Louis Van Gaal is the best manager United never had
In the video below, Jose Mourinho makes a basic, excellent point about Louis Van Gaal. In the same way that a player coming to the Premiership has to adapt to a different footballing experience and different demands, so Van Gaal also has to adapt to the nature of the league. In other words, it's not that he's wrong about the goals he has - it's that he's not working with the situation he has to achieve the goals he has. He's not adapting.
This has been the thing most frustrating to watch for me - somewhere in the Van Gaal experience is the germ of an excellent manager, and one beautifully fitted to Manchester United. But what has happened instead is he's been inflexibly stubborn about trying to drive a particular approach, and not adapted to English season, and the English teams. How can you tell? Reflexes. More than anything, football is a game of beautiful reflexes, combining into a greater pattern. Any individual player's skills are only a momentary link in a chain of such reflexes across the greater whole that is a team. (This was most beautifully exemplified by Barcelona over two or three seasons under Guardiola.)
Great coaches, and Van Gaal may well actually be one, know this and build accordingly. Firstly, they - through the coaches and staff - try to ensure that the players have the right reflexes both on and off the ball; that is, that they consistently find themselves in the right places, and consistently and successfully play the ball into the right spaces. Secondly, they work to ensure that the team has a pattern, not a shape - that the pattern of individual players distributed across a field ebbs and flows intelligently, forcing space to open in ways that are productively available for the team's purpose. When you watch that extraordinary Barcelona team, you see footballing intelligence at multiple levels - you see players shifting in unison, purposefully, adapting unthinkingly to changing potentials on-field, and you see the ball move seamlessly across such patterns, again with neither planning nor hesitation.
The key to all of this is an extraordinary habituation. In that Barcelona team, the sheer depth of this footballing habituation, the depth of reflexive intelligence exhibited in other words, came from a systematic immersion in such play that for many of the players began in the youth academy. Their reflexes and positional intelligence were established by the time they played for the first team. The orchestration
of these was Pep Guardiola's job, and one he did brilliantly largely because as player and coach of the youth team, these were his reflexes too. When Xavi or Iniesta turned and released a ball to a colleague, it was not that they expected that specific individual to be there, but that they had read the tempo and texture of the game at that moment
and knew "intuitively" that that area
was now available. They didn't have to know who would be there to collect, they just had to be a part of the natural flow, secure in the knowledge that their colleagues sensed the same pattern that they did, and that someone had therefore entered that space.
To make this happen, then, you need (a) the players’ reflexes tuned in that fashion, and (b) the manager's pattern-making aligned with those reflexes. For Van Gaal, Guardiola, Cruyff and managers like that, this is the goal. It's no surprise that they were all players - it is a player's view of the goal of the game.
At Manchester United, Van Gaal naturally and explicitly set about creating such an optimal combination of global and local intelligences, because as far as he was aware, that was what he was hired to do. He refers to it as his "philosophy" which the usual idiots in the media have made a mocking phrase of because “it's a lad's game, innit, and who's this git using foreign words an' all?” However, he is attempting to do so player by player, and he's doing so in a league that is faster and more physical than most if not all others. Both factors work ferociously against him and they amplify each other. This is how.
Over two seasons, Van Gaal has therefore tried to train new reflexes. When you try to do that to the first team, you're training them to second guess themselves, and the result is that they're slower. This is because such decisions are newly-learned decisions, not beautifully deep reflexes, and the result is therefore slower. There's an extra step in the rhythm - where before a senior player operated from a reflex, that same senior player is now catching himself and trying to remember what to do next. This take a few more seconds, by which time whatever opportunity existed has passed, the opposing player has closed you down, and so the only available option is to play sideways or backwards, usually under pressure. We're seeing a lot of that. When your flow as a team starts consisting mostly of this hesitation, as United's has, a number of things happen.
Firstly, you don't simply get slow. You get exceptionally slow, relative to the speed of the other team who are playing at the same pace they always did. Where a Manchester United attack once took 5 passes and 11 second, it now takes 25 passes and takes 75 seconds (25 x 3). That's an extraordinary difference in any league. In the Premiership, it's a death knell, because of the pace. The pace of play in the Premiership is different to most other top leagues. Things happen recklessly quickly. Because that is the case, converting attacking opportunities to goals in the Premiership rests on speed of reply. The patterns in a Premier league game open and close much quicker. If your attack, your rebuttal, your response, is 7 times slower than the other team's
, you're going to find it impossible to score.
Second, and more damaging, is simply that the slowness of decisions allied to the opposition speed of play - the normal hurry and recklessness of the Premiership - ensures that you'll be making more and more passes under pressure. Add to that that you’re making those passes sideways and backwards, it's obvious that you're making many more back-passes while under pressure. The nett result of that is that even if you played as well as before, the actual number of errors - back-passes that failed and gifted the opposition a goal - inevitably goes up.
