What system will Louis van Gaal employ at Manchester United? Expect a machine of young talents and no room for dictators
The Dutchman has begun work on instilling his philosophy - one that will suit some players much more than others
"A new manager with different ideas," was Wayne Rooney's first public assessment of Louis van Gaal today, hinting at the kind of technical revolution we are about to see at Manchester United.
It is a revolution with which English football has not always been comfortable. When Arnold Muhren arrived from the Netherlands at Ipswich Town in 1978 and spent his first match chasing up and down the touchline after Liverpool’s Terry McDermott, he promptly told manager Bobby Robson that the linesman would have been better suited for that role and that if he wanted to get the best out of him, “then give me the ball.” Robson did. Muhren flourished and went on to play for United.
Van Gaal’s relentlessly attacking system of football has been characterised by many as more of a machine than a brand of possession football; a philosophy learned from his great Ajax mentor Rinus Michels which involves pressing and squeezing space, constantly passing, running and re-organising space on the field until gaps open up in the opposition defence. “With space so congested, the most important thing is ball circulation,” is how Van Gaal has described the blueprint. “The team that creates the quickest football is the best.”
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For players like Rooney, who observed that “we have to train well and listen to what he wants us to do and take that onto the pitch and show him what we can do,” the days ahead will be a supreme test of technical and tactical ability. Muhren, who helped United win the 1983 FA Cup during his three years at the club, has explained how there is a requirement in this Dutch system for individuals to play football with their “brains” not their “feet” and think in advance of receiving the ball exactly what to do with it. “Before I get the ball I can already see someone moving in front of me,” Muhren said. “So when he ball arrives I don’t have to think about it. And I don’t have to watch the ball because I have the right technique.” That is a good encapsulation of the more cerebral kind of football Van Gaal seems to be preparing to ask United to produce.
Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney pictured on Manchester United's pre-season tour
Not all United’s players have displayed such qualities in abundance. Phil Jones does not play with his head up. Tom Cleverley requires two or three touches before he ferries the ball. Michael Carrick, by contrast, looks like a Van Gaal player. He is two-footed, but will often control the weaker left and deliver the difficult, forward pass with his right to ‘break the lines’ of a game. If Van Gaal had worked with Cleverley and indeed the outgoing Anderson, they might have lived up to expectations, though it will be a new generation which now benefits from Van Gaal’s legendary capacity to tutor and develop young talent. The United youngsters out here are Reece James, Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane and Jesse Lingard, with defender Keane and attacking midfielder Lingard the most talented of that quartet and Lingard perhaps best equipped to take Van Gaal’s ideas on board. Blackett's inclusion becomes more relevant following United’s confirmation that Patrice Evra is to leave for Juventus. He could deputise for Shaw, though is actually 15 months older than him.
Beyond the touring squad, United’s upcoming trio of Ben Pearson, Andreas Pereira (both midfielders) and Saidy Janko, the 19-year-old Swiss right sided defender/midfielder signed from FC Zurich last summer, are others who seem to possess the technical component which could see them flourish under Van Gaal. The more prosaic concern is how Van Gaal can create a defence to protect the side which is doing so much to create. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Jones and Rafael da Silva all still have work to do to convince that they are defensive pillars of the future for United
Van Gaal will spend hours explaining what he wants because, despite the autocratic image, communication with his players is at the core of his philosophy. He has always wanted to be the pater familias of his club, which seems to explain why he is at his best with a young squad such as the Ajax group he took to Champions League triumph in 1995. He likes to create a culture for which the Dutch word is Gezelligheid (roughly, ‘cosy’). The difficulties occur when egos and personalities get in the way of the collective, democratic ethos, with Franck Ribery, Luca Toni, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rivaldo among those he has clashed with over the years. You can't be a dictator in a Van Gaal team.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is among those to have fallen out with Van Gaal
He also works scientifically at creating the right conditions for a harmonious collective. When he became Netherlands manager in 2012, after the disastrous 2012 Euro Championships campaign, he became personally involved in changing a whole floor of the hotel in which the squad usually stayed.
Before his reign players often stayed in their hotel rooms, playing computer games or chatting with their closest team mates. So he created a big room in with table tennis tables, tables to play card games, a wide screen TV to watch football together etc. A “safe haven,” as he described it. For the Brazil World Cup he designed a player bus along the same lines. It is an old-fashioned kind of ‘togetherness’ that he wants for the squad. He rails against what he calls “the computer society” - players insulated against the outside world by headphones and who are consumed by the modern distractions technology creates.
Netherlands' coach Louis van Gaal (R) looks on as Netherlands' forward and captain Robin van Persie (C) shakes hands with Netherlands' forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
What he asks in return for this paternalistic approach is players who think for themselves and come up with ideas. That explains why he has been so fond of players like Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen, Frank Rijkaard and Robin van Persie. “There is always a manager but he is never really the boss,” goes one Dutch saying which encapsulates the philosophy.
We may see a little of the new United in the early hours of Thursday, UK time. Expect to see play building up from the back against LA Galaxy and to see players becoming interchangeable: wide midfielders making forward runs to create space for the striker and if one player comes back to receive the ball, another making a forward run. The Naranja Mecanica (‘Orange Machine’) as the South Americans have described it cannot be learned overnight. The early days may be bumpy. This is the United we are about to come to know.
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