The guillotine has been assembled, the angry townspeople have gathered in the square, the executioner has put his little hat on, and King has his head on the chopping block. No, this isn’t 18th century France, it’s Salford.
Manchester United haven’t won in over a month, have been knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage, have dropped out of the top four, are playing a brand of football the fans despise, the players are holding crisis meetings, and the manager’s relationship with the press is destroyed. The stage is set for an execution, but all is not lost for King Louis, he just has to give a little.
It is not simply that the football is boring — and this coming from someone who finds Jose Mourinho’s teams tactically fascinating —, it’s that the results aren’t there. If the results are there, the supporters will forgive murder. Yet they aren’t and it is now in both Louis van Gaal’s and the fans best interests for him to change the system.
Unfortunately, Van Gaal is not someone who usually welcomes change. He is a rigid control enthusiast (yes, I refrained from using “freak” as I can still feel his cold, wrathful eyes staring into me after watching that press conference, as I eat my mince pie) who believes it’s his way or the highway. This applies to everything from tactics to in what order multi-million superstars get up to eat their lunch.
However, his back is against the wall and as we know in football, those who do not adapt, perish.
The patient possession, to the degree United are playing it, is just not working. While United have enjoyed the most possession and made the most passes of any team in the Premier League, yet sit 14th in shots per game and 18th in chances created per game.
A change is demonstrably in order, and thankfully for the fans, it’s a change to a more attacking brand of football that’s needed.
Though there is hope yet for stubbon Louis. Despite his general tendencies, Van Gaal isn’t entirely resistant to change. At the World Cup, he employed a system that was in stark contrast with his philosophy, and his Netherland’s team counter-attacked their way to the semi-finals.
Even as he took over at United, he changed, it just wasn’t for the better. At Bayern, AZ, and Barcelona, he had a much better goals record and played more expansive football than what’s on offer now. He believed Manchester United did not have sufficient defensive solidity to risk numerous counter-attacks per game, so he placed greater restriction on the amount of risk his players are allowed to take on the ball.
Now, he’s been backed into a corner and is simply going to have to take this risk. In what could be his last hour, he has to adapt if he wishes to survive.
The solution is nothing unrealistic. No one is expecting a return to the Ferguson era or a replication of Mourinho’s bus parking. Van Gaal simply has to adjust his system to one that is more “attacking”.
He has to allow for more creative freedom from the advanced players, get the ball up to the striker more often, and circulate the ball more quickly. In short, he has to risk losing possession a little more in order to penetrate a little more.
No one is expecting him to give up his philosophy, the possession ethos can remain. But as so many teams — Barcelona, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United themselves in the past — have shown, you can retain possession of the ball and play in an attacking way.
They key word here is compromise. A bit of compromise between what Van Gaal wants and what the fans want is what’s in order. Compromise is what’s best for the tactical makeup of the team, the fans, and subsequently Van Gaal’s job.
The fact that United fans are clamouring for Jose Mourinho, a man who is famous for boring football, shows just how desperately this compromise is needed. In contrast to Mourinho, Van Gaal is much better suited to Manchester United and has almost everything the fans want. He brings players through the youth system, is a proven winner, and has the personality and confidence required to manage a global club. The only thing Van Gaal doesn’t check off the list is an attacking brand of football.
This Christmas, Van Gaal must give a little and bend to the United way. Whether the Britainia will welcome the grinch or Santa Claus remains to be seen.
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