So this one thing - the decision to try and forcibly re-pattern already patterned players - has immediately disadvantageous effects. You will (a) immediately
create fewer and fewer chances, and (b) immediately
concede more goals from the accumulation of errors under pressure. That's a pretty comprehensive description of Manchester United on-field in the last two seasons. In fact, if we accept that Van Gaal took months to get his regimen settled, and we accept this has been the case since Van Gaal finally did get settled, it explains why this season, his second, with players now deeply enmeshed in doubting their reflexes, was always likely to be worse than the first.
There are factors that make it worse for United though, and this brings me to the nub of what I think Van Gaal is doing poorly. Confidence
Any football team consists of people. In many cases, they are relatively young people, whose sole claim to any kind of fame is footballing prowess, and whose ability to demonstrate that prowess rests in their own confidence in their skills. When they fail publicly, the shallow foundations of their confidence are revealed, they fall apart and their performances deteriorate. Playing them as we now play invites them to be the objects of massive public ridicule. That is guaranteed to tear them to shreds. And when they seek reassurance, they're going to seek it from one of two sources: either the manager, or the club system. Both better be there for them. Communication - or "playing the man"
I don't think Van Gaal is at heart an exceptional communicator. By this, I don't mean he's bad. I think he's average, much like all of us. In a squad where he speaks poor English, and many of the players speak worse English or none at all, the nuances of everything I describe here are not likely to be communicated. He's also quite authoritarian, as we can see from his press conferences. So he almost certainly expects the players to grasp what he says and get on with it - he's actually stated that on a number of occasions.
One thing that stands out is that he talks about intelligence a lot. It's an axiom to him, perhaps an unconscious one, that if you didn't grasp what he said, you lack intelligence. Players are struggling. It's my guess that they're reading into that struggle that they don't have the required intelligence to play his way. Players are human. Those who have a weak sense of self will see their confidence collapse further. Those with a stronger sense of self will wall themselves off from him, and begin to take exception to his perceived judgement of them. In both cases, his ability to get across to them what he needs is compromised.
Communication, though, goes further than that. It's not merely linguistic, it's demonstrative and engaged and often physical. It also rests on an acute and sensitive observation of each player as a person, on an ability to sense when in a cycle someone could exceed their own abilities, and know how to trigger that. Alex had this in spades. Rio Ferdinand recently spoke about Alex's management of Ji-Sung Park, and how Park was treated to a shower of attention aimed solely at convincing him that he was world-class. Park, a squad player like so many that Alex sprinkled fairy-dust on, played as though that was true. When his average skills betrayed him, it failed. When they didn't he looked like a god. Alex Ferguson did that, by nothing more complex than playing the man, not the ball (a trait that his Celtic opposition would say he developed as a player).
Van Gaal seems to lack a specific aspect of this - not the ability to form connections, but the ability to leverage them, often ruthlessly. Training ground clips show him delighting in players’ performances, laughing, relaxed and natural. His joy in Van Persie's headed goal for Holland was unfeigned and wholehearted. That counts in his favour. But his often repeated claim that there is nothing he can do once the game has started betrays his own doubt of his powers in this area. He lacks confidence in his own charisma, in his ability to move a team to perform.
He seems a tough person to get close to - prickly with strangers and publicly reserved. You know people like this. People who doubt themselves that way, who are hard to get close to, who hold you at arm’s length and who are revealed to be warm once you get inside the defences. To a man, they all secretly believe that they don't really have the power to sway people. They lack an elementary confidence in themselves, which lack makes them paradoxically pugnacious about their own positions in public and extremely reluctant to back down from their viewpoints. People often misidentify this as arrogance, but it’s actually insecurity. These people also often default to an overriding belief in "a system", "a process" or a field of knowledge, as a way to not have to admit that it rests with them, and confront the meaning of that responsibility. This is Louis Van Gaal to a T.
Someone once said to me "beware the man who insists on converting you because he's usually trying to convince himself. There are very few people running around shouting that the sun will
come up tomorrow". In other words, we tend not to be strident about things we are sure of. When I hear Louis Van Gaal repeat that the system is paramount or that the he cannot affect the game, I hear someone retreating from a responsibility that they fear they cannot fulfill.
