Manchester United’s manager has enjoyed a successful US tour with his new team, but the hard work will begin from now
Nobody ever said this was going to be easy. Even before Louis van Gaal’s appointment at Manchester United the general prognosis was one of grizzled and wary optimism, a certainty that success on the pitch would come only after a process of necessary abrasion, of scorched earth, toxins purged, machines recalibrated and all the rest of it. Van Gaal himself wasted no time in pleading for patience, just as those who know him well have pointed out the “process trainer” always takes time to rip out and re-lay, to shape the playing side of a club to his theatrical will.
All of which is perhaps a little hard to square with the sense of slightly giddy optimism created by United’s successful US tour. Indeed such is football’s capacity for optimism that after five pre-season victories, 16 goals scored and a pair of eye-catching wins against Liverpool and Real Madrid, United are as short as 5-1 with some bookmakers to win the Premier League title next year. The club’s more impressionable social mediasupport is nurturing a brittle sense of new-era momentum, while those expecting tales of showdowns and face-offs and players marched out of the lunch hall by the earlobe have been entirely disappointed.
Instead the dominant images from the tour are of a highly motivated group of players and a manager almost childishly energised, plunging his great pudgy hands into the cake-mix of this post-Moyes squad and flinging together something surprisingly tasty-looking, albeit in the lukewarm temperatures of the Guinness International Champions Cup.
It is no more than an alluring chimera at this stage. As everybody knows, the only thing that really matters about pre-season football is that pre-season football does not really matter. Indeed for United fans the best thing about these early gains may have been the distinctly lukewarm, even rather abrasive, reaction from within.
“It is better to win the preparation games than to lose,” Van Gaal conceded grudgingly after the 3-1 defeat of Liverpool in Miami on Monday night and it seems unlikely United’s manager will have been overly swayed either way by what he has seen in the US. From watching the Liverpool match on TV the obvious lessons seemed unremarkable: Phil Jones needs to stop diving into tackles; Ander Herrera is a fine and tenacious passing midfielder; Wayne Rooney can finish; and pre-season games are, above all, about fitness and familiarity.
For all that, United’s early sprightliness seems significant, if only because it jars so strikingly with received opinion about Van Gaal’s methods. A little early friction with the dominant culture has always been part of the Van Gaal narrative and, indeed, part of the fascination of Louis-meets-United. At Ajax Van Gaal took three years to win the league (and four to win the Champions League with one of the great academy-built teams) before moving on abruptly to Barcelona.
In Spain he won La Liga in his first season but it is a period remembered as much for his struggles implementing his methods, while his second spell at the Camp Nou never got started at all: Van Gaal was sacked with the club three points above the relegation places. Seven years later his first season at Bayern Munich was marked by only five wins in his first 10 games: it ended with a league title, a Champions League final and Van Gaal enthroned as Germany’s manager of the year.
It is easy to overstate this quality of patient design. All managers are “process managers” to a degree, even if that process involves little more than a series of panic-stricken raids on the transfer market and spending half an hour every morning telling your centre-forward he is the best player in the world. There are great variations within this and for the more obviously systems-based managers success has often followed a period of gear-shift and bedding in.
Herbert Chapman, English football’s great early innovator, took five years to win the title with Arsenal. Even Helenio Herrera – a man so wedded to his methods he would chase his players out of the car park after a match shouting “think of next week’s match!” – took three seasons to transform his great Internazionale team into a trophy-winning machine.
With Van Gaal the need for patience is twofold. For one thing – and notoriously – there is the sheer academic density of his tactical blueprint. Van Gaal breaks a football match down into four phases, from non-possession, to pre-possession, to actual possession, all the way back to no possession. The pitch itself is divided not into squares or vaguely delineated green spaces but a series of interlocking triangles, both vertical and horizontal. English football has come a long way from the dark days ofopen hostility to the idea of the game as an academic discipline but this kind of thing can take a little digestion, not least when Van Gaal expects his players to be able to take on his instructions mid-match, to read his shifts of shape and tempo instantly.
In addition he has inherited a team, and indeed a club, so obviously in need of a refreshed sense of method and intensity. It is here perhaps that the roots of Van Gaal’s bright start lie. So meek were United at times last season, so “broken” in the new manager’s own choice of words, that an instant improvement was always likely. Maybe this will be the pattern of Van Gaal’s first season, with the necessary weeding out and making over delayed a little by that early rush of slack being taken up and drifting careers re-energised.
For now the 3-5-2/5-2-2-1 formation (delete according to desired level of sophistication) has looked excitingly different and the temptation will remain to imagine such players as Jones and Ashley Young can be refashioned into hand-me-down treasures by a manager who took Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar to the World Cup semi-finals in the summer.
Still, it is almost hard to imagine Van Gaal can avoid a period of retrenchment somewhere along the way, not least in a league whose most notable strength is its relentlessness, the absence of space to draw breath even against the lesser teams. United have a deceptively hospitable start to the season: by the end of October they will have played only once against a team in last season’s top four; but games at Sunderland, Burnley, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion look deceptively challenging for a team in transition.
One of the more encouraging parts of the summer tour was the sight at the end of a distinctly sheepish looking Darren Fletcher and Rooney holding up the International Trophy as though presenting to the cameras a dead fish washed up on the high-tide line. Van Gaal will be encouraged by the energy of his squad, a pleasing response to his own obvious willingness to take on the task. But this is a process that has yet to begin in earnest.