There was a period – in March – when the mist seemed to clear and the road ahead could be seen with more clarity. Manchester United were rampant, ruthless and effective. As they swept aside Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City, the thought was that finally those intricately prepared patterns on the Carrington Training Ground were starting to click. The philosophy seemed understood and Louis Van Gaal — it seemed — had finally struck the right chords.
A false dawn it proved to be. It did not last as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea brought an end to it and as the Portuguese went on to pick another Premier League winner’s title it was back to ground zero for Van Gaal. Threatened lift off became crash landing. For Manchester United, that has been the story since Sir Alex Ferguson departed.
Steps forward are followed by a slide back into the abyss. For a fan base so used to seeing the team win and challenge, there now seems to be confusion as to where the Red Devil boat is headed. Compounded onto this is the club’s style of play, which has gone from gung ho counter attacking to long periods of staid possession. With exit from the Champions League now a reality, there is one man whose head is being called for. The philosophoical tactical genius.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand a man such as Van Gaal. The Dutchman is a man of vast experience and influence. He is arrogant and daring, a brilliant orator and a man full of ideas. If anything, he never seems to mind criticism, taking it in stride and scoffing at those who think he is wrong.
His achievements include leading Ajax back to European glory and setting the foundations of that exhilarating possession based display for which Bayern Munich is so admired for in world football today. His disciples span a cyclone of credible managers, including Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. His failures on the other hand are of grand proportions, and include being unable to arrest a decline at Barcelona in 2003 as well as inexplicably failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup with a ludicrously talented Dutch squad.
The question now is whether Manchester United should be added to the list of his failures. In one year and a half at Old Trafford the terms progress, process and philosophy have been heard more than they have been seen. The actual tangibility of what Van Gaal is doing at United is blurry to the eyes in relation to the ideology which he preaches. He is continually looking like a madman shouting at the top of his voice in the streets at the sights and sounds of only what occupy his hallucinations.
For a man who has spent all of 250 million pounds on transfers, it seems ludicrous that the squad still seems short of the quality required to overhaul it after the ill-fated David Moyes era. That seems to be suggested in the tactics employed by the manager. A slow possession game has stifled the energy out of Man United games, but it has also served to stifle opposition attacks from breaking down United. That at the very least papers over the cracks of a defence that can only boast Chris Smalling as showing any potential of becoming the leader that United defences have become accustomed to.
If anything, any progress that Van Gaal can boast is that he arrested the downward development of the Moyes era. With Moyes, things only looked to go from bad to worse. Now, they seem to stagnate at the same point that United’s style of play indicates – lots of possession but lacking penetration and inventiveness. As such, the difference between this and the Moyes team is that the Scot had a team that seemed beatable at any moment. Van Gaal’s does not have the same problem – instead, it seems incapable of winning games.