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.