Football Taught By… Louis van Gaal

Deep sigh. Where to begin? The Dutchman introduced the word philosophy into the British football lexicon when he was appointed Manchester United manager in May 2014.

Looking back, it was a period where United’s own philosophy emerged as crucial to its identity.

“If anybody has a track record that demands another season to sort out things, it is Van Gaal,” tactical specialist Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Guardian in March 2015. “In that regard, he created problems for himself, first by insisting it would take three weeks for his philosophy to take hold, then three months and is now asking to be judged next season.”

Wilson was writing on the eve of Manchester United’s home game with Tottenham, a match which spawned a new new tactic, a new new variation of the philosophy for the Old Trafford players to come to terms with.

Van Gaal’s inheritance following the David Moyes era was not quite a title-winning squad. Ryan Giggs retired, whilst Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra all left. Scholes had retired, Darren Fletcher was close to leaving, and that’s even before getting to the players Van Gaal was going to find trouble with from day one, such as Brazilian full-back Rafael – though the experienced Dutch coach recently rejected the notion that it was out of a rumoured dislike for Brazilians, it did seem to be out of a dislike for instinctive play.

United’s players, brought up on speed and movement, were now being asked to take a touch or two. They were asked to play in a 3-5-2 formation, which had been successful in pre-season. When it came to the real business of playing in the league, it was clear it did not work.

Between the start of the league season and the end of the transfer window, a number of new players were brought in to try and play a new system. Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Daley Blind signed and were part of a diamond shape against QPR in mid-September.

By the time United travelled to Arsenal in November, they were playing 5-3-2 again, because of a 5-3 defeat at Leicester which left the defence of Rafael, Evans (replaced by Smalling), Blackett and Rojo looking very vulnerable. The most senior of that defence was deemed the most vulnerable.

Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford in December saw them face a 3-4-1-2 shape.

This sort of chopping and changing continued until the March visit of Spurs – there was nothing that screamed beautiful football about a 4-2-3-1 which had Fellaini playing as a number ten battering ram to feed off Ashley Young’s crosses. And yet it worked, with United playing their best football of the season, winning against Spurs, Liverpool and City to qualify for the Champions League.

The next season, with new faces, saw United start in a 4-2-3-1. Jose Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea and Van Gaal claimed he had been ‘sacked by the press’ twice before Christmas – the mounting pressure never subsided.

By the time Southampton came to Manchester in January, Van Gaal had his players in a 3-5-2 with Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson playing as wing backs. United didn’t get a shot on target and the Saints won 1-0.

With a growing injury crisis, Van Gaal reverted to a 4-2-3-1, and it breathed new life into the season as Marcus Rashford emerged as a real talent. Galvanised by the energy of youth, United made it all the way to the FA Cup Final.

It was won by a Jesse Lingard goal – but failure to reach the Champions League was a sackable offence in the eyes of Ed Woodward, who didn’t even wait until Van Gaal had picked up the trophy before allowing the news to be leaked by Jorge Mendes, who was announcing to the press that his client, Jose Mourinho, would be the replacement.

Van Gaal was likeable to many. He had a great character and spoke with disdain and condescension to the press, which made for many humorous moments for supporters. You could say many players lacked the technical capability to put Van Gaal’s plan to successful effect but the slowness of the play was too contradictory to the club’s tradition.

The manager invested faith in young players, but this was not a particularly strong period for development. Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair played much of the first season in the crucial central defence areas, and at the age of 27, Blackett is now playing for FC Cincinnati, while McNair, at 26, has found a home at Middlesbrough since 2018.

Marcus Rashford was not an obvious choice for promotion but a crisis saw him given a chance he seized, after which point he has never looked back.

A commitment to youth was commendable but the club’s other core principles are to play attractive football and to win. United were doing neither, and the truth was that Van Gaal could well have been dismissed six months earlier, but Ed Woodward waited until the clause kicked in which made compensation much cheaper after failure to qualify for the Champions League.

It left many wondering if the FA Cup was worth six months of stagnation – but looking back, it probably was.

