What Future Have Manchester United Fans Glimpsed By Watching Netherlands Play in the World Cup?
After a disastrous David Moyes nine months-reign, most Manchester United fans welcomed the pre-World Cup news that the new manager in the Old Trafford hot seat would be the experienced and title-winning Dutch coach Louis van Gaal. Based on the results of Holland’s first three matches, all of those fans will still be wearing a smile on their faces. However, it may also be that quite a few of those smiling fans have been surprised by the way the Dutch team have approached their matches. It may even be that a certain share of those taken by surprise have become worried as to the future of Manchester United Football Club since Van Gaal has made his team play rather uncharacteristically in regard to Dutch traditions.
If United fans immediately came to think of speed, wingers, and possession when Van Gaal was appointed their club’s new manager, Holland’s three matches so far at the World Cup, resulting in three wins, have shown that the most appropriate way to characterize Van Gaal’s tactical approach and preferred formation is “extreme flexibility.” That is, if we put on our positive glasses. If we put on our negative glasses, we might instead use “lack of red thread” or “winning means everything” to describe Holland’s style.
From a tactical point of view, the match against Chile no doubt stands out as especially impressive since Van Gaal’s approach resulted in a complete neutralization of Chile’s most dangerous weapons, aggressive pressing and counter attacking. In this match, Van Gaal showed his Mourinho side. And back in Holland, Johan Cruyff was probably fuming because of Holland’s risk minimizing, non-possession football based on long balls and counter attack. It was un-Dutch, but highly effective, and it proved – yet again – to be a tactical masterclass from Van Gaal.
In the first game against the reigning world champions of Spain, Van Gaal’s approach was pretty similar – counter attack, solid and aggressive defending with five in the back, and cynical indifference as to possession – but whereas Chile never came close to winning, not to mention scoring a goal, against the Dutch, Spain missed a golden opportunity when leading with a goal just as Iker Casillas had his worst game ever. My point is that despite the devastating result – 5-1 – and despite a couple of world-class goals, the victory against Chile was in many ways more convincing, tactically speaking, than the demolition of Spain. If the approach (caution) and formation (5-3-2) were similar against Spain and Chile, Van Gaal reverted to the classic Dutch 4-3-3 formation with emphasis on wingers, speed, and possession in-between the two games against Spain and Chile, when his team were facing the underdogs and rather limited side from Australia. But the Dutch team was unconvincing against the Australians, only winning 3-2 after trailing 1-2.
If one has knowledge of Van Gaal’s managerial career, one also knows that the Dutch master minder has a history of employing different formations. At Ajax, when he took over from his mentor Leo Beenhakker, he used their traditional (and almost obligatory) 4-3-3. At Barcelona, Van Gaal has himself described the formation as 2-3-2-3. And at AZ Alkmaar, he won the Dutch championship employing a more traditional 4-4-2 formation. This history shows formational flexibility, and Manchester United fans worrying about a lack of red thread just have to look elsewhere than Van Gaal’s system, for example to his trophy cabinet. Here Van Gaal is a proven championship winner with every club he has managed. The two most impressive titles, the true proofs of his managerial abilities, would be the Champions League title with a very young Ajax team in 1995 and the Dutch championship title with unheeded AZ Alkmaar in 2009.
However, I would argue that it is also possible to find consistency on another level when speaking of Louis van Gaal. Formation no, trophies yes. But on the level of football philosophy, Van Gaal still adheres to the principles behind “total football” as they were developed by Rinus Michels, another of his Dutch mentors, in the early 1970s. Total football is not determined by a specific system (most people associate it with the Dutch 4-3-3, since it was introduced by Michels at Ajax). Instead, total football can be practiced within several formations. What makes it a coherent idea is the underlying philosophy. This philosophy is a sort of “science of (unoccupied) space”, in which positional changes or positional flexibility is highly valued, that is, players should be, to a certain degree at least, multifunctional. What Van Gaal looks for in players are first and foremost technique, insight, personality and speed. As his biographer Maarten Meijer sums it up: “Players who could play with both legs, had both defensive and offensive capabilities, were physically strong, were quick starters, had the necessary tactical acumen to function smoothly in rotation football, and, above all, put their skills in service of the team effort.” Team effort is another very important sub-part of the total football “vision”, which basically is a philosophy of collectivism (this emphasis on team above individual was the main reason behind Van Gaal’s fall-out with players such as Rivaldo at Barcelona and Ribéry at Bayern Munich who both felt restricted by his philosophy).
