The perils of LVG's Man United system

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Van Gaal salutes United fans with his big red tactics book.

The ‘death of tiki-taka’, as some dubbed the end of Spain and Barcelona’s dominance, was an excruciatingly painful and drawn-out affair. It suffered a demise attributed to a persistent and relentless assault on its limitations, not unlike the approach itself.

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Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan struck the first blow in 2010, beating Barcelona exclusively on the counter-attack in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Other sides began adopting similar measures and reaped the rewards, gradually exposing flaws in the system.

Jupp Heynckes’ all-conquering Bayern Munich side put the Catalans to the sword, demolishing them 7-0 over two legs in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals. The final nail in the coffin however was Netherlands’ 5-1 humbling of Spain at the 2014 World Cup – a ruthless onslaught masterminded by an advocate of possession football and a former Barcelona manager, Louis Van Gaal.

While the Dutch performed admirably to finish third in the competition ahead of far more illustrious sides by playing direct counter-attacking football, it’s not the kind of style Van Gaal would normally associate himself with.

Ideally, his philosophy centres around ‘control’ and the inescapable truth is that it invariably goes hand in hand with possession. Now as manager of Manchester United, Van Gaal has once again begun to mould a team in his image.

He believes he has a responsibility to share his knowledge and in what is likely to be the final job of his distinguished career, he’s determined to leave his mark on United by presenting the club with the gift of a philosophy he so ardently stands by.

As United faltered and stuttered along nervously at the start of the season, it would’ve been inconceivable then that only a few months later, the same side would go on to win convincingly at Anfield before enjoying a comprehensive Manchester derby win.

It took time and wasn’t an easy transition, one that’s still incomplete in many ways, but United have recorded an average possession of 60.97% this season, the highest in the Premier League and their best since Opta first recorded the data in 2005.

They recently dominated at Stamford Bridge against the champions elect with 71% of possession, a clear indication of Van Gaal’s influence. Mourinho even chose to show United the same respect he would a Barcelona side in the Pep Guardiola era, setting up his troops to defend deep and break quickly on the counter-attack.

The bottom line however, is that Chelsea’s ploy worked and they emerged 1-0 winners. What’s worse is that United followed up that result with a toothless performance at Goodison Park where they were swept aside as Everton scored three without reply.

The Red Devils now face a very real threat of seeing their progress over the last couple of months disintegrate along with their grasp on fourth place if the situation isn’t addressed. Now that they’ve established themselves as a possession-based side, more teams will adopt reactive tactics to thwart them.

The good news for the Old Trafford faithful is that their side is led by a manager who isn’t averse to altering his system. Indeed, for the first half of the season, his constant tinkering was a source of much frustration among the United supporters. However, now that his philosophy has been largely implemented and the team is more settled, adjustments can be made.

The overall theme will remain the same; control, discipline and fluidity will take precedence but Van Gaal can be assured enough of the foundation he’s laid down to make changes to account for any shortcomings.

Van Gaal and his United coaching staff.

The Dutch tactician has always been somewhere between a purist and a pragmatist. Moreover, he doesn’t see the marriage of the two extremities as a compromise of either one but crucially as the price of finding the right balance for a particular team under specific circumstances.

His utilisation of Marouane Fellaini this season speaks volumes of his willingness to incorporate strategic modifications so long as they prove effective.

From a defensive aspect, the solution to United’s current predicament may be as simple as ensuring that both full-backs aren’t too far forward at the same time or the employment of Angel Di Maria’s pace and work-rate in central midfield ahead of Fellaini’s muscle. On the other hand, it may be far more complex but Van Gaal’s knowledge and flexible approach should facilitate answers.

Going forward, it’s plain to see that they lacked penetration with their runs as well as passing. In Di Maria, United have a world-class direct runner at their disposal but the Argentine’s form has been woeful of late.

Meanwhile, the last two games have highlighted just how integral Michael Carrick is to the team. Towards the end of Paul Scholes’ illustrious career, he gracefully picked up the baton and assumed the role of midfield general and in the current philosophy especially, he is essential to the set-up.

The lack of penetrative passes through the middle in Carrick’s absence is a cause for concern as is the fact that United have won only 37.5% of their games without him this season as opposed to 72.2% with him.

It is not just the control and composure, but it is his (Carrick’s) forward passes, he just moves the ball forward into good areas quickly.” – Gary Neville

Ultimately, the real test of United’s potential to challenge for honours next season begins now as teams have recognised their threat and begun to show them more respect. Breaking down oppositions will require more guile and guarding against the counter-attack more alertness and understanding.

Whether or not they’re capable of evolving further in order to cope is up for debate but Van Gaal has been crafty enough to get them this far so there’s no reason why his philosophy should suddenly fail them at this juncture.

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