Manchester United’s mistakes are not all Louis Van Gaal’s fault

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It’s fair to say that Louis Van Gaal hasn’t had the best of times managing Manchester United. He’s been given large budgets, a long rope, and carte blanche to bring in whatever players he wants, regardless of fit or resale value. His accomplishments were a fourth place finish, admittedly getting Manchester United back into the Champions League at the first time of asking, and thus far being in sixth place four points off the top four this season.

This was not what was expected when he was brought in, a Champions League winner (nigh on 20 years ago now though) and serial title-winner with clubs like Ajax and Bayern Munich; he was known as a tactical genius. Somebody who could impose a philosophy on his team while adapting to different opponents through a canny football brain. His transformation of the Dutch side at the 2014 World Cup from a traditional 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 was one of the most intriguing storylines through the tournament. The team still had numbers in midfield as the Dutch traditionally like, but with Van Persie and Robben playing up front, as against Spain, they also presented a more offensive threat occupying both opposition center-halves.

In the World Cup, his goalkeeping substitution just before penalties against Costa Rica was an example of him reading situations and the mental state of his opponent and reacting to them, the other half of a good tactical coach.

However, in England, where tactics are not so much revered as derided as a boring necessity, where the crowd would be happy to just see 22 men smash into each other for 90 minutes, his more thoughtful football hasn’t caught on. His possession football is derided as boring (Manchester United are the lowest scorers in the top eight) when actually it’s a very effective defensive tactic (Manchester United have the second best defensive record in the league).

English crowds and pundits want to see wingers and fullbacks flying down the pitch, engaging in 1v1 battles, and taking on players, even if this is sometimes an ineffective and risky route to goal. Whereas Van Gaal throughout his career has instructed his wide players to look to play balls behind the opposition defense or reset, so as to not be out of position. It’s a mismatch of ideals and nowhere was it more apparent than in the Europa League first leg at Anfield against Liverpool.

After a poor first half from United, where after a bright five minutes they were penned in by Liverpool pressure and couldn’t create a chance, Van Gaal brought on Michael Carrick as a center-half and switched to a three man defense for the second half. Covering the game for BT Sport, former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes didn’t like this so much.

According to Scholes, Carrick is a deep-lying midfielder who is supposed to come on and play forward passes, long raking ones to either wing. Not someone who can come in and shore up a backline under pressure. And his decision might have seemed vindicated when Liverpool’s second goal was Carrick’s fault. Trying to control a cross in his own box, the United player’s loose touch teed up Adam Lallana to center for Roberto Firmino.

However, I would argue that putting Carrick on as a center-half was the best move that Van Gaal did all night. While his starting line-up and first half tactics were poor, the switch to a three-man backline alleviated pressure and gave his side a chance to get back in the game, but they were too poor to take it on the night. The error was something you can’t legislate for. Sometimes players just make basic mistakes and managers have to live with it.

In the first half, Liverpool had 70% of possession and came at United hard. It was wave after wave of pressure and the two young wingers, Memphis Depay and Marcus Rashford, were unable to cope with the rampaging forward runs of Liverpool full-backs Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne. It was Clyne that won the penalty for the opening goal, going past Memphis yet again. Liverpool were rampant. There was too much space in the channels for Liverpool to run into, they were pressing high in classic Jurgen Klopp fashion, and they should have been more than 1-0 up at the break.

In the second half, after the Carrick substitution for Rashford, United actually had more possession than Liverpool, which again is more important defensively than offensively. For 20 minutes, they outperformed Liverpool at their own ground, restricting the Reds to just two shots (both from distance) and rather than simply resisting attacks, could construct their own offensive moves.

Here again, Carrick was key, and was United’s best player on the ball. Despite coming on at the half, he attempted 41 passes (second most on the team), completing 33 of them. Liverpool’s ethos is to press from the front, and you need brave players in your back line to actually pass through Liverpool to get to the space they left behind rather than just hoofing it.

The best United sides would have used that 20 minutes of consolidation as a route back into the game, to at least get an away goal to keep the tie poised going to Old Trafford. Of course, this side is not vintage United, and they didn’t deserve a consolation on the day. Their only shot on target came in their one good spell of the game.

Nor did Van Gaal have a particularly good match. His 4-5-1 to start the game was too slow and ineffective, and his other two substitutions didn’t alter the match at all. Arguably he should have switched formation even earlier than he did, but he was firmly right on the Carrick substitution.

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