Sorry Louis, but Manchester United lack required brain power
Perversely, there was something immensely entertaining about watching Louis van Gaal bow his head in disbelief as his back three failed another audition to play the intelligent, cultured, nuanced defenders favoured on the continent. The Manchester United manager deserves full marks for optimism. When he occasionally glances up at the Hammer House of Horror being staged in his own penalty box, he visualizes the kind of cool defending championed at the academies of Ajax and Barcelona.
Everyone else sees Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber.
But van Gaal still believes. The man who made magicians at Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona and incubated the next generation of trophy-winning managers remains convinced that United are just a 3-5-2 tinker and a mindset adjustment away from producing the kind of magic that is usually accompanied by Freddie Mercury on the highlights packages. He isn’t a fool, quite the opposite in fact, he just isn’t from round these parts.
When contemplating the Dutchman’s coaching principles and the dedication and application of his former students, it’s hard not to picture a younger van Gaal standing on a Barcelona classroom desk and encouraging prepubescent versions of José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Luís Enrique, Phillip Cocu, Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer to join him; imploring them to seize the day, fashion radical formation templates and spread the gospel of attacking football (Mourinho often played truant.)
Meanwhile, out on some corner of a field that is forever England, a gaggle of young natives with more muscles than Schwarzenegger on a steroid binge are being implored to get stuck in, run faster and further and display the physical grace and mobility of a cannon.
Football culture shock — Welcome to England
Van Gaal’s coaching sessions at his biggest clubs – Ajax, Bayern and Barcelona – evoke inspirational images of Dead Poet’s Society. Watching English kids train is like sitting through the outtakes of The Expendables. They are only one hoofed clearance and a late tackle away from their portly coach screaming: “Take these mothers out!”
These schools of thought are incompatible and potentially toxic to the other. To say there are similarities in the sense that they are both colourful and played on the same canvas is like saying there are similarities between paintings by Picasso and a chimpanzee using the stick he ordinarily uses to dig out insects. These worlds should not collide. Pep Guardiola took one look at the ramshackle, rambunctious nature of the English Premier League – and that’s just in the boardroom – and opted for the comparative sanctuary of the Bundesliga instead.
But van Gaal thought he knew better. His ego had no limits. He switched goalkeepers for World Cup penalty shootouts. He bucked trends for fun. In football terms, he turned water into wine wherever he went. He could turn mad Devils and Englishmen into deep thinkers. He declared as much in his programme notes before the United-Swansea cock-up. “I always train in the brains and not in the legs,” he wrote.
The Dutchman needs more than a couple of new signings. He needs a sedative. If he watches England’s three performances at the World Cup, he might require a lie down in a darkened room. The Three Lions’ stultifying games in Brazil were hardly a DVD box set of Sherlock. Reasoning, insight and tactical adaptability are not qualities typically associated with the English game. A gathering of English players rarely resemble a Benedict Cumberbatch XI, with a profound football intelligence permeating the team from front to back. If anything, United’s defence against Swansea bore closer resemblance to Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s drippy landlady, aimlessly wandering around and not entirely sure where they are or what they’re supposed to be doing.
And through it all, van Gaal’s genuine puzzlement was a picture. As Swansea tore through United’s back three with the ease of a toddler ripping open a birthday present, the Dutchman might have privately recognized that his reach had exceeded his grasp on this one. For years, he was the Nostradamus of nascent talent. He had handed debuts to Clarence Seedorf, David Alaba and Thomas Müller before they had cats’ whiskers on their chins. He knew you could win anything with kids, the right kids. But he might be asking too much in trying to turn a Premier League team, with many English players, into an intelligent force of free thinkers.
A defence that's all lost at sea
As United failed to mind the gaps between the back three and the wingbacks against Swansea, van Gaal turned from coaching oracle to wheezing PE teacher, desperately shouting at his under-eights not to all chase the ball like bees around a honey pot. He struggled to understand why United’s experienced Premier League performers didn’t react instinctively to obvious dangers. Ashley Young didn’t retreat when required. Tyler Blackett didn’t display the maturity and tactical insight of other kids that van Gaal had promoted in the past. Even Juan Mata failed to find the assured, creative spark usually associated with his countrymen.
And Phil Jones and Chris Smalling showed all the balance and clear-eyed vision of a kid blind-folded and spun around before a game of blind man’s bluff. They lost Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wilfried Bony, conceded space to Swansea and lacked concentration; football fundamentals that van Gaal probably expected to be as natural and instinctive as putting one foot in front of the other (in fairness, there were times last season when Smalling and Jones struggled with walking.)
Van Gaal seeks to mold a responsibility-taking mindset that couldn’t be any more alien if it burst through Wayne Rooney’s stomach in the Carrington canteen. He demands brains, but finds himself in a brawny culture where sleeves are rolled up to display spirit and character in an insecure environment where anti-intellectualism still largely rules. Put simply, he’s up against generations of touchline terriers masquerading as youth coaches and screaming at brittle boys to “get rid”.
The United coach remains adamant that he can turn committed, industrious, physical artisans into intelligent, flexible, refined and finessed footballers; elegant creatures worthy of Old Trafford’s catwalk. Van Gaal’s intentions are honourable. But his mentoring skills might have been better served on American’s Next Top Model.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.