Three lessons Man United and Louis van Gaal have learnt this season
Dipak Patel takes a look at the lessons we have learnt from Man United's start to the season
Fans believe in Van Gaal despite his underwhelming start
Manchester United have played 11 games this season, winning only four. If you consider the kind run of fixtures they have been given, then 16 points is a very poor return. In fact, if you compare Louis van Gaal to his predecessor David Moyes, the stats paint a very interesting picture. After 10 games, Moyes had 17 points, Van Gaal has only 13. Moyes had five wins to Van Gaal’s three. So you start to wonder, why have fans been patient with Van Gaal and not Moyes? The answer is pretty simple and it is something that every sports journalist would have heard in every interview this season – philosophy. But what exactly is Van Gaal’s supposed philosophy? He came to the club with a very defined one based around possession football. So having tactically astute players was always a priority, someone that could control the midfield and fill in a variety of different positions. Another trademark of a Van Gaal side would be the centre-halves splitting to offer an option to the goalkeeper, who would be encouraged to pass the ball short rather than kick the ball long. We have seen evidence of that this season and even though the progression has been slow, there is a clear plan. The criticism of Moyes was often that he looked lost, that he was a pragmatic manager rather than a risk taker. The opposite can be said of Van Gaal. When United went a man down in the recent derby against Manchester City, the manager immediately called over Wayne Rooney to relay instructions and the formation was tinkered with. Formation is another thing we have seen Van Gaal experiment with rather than sticking to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 that Moyes often did. Van Gaal has tried a 3-5-2, 4-4-2 with a diamond and now he has settled on his favoured 4-3-3 formation that we have seen in recent weeks.
Di-Maria is an inconsistent winger, but a top-class midfielder
Van Gaal constantly changing his tactics has come at a price, though. We have seen a different Angel Di Maria in the last few games and that is because Van Gaal has switched to a 4-3-3. We know from his days at Benfica and Real Madrid that he can play out wide. But his performances there have been littered with inconsistencies. We have seen examples of this in the last few weeks as he has had little influence in games against Crystal Palace, City and Chelsea. This contrasts to the beginning of the season where he registered three goals and four assists in six matches. This was mainly down to the position he played which was in central midfield. Carlo Ancelotti found out last season that the best way to utilise Di Maria’s talents fully was to play him in midfield. This allowed him to have a free role and link the defence to the attack. It was something that Van Gaal did early on as United played with a diamond. Di Maria flourished as he was able to roam around having no fixed position. He was also given defensive protection, with Daley Blind covering the areas he vacated. In recent games, we have seen Di Maria isolated out on the wing. The opposing wingers have often doubled up with the full-back to nullify his threat. Former United player Gary Neville recently said about Di Maria that he “looked lost” in a wide position. Van Gaal will have to find a way of accommodating the Argentinian if he is to get the best out of him for the coming games.
That United are a better side when Rooney plays
Wayne Rooney’s red card against West Ham saw him miss three consecutive matches and allowed Juan Mata to come in. Many fans had wanted to see this with Mata being a more natural fit for the number 10 position. But he failed to really impose himself on any game and it often seemed to pass him by. It is still up for debate as to whether Rooney is better as a number 10 or a number 9, but was is not in question is his influence on United. He has scored three goals and created 11 chances in just eight appearances this season. Van Gaal knows the importance of Rooney and recently said that his captain had “more privileges” and would always play if he was fit.