The Players / Transition

Van Gaal’s tenure saw the biggest amount of transition, from which the club are only just recovering over five years later.

Not all of this was down to the manager, as many of the senior players had decided to move on before his appointment. One could argue that this was in fact a chance missed – with so many of them moving of their own accord, no manager could claim to have handled that part of the regeneration, and so the control that could have come with that status was never earned by any single man.

The idea of who exactly had control was floated by Van Gaal himself some years later, as he claimed his list of transfer targets was not always approved.

“I met with them in Brussels – clubs often organise talks in foreign cities so the media can’t track them down easily,” Van Gaal told Four Four Two. “The Glazers and Ed Woodward were there – they asked me about everything, including my vision and how I would want to organise things, and said they would meet my needs for new players. I inherited an old team that hadn’t been refreshed for some time, and wanted to rejuvenate the squad with players who would bring the same kind of quality. But to get the ones I wanted proved very difficult.”

Van Gaal claimed his wish list included the names of Hummels, Ramos, Mahrez, Kante, Muller and Mane. United instead signed Di Maria, Darmian, Depay, Schneiderlin, Rojo et al. He signed 12 major players for the first team squad, while 19 left. All of that in the space of two years.

There was never a point that lasted more than five matches where you could be sure of the first choice team or the first choice shape. By May 2016, United were in as much disarray as they had been for generations.


First team

De Gea
Jones, Smalling, Blackett
Lingard, Fletcher, Herrera, Young
Rooney Hernandez

Subs : Januzaj, Nani, Fellaini

Last team

De Gea
Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Rojo
Mata, Fellaini, Rooney, Martial

Subs : Darmian, Young, Lingard

The Tactics

As outlined above, it was a difficult time in this regard. Van Gaal clearly favoured a three-man defence, though he seemed to repeatedly appreciate that his players did not. Back and forth we went with unsuccessful trials, with Van Gaal’s greatest successes coming in systems with four man defences.

In terms of the quality of football, well, only Jose Mourinho and Dave Sexton could stake a claim for the dubious honour of the wooden spoon. But Sexton inherited a thrilling side, and at least Van Gaal had a period where the vibrancy of youth instigated a backs-to-the-wall buzz for a moment.

The truth is, in this writer’s opinion, that from 2014 to 2018 the football was the worst ever seen at Old Trafford, and while you’d be splitting hairs deciding which two year period was worse, the toxicity of the Mourinho reign and the lack of apologetic nature of the latter reign – by which, it means the way Mourinho never cared what anyone thought of the style so long as he won – tips it over the edge.

Van Gaal at least tried different things. In some respects you might say his two year spell was the most fascinating, when it comes to observing different tactics, in the entire history of the club.

He tried to do something different and experimented with three-man defences, diamond midfields, false-striker battering rams and more.

He spoke about philosophy and technical ability but his defenders at Ajax were Danny Blind and Frank de Boer and his midfielders were Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Ronald de Boer. Maybe it would have been different if he had concentrated on younger players rather than expensive, ill-fitting imports. The first pre-season he had was spectacular as players seemed responsive.

But from day one, when the real action got going, every time the manager attempted some new tactical plan, it worked only temporarily if at all.

It was the most tactically diverse period in the club’s history, and yet it only went to prove that United’s own insular tradition of wide players and instinctive style is more important than many accredited.

Van Gaal’s regimented, dictatorial style also alienated members of the squad, severing the link between the past – Ferguson’s era – and the present for good.

Most memorable game

There were a few, even if the football never quite took off in terms of quality. If you win an FA Cup Final, then you haven’t ended your time at the club completely barren, and it should be remembered that Van Gaal won all of his league games against Liverpool and also won important away games at Arsenal and Manchester City.

So it really is a matter of taste, though it has to be said the 2-1 win at Anfield in March 2015 probably edges most out of it. Juan Mata scored twice, one a fantastic bicycle kick, and Steven Gerrard – who had recently announced his intention to move to MLS – was sent off seconds after coming on as a substitute. In the last minute, Wayne Rooney missed a penalty, but United saw out the game to win and get closer to their objective of qualifying for the Champions League.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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