But players are children, many of them. They live and work in a hothouse environment, often without having developed the skills to handle the attention, the swings of fortune and the devastation of failure. When they fall, they look to a touchstone, a figure on the side-lines, vitally engaged, suffering with them and rejoicing with them during the game. When United players look to the touchline now, they see no-one. Van Gaal has to confront this fear in himself, and fast. Transition - or "the terrible unfamiliarity of everything"
Van Gaal took over at a club where the transition we're still undergoing was - and is - epochal. Alex Ferguson had been in charge for 26 years, longer than many of the players had been alive. When he retired, the board let both David Gill and Alex go together. At one blow, we lost the two critical roles in the club, and all their associated networks of contacts, resources and knowledge. Then, with the appointment of David Moyes, we lost the back-room staff whom he summarily replaced with the board's complete approval.
In one season, both the touchstone of the club and that web of daily engagement with players that is
Manchester United to each player was completely dismantled. The methods they grew up on were banished. The faces they relied on seeing, the conversations they were engaged in having, the familiarity and security they depended on, every part of it was gone. We saw the effects of this immediately. Not in the results, which could be explained away as the outcomes of multiple causes, but in the unequivocal, unilateral reaction of the senior players who all either sought other clubs or accelerated their retirement. This sweeping loss of senior players was the third great shock that swept United.
I cannot emphasise this enough: in short succession, over a period of just over a year, United lost David Gill and Alex Ferguson, then the critical training staff and confidants, then close to all the senior players. United was stripped not only of its powers but the means to channel and direct those powers. The effect of that is impossible to overstate.
Under Alex, United made many bum transfer decisions. Eric Djemba Djemba, for example, or - much as I loved him - Diego Forlan, but even those were indicative of a plan. We bought a player as much for the person, as the position. We bought for character, and the chance that he would fit in with an ethos, and because there was something in the player that Alex thought he could reach under the right circumstances. We bought Andy Cole when people thought he was washed up, and we bought Teddy Sheringham when he was supposedly tailing off, and we bought Eric Cantona when he was supposedly not capable of being managed. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was an complete unknown, bought at a time when we were supposed to be wooing Alan Shearer. Vidic was a known quantity, a “star”, but he was known only in a Russian League that no-one took seriously, and the club tracked him and wrestled with that decision for two years. Patrice Evra, a player with the club still tattooed on his heart, was a "prospect", but he was a prospect in a French League that no-one respected, especially when it came to defenders, and the charge of being a lightweight was flung at him for six months after his arrival.
In every single case, Manchester United totally ignored the noise, because there was a plan. In every single case, each was an astute buy, in cost, in character, and in longevity. We bought talent, often under the radar, who blended in and who could still develop into titans - specifically our type of titans. Then we set about cultivating it. It’s a policy that takes the long view and combines it with the club values and meaning.
And yes, we also duffed as many as we got right that way, but character, it turns out, is cheaper than reputation. Largely because of the way we selected the cost of getting it wrong wasn't that great (Veron excepted) and the benefit of success was vastly greater than could have been anticipated. It was Cole, for example, who led the lethal United attack of the '90's and Solskjaer and Sheringham who won us the treble, Vidic and Evra who made us feared and Gabriel Heinze who dragged the club on when others’ legs failed, failing only when his did.
Then, once a player arrived he was immersed in an active, established network of staff, club management and senior players, all focussed on assessing, testing, honing, cajoling - and in some cases, knocking the edges off players - solely to have them express the potential that had been identified. Dozens of experts, steeped in the club ethos eyeballed transfers, and monitored new arrivals. Conversations were had, day in and day out, where individual assessments were tested, refined and abandoned. Scouts spoke to training staff, who spoke to doctors, who spoke to Alex, who spoke to everyone from the cleaning lady to the youth team bus driver, all of which added up to a ruthlessly effective system for creating players from human beings.
Did it work? You decide. It’s a truism amongst venture capitalists that you invest in a hundred to get one or two that break out. United had had dozens. Consistently, repeatedly and successfully, and done so for decades on end.
When United allowed the cascading series of departures I described above, we literally let all the knowledge holders and almost every moving part of that system go. If we’d been a company, it would have been the equivalent of losing all our IP at one go. The staff still come to work, but no-one knows what to do. For a while it runs on inertia. Then it falls over. I am certain that Van Gaal under-estimated the impact of this, because no-one could have. Had he assessed it correctly, he might not have taken the job.
Worse, though, in a sense, was what followed: United has since prosecuted a buying policy created and driven by people without deep football experience. The result has been a mix of good football decisions - Schneiderlin, Rojo, Shaw - and PlayStation footballing decisions - Falcao, Di Maria, Depay. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the fact that Di Maria was bought. Until it came out that he never wanted to leave Real Madrid. And until it came out that he had really wanted to go to Paris Saint-Germain. And until it came out that they were were hobbled by Financial Fair Play rules and couldn’t take him for at last a year. Until it came out that he needed a bolt-hole, somewhere to wait that year out.
