Ouch. It is one thing when you lose at the stadium that you have been trying to establish as a fortress against someone with whom you have had a well-publicised falling-out.
It is quite another when that person then goes on to give you a tactical lesson.
“You know that they have difficulties to build up with three centre-backs,” said Southampton manager Ronald Koeman after his side beat Louis van Gaal’s men 1-0 last Sunday, explaining to the press why his team had a relatively easy time of it at Old Trafford.
In a team laden with attacking talent, Koeman seemed surprised that Van Gaal was willing to give his defence so much of the ball. In so far as the United manager’s philosophy can be discerned, it is to have defenders who are assured in possession and can develop attacking momentum for the forwards to exploit.
This, after all, has been the hallmark of his most successful sides. There is nothing wrong with this formula if you have a back three of Frank de Boer, Michael Reiziger and Danny Blind, as he did at Ajax. However, it is not so effective if your starting three is Daley Blind, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Blind, for his part, performed fairly well on Sunday, but the distribution of Smalling and Jones may always be a notch or two short of what United need.
Van Gaal clearly feels that he can teach these players the style that has brought him so many trophies, but there may be two problems with this approach. The first is that the learning curve is extremely steep for most of them, who do not have regular experience of playing in a back three.
The second may be the speed of the Premier League, to which Van Gaal may still be adjusting himself. He has previously coached in the Eredivisie, La Liga and the Bundesliga, with only the last of those leagues as consistently quick as English football. Holland and Spain, where he has spent most of his career, have little of the ferocious intensity of the Premier League and are thus countries where he has found it easier to pass the opposition into submission.
Van Gaal is aware that his team has a speed problem, which is presumably why he included James Wilson on the bench ahead of Radamel Falcao against Southampton. However, he may not be aware of his own speed problem. His team’s best performances this season have come either against teams who have sat off them to a certain extent, or when Van Gaal has consciously raised the intensity of his team’s movement and pressing.
Rinus Michels, a founding father of the Dutch school of football, wrote in his seminal work “Teambuilding” of the importance of circulation football; moving the ball as swiftly as possible about the pitch. Yet Van Gaal is currently retraining Wayne Rooney as a central midfielder and his chemistry with Juan Mata and Michael Carrick is at present not good enough to break down the very best defences with any consistency.
Mata wasted some very good opportunities against Southampton but these arrived once United were chasing the game. The challenge for Van Gaal is to impose a high passing tempo from the beginning of the match.
What will be galling for someone as well-prepared as the Dutchman is that he will have known precisely what Southampton were going to do, yet he was powerless to prevent it. Much was made of the absence of Ander Herrera from the starting lineup, and the difference he could have made to the game.
Herrera’s numbers this season are impressive and he broke the deadlock in the 2-0 FA Cup victory over Yeovil Town with a spectacular strike praised by Van Gaal. It may therefore not be so much that Van Gaal does not rate Herrera, but rather that he underestimates his importance to the brand of football he is trying to play.
And so we have the cognitive dissonance of Van Gaal speaking about the need to control matches from beginning to end, while Herrera, the most complete Premier League midfielder he has, remains marooned on the bench.
Unfortunately, one consistent element of Van Gaal’s philosophy this season is his stubbornness. Part of his brilliance is that he spots patterns and potential that no one else does — hence his promotion of Paddy McNair from the U21s over Tom Thorpe, and his revival of Marouane Fellaini — but part of it owes much to dogged persistence with plans that few others think are working.
He has the pedigree, the determination and the resources to bring a title back to Old Trafford but should he finally do so, he may reflect that he has not made it easy for himself.
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