DAVID SHONFIELD: Louis Van Gaal was never going to be a quick fix

A lot has changed in the two years since Manchester United appointed Louis Van Gaal, but one thing has not: The man himself.

Louis watchers back home in Amsterdam were adamant that for better or worse, he would stick to exactly the approach he had adopted at his previous clubs, from Ajax to AZ.

There would be the same formality, the same insistence on following orders, the same tactics, the same prickly relations with the media and club directors. At the same time the manager would educate the players to his way of thinking, and also give opportunities for a new generation to come through.

So Van Gaal might be a success, if he was given time. How much time was the unspoken question.

Van Gaal was never one for the quick fix. Shortly after he started work at Old Trafford, he was already talking of a three-year process.

After his second spell at Barcelona, when he left under a cloud, and his subsequent fallout with Ajax, he rebuilt his career at AZ, and eventually won the title.

It was a remarkable achievement. But it took four years and in the third year, Van Gaal was seemingly on his way out, with his career irretrievably damaged, before the players petitioned the board for him to stay.

That loyalty and collective feeling — Van Gaal’s favourite word is collectief — surfaced occasionally during his time at Old Trafford but relations were obviously being strained to breaking point even before Jose Mourinho became available in December.

Van Gaal increasingly gave the appearance of an irritable schoolmaster out of sync with his pupils. And his own end-of-term report is disappointing to say the least.

On tactics, player recruitment and man-management, his marks were all well short of expectations.

Tactics

Prosaic, predictable, pedestrian — with occasional exceptions, such as the 4-2 win against Manchester City in his first season, United have laboured to reproduce any of the attacking flair and tactical flexibility that Van Gaal’s Dutch team achieved in the last World Cup, playing three at the back with a quick counter-attacking style.

They scored 34 goals in qualifying, and then beat Spain, Chile, and Brazil on the way to a very creditable third place.

But in England, his 3-5-2 system was exposed early on — just two wins in his first 10 Premier League matches — and subsequently his tactics became increasingly stodgy and unimaginative.

He did eventually get the defensive side sorted out, although depending heavily on David De Gea’s excellent form in goal, but his team consistently lacked the direct attacking style that used to be United’s trademark.

Recruitment

It is not clear how many of United’s signings over the past two years were down to Van Gaal but most of them have struggled to make an impact. Anthony Martial is one big exception to the general standard. Angel Di Maria ought to have been a success but became an expensive flop. Memphis Depay, recruited on an extravagant salary, likewise.

Good signings, such as Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlin, have not improved.

Man-management

Man-management was always likely to be Van Gaal’s Achilles Heel. His approach worked for him at Bayern, where he had a group of young players coming through who were eager to learn. Signing Bastian Schweinsteiger was partly an attempt to repeat that experience. But Schweinsteiger’s leadership and commitment to the cause have been in doubt (injuries didn’t help) and the young talent, for example Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, have only come though recently.

The stories now circulating about Van Gaal’s “evaluation sessions” and critical emails, and rules instructing forwards not to shoot first time and to wait for support from the full backs rather than taking on opponents, are symptomatic. Likewise objections to playing out of position.

It may well be that Van Gaal was trying to educate the team, but his approach seems to have become more and more irritating and divisive.

For all that, Van Gaal’s legacy to his former pupil Mourinho is not entirely negative.

Martial and Depay could become the equivalents of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff in Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea.

And while Mourinho is another authoritarian type, he is 12 years younger than his Dutch mentor and in Gary Neville, could have a useful and friendly assistant.


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