The question is, though, if Van Gaal has compromised with his vision of total football during the matches against Spain and Chile. Cruyff would undoubtedly answer in the affirmative. Even if there were elements of total football surviving in those matches – for example Robben’s speed, the Dutch team’s superior spatial awareness and intelligence, Van Persie’s creativity – one could argue that a lot of elements of total football were missing too. In an ideal world, the positional changes required of players in total football is supposed to lead to dominance in not merely spatial awareness but also in ball possession. This was neither the case against Spain nor against Chile. However, when being criticized after the Chile game, Van Gaal defended his tactics: “You just have to play according to your strengths, it’s all about winning. I’ll pick a system that helps me win. […] If I didn’t do that, you’d chop off my head. […] Me and my staff, we only ever want to score one goal more than the opponents.”
Now, this is Van Gaal speaking. It could as well have been José Mourinho, though. The latter, however, was always deemed too cautious, defensive, and cynical by the majority of United fans in terms of being a worthy candidate to carry on the Ferguson legacy. The appointment of Van Gaal, on the other hand, has been met by those same fans with only positive statements. The Dutch fans and experts were all skeptical when Van Gaal experimented with the 5-3-2 formation in the build up to Brazil, but results have shown that it works for a team and for players almost indoctrinated with 4-3-3. And it is very doubtful that Van Gaal would ever have ventured into the 5-3-2 experiment if Kevin Strootman hadn’t been hit by a nasty knee injury. Strootman was vital for Van Gaal’s 4-3-3 formation occupying the crucial position of defensive midfielder protecting the back four and passing on freedom to both backs, the two other midfielders and the three forwards to concentrate their main efforts on attacking. No one in Holland was able to replace Strootman, not even the martial Nigel de Jong. With him out, Van Gaal quite simply needed an extra central defender.
If skepticism has evaporated in relation to Van Gaal’s choice of formation, it remains part of daily discussions in Holland (and perhaps also among Manchester United fans) as to his preferred philosophy and vision (total football). If Van Gaal’s track record proves him to be flexible in regard to formation, but inflexible in regard to philosophy – a philosophy traditionally associated with fluidity, width, and speed – his recent matches have shown us a more result-oriented and perhaps even cynical Van Gaal.
In the Manchester United way as it was founded by Sir Matt Busby and carried on by Sir Alex Ferguson, winning was always important, but winning with style and vigor was even more important. However, the position in which the club finds itself at this moment, it may not be a bad idea with a manager who is a guarantor of victories, and who also has a well-documented reputation for giving young players a chance. And perhaps Van Gaal’s cynicism and “it’s-all-about-winning”-attitude aren’t that far away from the approach adopted by Ferguson in some matches, especially in Europe. Think of Manchester United’s Champions League matches against FC Barcelona in 2008 when they defeated the Catalans 1-0 on aggregate due to a long range shot from Paul Scholes, and think of their two Champions League matches against Real Madrid in 2013 when they only lost because Nani was controversially sent off. In both ties Ferguson demonstrated his ability to neutralize opposition teams with very cunning and cautious approaches. In those games Ferguson was giving us a tactical masterclass, just as Van Gaal has been doing against Chile and Spain. To me, the Dutch manager still seems to be the perfect choice for Old Trafford.
Editor’s note: Søren Frank is author of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, which is available from all fine booksellers.