Manchester United vs Everton: Louis van Gaal faces David Moyes' nemesis seeking first 'total' United display

Much changed team take on the Toffees, whose April victory sparked Scot’s exit

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The Independent Football

As it ended, so it begins again in earnest. Everton were the team who brought the curtain down on David Moyes, on that desperate day just under six months ago when the fool in a Grim Reaper costume waved an imitation scythe behind Moyes’ head. And Everton are the team whose arrival at Old Trafford on Sunday presages the real test of what Louis van Gaal has created from the Manchester United ruins his predecessor bequeathed him.

Though an international break punctures the next two weeks, the fixtures beginning on Sunday, which take in Chelsea and Manchester City with the relative sanctuary of West Bromwich Albion tucked in between, represent the first proper measure of whether United are ready to challenge the best again.

The extent of the upheaval has been astonishing for a club which was built by Sir Alex Ferguson on a creed of constancy and incremental change. If, as we might expect, Juan Mata resumes the No 10 role a suspended Wayne Rooney has vacated, only two of the players whom Moyes selected as he ran the gauntlet during the  2-0 defeat at Goodison 167 days ago will start on Sunday. Six of the 18 he selected that day are no longer with United.

Van Gaal was reminded on Friday that his own philosophy and that of the Everton manager, Roberto Martinez, are rather similar. He was asked when we might see a full 90 minutes of the kind of “total football” British football was given to expect from him.  Van Gaal could give no indication. “A total 90 minutes you never know because it’s a question of time,” he said, confusingly, before returning to his recurrent theme: that it is United’s lack of discipline in possession, more than the state of their defence, which concerns him most. “The [opposition don’t make their goals] like we do out of building up, first, second, third and fourth phase,” he said. “That’s the difference.” Discipline is needed if United want to be “a big team,” he added.

It was not one of the great football press conferences. Van Gaal’s eccentric English is not helping us appreciate what he is setting out achieve. But the complexity is not limited to the sentence structure. It extends to what he wants the players to do: coaching them “not in their legs but in their brain; in brain power,” as he is wont to describe it.

 

The players have talked in individual interviews about the challenges of performing this way. “He is saying, ‘You should be five yards to the right’,” Jonny Evans, one of the defensive absentees on Sunday, related in the summer. “We went through a video last night and I was 10 yards out. There are things you are doing on the pitch, and the whole team will be feeling the same, and you are thinking: ‘Am I in the right position?’ Then he will show you the video and you will know. It was certainly never like this with Sir Alex Ferguson…”

This is a philosophy which has brought phenomenal success across the continent. But somewhere amid the complexity it feels like United require some simplicity. To read Rio Ferdinand’s new autobiography this week was to take a step back into a more elementary – and rather divine – philosophy, when a manager’s simple, calculated  pre-match gesture was enough to affect the course of a player’s afternoon.

“Coaches like Louis van Gaal talk about their ‘philosophy,’ “ Ferdinand writes. “Ferguson didn’t make such grand declarations, but under him we played fantastic attacking, winning football. He finished most of his team talks with: ‘Now go out and enjoy yourselves.’ It was never ‘Do this; do that’ because that can take away a player’s flair and imagination. He gave people the confidence to try things and didn’t mind if you made mistakes if you were trying the right things.”

Ferdinand’s appreciation of everything but England and Moyes creates some contradictions in his testimony. He seems equally to love the idea of Van Gaal’s complex Netherlands team talks in which, as Robin van Persie relates it to him, the manager reveals before the game: “This is how the game is going to play out … and everything happens exactly as he predicts...”

Yet it is the simple anecdotes of the Ferguson era which lights up the #2sides book. Ferguson evidently barely bothered with the opposition in team talks, Ferdinand relates. He concentrated on the psychological ruses which provide some of the gems. The defender tells a team bus story; of heading up to Newcastle when Craig Bellamy was playing well, when Ferguson walked past. “He flicked the top of my head, and went, ‘That Bellamy has been telling Mark Hughes that he’s going to destroy you. He reckons he’s quicker than you, that you’re not good enough to stop him any more,’” Ferdinand relates. “I sat there and thought ‘that cheeky little bastard.’ So I went out and played Bellamy off the pitch – he didn’t get a sniff all game.” It was Ferdinand walking past Ferguson when he boarded the coach for home. “Go and ask Mark Hughes what he’s got to say now,” he told him. Ferdinand reflects that was “all he needed to do: he’d press your buttons like that….”

Those who have played for Van Gaal elsewhere attest to his own powers of motivation, too, and there have been glimpses of the breakthrough that he warned would take three months. But they have just never lasted long. The rapid dip from cruise control to crisis has been a feature of the past month – most starkly in the 5-3 defeat at Leicester but also in the struggle to hold on to the 2-1 lead against West Ham, albeit with 10 men.

While Van Persie this week described “a bit of the Dutch thing” about everybody having input and “getting involved in the project” to ensure that “we are all pulling on the same rope,” Ferdinand reflected affectionately on what he described as the “wildebeest” culture among footballers – of everyone simply following the manager’s lead. Football is less complicated than it sounds. United look like they need some of the simple things back.

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