would he? He’d have stormed off the pitch and be snarling in the dressing room waiting for his players to arrive.
The Dutchman didn’t erupt during his post match interviews and even went on to say that he wasn't surprised by the result. So why is Louis van Gaal the right man to resurrect United, a club that has sunk this far this fast?
Tectonic shift in transfer policy:
If United are in turmoil, part of the blame lies on the shoulders of Sir Alex Ferguson. The transfer policy adopted by arguably the greatest manager in British football history was guided by one virtue: “value in the market”. He was known to build and re-build teams. Yet, he left a team that could only dance to his tunes on a football pitch. A team that won the league in 2013, finished seventh in 2014.
For a club of the United's stature, the transfer policy must adopt a flexible approach, which Ferguson was never in favour of. After the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carloz Tevez, the only players to arrive at Old Trafford during that season were Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan. On the other hand, Manchester City signed Yaya Toure, David Silva, James Milner, Mario Balotelli and Jerome Boateng. A year later, the blue half of Manchester brought Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri on board while the red half got David de Gea, Ashley Young and Phil Jones. The disparity in quality of two teams today speaks volumes.
After David Gill and Sir Alex relinquished the controls of the boardroom, there has been a welcome shift in United’s transfer policy. David Moyes, during his brief tenure, splashed £37.1 on Juan Mata to obliterate the club transfer record in his first season. It is quite evident that United under Louis van Gaal will flex their money power as and when required. Since taking over in the summer, the 63-year-old has already spent heavily on Angel Di Maria, Anders Hererra, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo. This is the “new” United. A club that is willing to fight against the big boys Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich for a big player when he is available. A club that will not hesitate to break the club and world transfer record to go out and get a player who would genuinely improve the team. Van Gaal has made it clear from the start that he has inherited a broken team, a team that is not balanced. He wants his United team to have four or five world class players. This aggressive approach in player acquisition bodes well for the club, for now and the future.
Promoting young talent:
United has seen some of their brightest young prospects leave the club in the last few years. Paul Pogba was left fuming as he could not convince Sir Alex of being ready to be United’s midfield general.
As Paul Scholes was called back from retirement to shore up things in the midfield, Pogba pushed for a move away from Old Trafford and signed for Juventus. He was immediately thrust into the starting line-up in Turin and has been one of the most pivotal players for club and country since then. Adnan Janujaz never featured in any of Ferguson’s sides even on the bench barring his last match away at West Brom. Moyes immediately unleashed the shackles on the Belgian and the youngster made a huge impact last season.
Similarly, Ravel Morrison and Zeki Fryers went to sign for other Premier League clubs after not being drafted into the senior team fast enough. Van Gaal has been refreshing in his approach towards the youngsters. He has shown no hesitation in giving Manchester-born Tyler Blackett his first team debut and throwing Mike Keane straight into the firing line when Chris Smalling picked up an injury at the Stadium of Light.
Van Gaal’s defense lacks the presence of an experienced and battle-hardened centre-back. Yet he has reposed faith in a pool of defenders comprising of Evans, Smalling, Jones, Shaw, Blackett and Rojo. A defensive set up with an average age of 22 is quite young by Premier League standards, especially when the players they have replaced are Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra.
There is no denying Van Gaal has a good eye for spotting young talent. Some of the players that were handed out their senior team debuts by the Dutchman include Kluivert, Iniesta, Seedorf, Xavi, Davids, Puyol, Badstuber, Alaba and Valdes. One of his greatest achievements in football management was winning the Champions League with Ajax in 1995. Some members of that famous Ajax team were below the age of 20, including a 17-year-old Clarence Seedorf and 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert. Even Germany’s goal-machine Thomas Muller was made a permanent fixture in the Bayern Munich squad when Van Gaal took charge of the club in 2009.
Such has been the influence of his philosophy on younger players that the youth brigade at Manchester must know they are in safe hands and absorb as much information as possible at every opportunity to build a substantial football IQ. The manager's track record suggests that when young players are in sync with his football philosophy, the team can do wonders.
Willingness to take risks:
Louis van Gaal has supreme confidence in his ability. In many ways, he was the original “Special One”. Like Moyes, the daunting task of taking over the reins at Old Trafford does not faze him. For a man who has won a league in every country he has managed, taking on the challenge at one of world’s biggest football club only seems logical. But Van Gaal is driven by a personal philosophy. He is not here to adapt. He is here to mould the players to fit in his vision for the club. An endorsement of this fact is his preference of a 3-5-2 formation. Traditionally, United sides have often played in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 system.
Van Gaal believes it is easier to defend with three center backs. But as is evident, his team has found it hard to adapt to this new system. United’s defense has been carved out open by Swansea, Sunderland and MK Dons. Which begs the question – what will be the extent of the carnage when City and Chelsea run at their young defenders? The 3-5-2 system relies heavily on two things – effective communication and precise movement. It is so because wingers essay a key role in such a formation. Hence the Old Trafford faithful will have to be patient until the system works to perfection, which by Van Gaal’s estimate would take up to three months.
During his tenure at Bayern, the Dutchman veered away from their traditional formation of 4-4-2. Despite a lot of resistance, Van Gaal got his way as he adopted a diamond formation as he believed he had a team that could best perform in that system. He then went on to change the diamond to 4-3-3 with the arrival of Arjen Robben.
Louis van Gaal has showcased his ability to take big risks in the past and more recently at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. He substituted his captain Robin van Persie in the Round of 16 against Mexico to bring on Klass-Jan Huntelaar, who converted a penalty to send the Dutch through. Then again in the quarterfinal against Costa Rica, the Dutch manager replaced first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul, who saved two penalties to help the team progress to the semi-final.
These are big risks especially considering the scale of the event and timing of the substitution. Imposing a 3-5-2 system on United, a team with an already established philosophy of football, is a huge risk as well. A gamble Van Gaal hopes will pay dividends in a few months.
Louis van Gaal has a three-year contract with Manchester United. His job description is not of a savior but that of a re-builder. He is unlikely to deliver a Premier League in his first season.
To conclude, here is an excerpt from Louis van Gaal's interview with Gary Neville for The Telegraph, which sums up why he is the right man to lead the club into the future.
What will you leave behind?
“A very good basis. After three years? A very good basis, and a very balanced selection.”
But the Premier League title. What about the Premier League title?