The year was 2009. Luca Toni sat bemused in the Bayern Munich dressing room. “I have never experienced anything like it, it was totally crazy” remarked the striker. In a show of dominance and indefensible workplace misconduct, Louis van Gaal had just produced his testicles.
The bold Dutchman wanted to prove to his team that he had the balls to drop any player in that room. And drop them he did.
Upon his arrival in Manchester, Louis van Gaal promised to implement a philosophy as audacious as his team talks. A philosophy that, according to him, is ‘exciting’ and ‘entertaining’.
Yet, in recent times, this daring philosophy seems to be as absent as Van Gaal’s underwear. Has the ferocious Dutchman been tamed?
For what seems like eons, United fans were graced with the awe-inspiring football of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Fergusom; the type of football that should come with a heath warning label. Then, as if United fans weren’t spoilt enough, along comes a ball-flashing maniac who promises to continue it.
True to his word, after implementing his revered possession style, Van Gaal produced a show. Angel Di Maria racing down the flanks, Daley Blind’s ability and hair encroaching upon Pirlo territory, and a blatant disregard for defending. United were back.
But it didn’t go swimmingly. After a brief honeymoon of wild, unprotected football, the climax of which was the 5-3 defeat at Leicester, LVG decided it was time to put on some protection.
Since the Leister game, LVG’s mentality has become uncharacteristically cautious. The man who is famed for adventurous, attacking football is now producing a slow, dull, and uninspired brand of football.
The biggest issue preventing LVG from implementing his philosophy is his growing distrust for the defense, something that is made evident by his insistence on playing five defenders. The 5-3-2 formation isn’t an obscure tactical innovation or even the system that best suits the squad, it’s an admittance that the United goal isn’t aptly protected with only four defenders.
If anything, as Michael Cox excellently describes in his analysis, the 5-3-2 hampers United’s play.
However, this newfound caution hasn’t only affected the formation, it’s affected the style. No longer is the mentality “get Di Maria 1v1”, it’s “don’t you dare leave one of those damn centre backs 1v1”.
United’s passing play has become decidedly more timid and prudent. The team no longer possesses the ball to penetrate, they possess the ball not to loose it.
This mentality is portrayed in the behavior of the full-backs. In the 1-0 defeat to Southampton, the team continually moved the ball laterally to provide Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia with countless isolated 1v1 opportunities. A Ferguson side would’ve smelled the blood and attacked the stranded defender, but in fear of loosing the ball, Shaw and Valencia went backward.
So, following the drab 1-0 home defeat to Southampton, what is the answer?
The answer is not a matter of right and wrong, rather a matter of opinion. Louis van Gaal must decide whether he wishes to continue papering over the weaknesses or play to the strengths. In essence, to keep it tight or go for it; to prolong an unbeaten run or attempt to win the game.
Tactically speaking, both mentalities have their positives and their negatives, and there is no definitive answer.
However, when given the choice to entertain fans or to bore them, with no tactical advantage to settle the argument, a manager must always choose to entertain the fans. Would you rather watch a 1-0 defeat or a 5-3 defeat? If you are going to fall, fall spectacularly.
In what will be one of the oddest moments in football history, as United march out of the tunnel against QPR, United fans will be holding their breath. Across the world, the Old Trafford faithful will be hoping, praying, and yearning for Louis van Gaal to show his balls once more.