As a fan, we didn't know these things at the time, but I guarantee you that the club knew. Can you imagine that Alex would have sanctioned that purchase? David Gill? Paid over the odds for a player who explicitly thought that the club was a stopover on the way to a better job? Not a chance. Somewhere in the system it would have been filtered out. In the United of today, though, it wasn't. Both the Di Maria and Falcao decisions were purely business decisions. Both came on the back of board concerns that the club profile had been damaged, and both were driven by a need to impress a flurry of recent sponsors with easily recognised “names”. The result was inevitable, and the damage predictable.
Footballing men know that you don’t just buy a collection of players and throw them in a box, hoping they naturally form a team. You select well and then you ruthlessly apply your system to your selections. That system, the activities by which a prospect became a United player, was dismantled almost three years ago.
The next time you read that a club is in "transition", that's what “transition” means. What does this mean for Louis Van Gaal?
Louis Van Gaal has all the right goals. His philosophy, system or approach makes sense, both aesthetically and practically. It’s a vision worth having at United and the board knows this, because they’re considering Guardiola at the moment, and have in the past. Pep is nothing if not the exemplar of these views. Players like Xavi Hernandez have also publicly come to Van Gaal's defence. That carries a lot of weight for me. While everyone and their granny in the press has been revising their prior pronouncements, and hurrying to make it clear that they always said he peaked years ago, I tend to trust actual experts. When Xavi says Van Gaal knows what he’s doing, odds on Xavi is right.
Inside the Louis Van Gaal we see every day is a smaller, less obvious but vitally important Louis Van Gaal waving at us, one who could be brilliant for this club. He wants players to have a natural intelligence for the game, capable of letting them play across a range of positions? Me too. He wants possession to be maintained? Me too. He wants flexibility of shape and formation in real-time? Me too. He wants scintillating one-touch passing? Me too. He wants an aesthetically and structurally coherent approach to every game? Me too. He wants on-field intelligence? Me too. He wants players to be independent of management? Me too.
But our Louis Van Gaal is hamstrung by the fact that he took on the job as a three-year rejuvenation programme. The reality is, you can’t build what he’s trying to build in three years, and you can’t do it with the first team, because the first team is usually already occupied trying to win games. Manchester United is not a project – it’s a competitive institution that is engaged in contesting the Premier League. The business of training players into new systems of thought, reaction and play cannot be directly applied to the first team, at the expense of results. It’s the kind of careful building up of a system that starts with the youth team and builds over many years. It relies on structures and systems in the club that in United’s case, are shaky.
Van Gaal has not adapted to that reality, and his insistence on never backing down, a factor of his own insecurity, has made him needlessly intransigent in this regard. This club, more than any other would have opened its arms to him. Today, though, in the newspapers of record it was reported again that he’d spoken to the board and says he “does not know what to do to get United playing the way they need to”. In a sense, he’s asking them to take it away from him, to protect him from having to confront his fears.
The challenge he’s facing is a watershed one, but not for the club. It’s a watershed moment for Louis Van Gaal, because for Louis Van Gaal to succeed at Manchester United, he has to confront Louis Van Gaal and Louis Van Gaal's worst fears.
- He has to force Louis Van Gaal out of his comfort zone, one where he can walk away claiming that his system is still pristine, untrammelled by players who fail it. He must require Louis Van Gaal to work in the world.
- He has to allow others to communicate for him where he is poor. He probably needs to leverage the player network, to accept that Paul Scholes or Rio Ferdinand might better be able to talk to his players than he can and open that channel to them.
- He has to back down from trying to prove that his approach to creating a system is right, and find another way to succeed, possibly by engaging the players and soliciting their views. He might benefit from explaining the underlying meaning of what he’s trying to create, and allowing the players to find their own way to experience and embody it.
- More than anything, he needs to seek out those essential members of the United system that the board and Moyes so stupidly let go, and coax them back into some form of engagement.
- Ultimately, Louis Van Gaal has to acknowledge that Louis Van Gaal still has things to learn. Louis Van Gaal has to become open to being changed by Manchester United. It's a humbling recognition, after a high-profile career, one not aided by his having taken a three-year custodial role. Restarting your life never has a time-frame on it. You can't do it part-time.
Each of these requires Louis Van Gaal to step back from a publicly held position and admit he needs help, something that runs counter to his entire identity and that cuts to the heart of who he thinks he is. He may not be able to do this. But if he does, he will find that in past players and staff there is a fund of goodwill, built over decades, that he cannot currently imagine the scale of. Help will come flooding from all quarters. He may have to settle, as Alex Ferguson did many times, for merely incremental improvements in playing style and for merely winning the Premiership.
Because Alex Ferguson, with this same collection of players would have romped this season. That’s a fact.#ManchesterUnited