The biggest challenge facing the manger after Sir Alex Ferguson was whether he would keep United playing the Fergie way or try to assimilate his methods into the Sir Alex model. Either way, the decision would have to be a tough one because Sir Alex's football had kept Manchester United at the summit of English football and so there would be little sense in altering it.
Perhaps the biggest mistake David Moyes made during his time at United was to try to do both. The Scot sought to assimilate his methods into the Sir Alex model while trying to keep what was working under Sir Alex in motion. As such, he often found himself where he was at logger heads with the senior players in terms of telling them what to do or reminding them of what they are used to doing under Sir Alex. In the end, the Scot only succeeded in creating a double-edged sword for himself, the very sword he fell on 9 months into the job.
In came Louis van Gaal, a single-minded Dutch tactician who has gained a reputation of saying he is right, getting about to working on it, and in the end proving that he was right afterall. If United were looking for a manager who would take on the shadow that Sir Alex and indeed his stand casts upon Old Trafford, the PE teacher turned 'trainer coach' was their guy.
Coming from a similar generation of coaches as the Great Scot and boasting a CV that would rival any manager in world football, Luois van Gaal was hardly awed by the task at hand. In fact, he sought to use his appointment to taunt a few names, not least Jose Mourinho because his CV now read calls from Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Therein that taunt perhaps lay a shrug of appreciation of the job he had just entered into. Not unlike a surgeon about to partake major surgery on a client, van Gaal probably thought to himself that the job was a steep one, but was not beyond his tried and tested skills of management. van Gaal would attempt to do the one thing that everybody thought didn't need changing at United after Sir Alex, the football.
There was talk at the height of Manchester United's unconvincing start to the season that the players were getting bored with the ''repeat! repeat!'' training sessions. When van Gaal laid out his plans to the players, it was all about repeating the same drills, same style, same instructions over and over again. Rehearsing is a means of storage of information in the long-term memory. It falls just in sync with the summary of the Dutch trainer's philosophy: Unable and Unconscious, Able and Conscious, Able and Unconscious.
In repeating training drills of his style of play, van Gaal aimed to achieve a style of play that was embedded in the minds of the players so much so that the game was played in the mind. It's why he repeatedly referred to coaching methods as 'coaching the mind' back in pre-season.
In the last few fixtures, the fruits of his much claimed philosophy have come to the fore. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher emphasised the details of this yesterday. United have adopted a narrow packed system when they do not have the ball. The defenders have been asked to push up so high up the pitch that at kick off in the Manchester derby on Sunday, there were no more than 25 yards between Chris Smalling at centre-back and Wayne Rooney. As such United have added a high pressing game to their play that effectively denies the opposition of peace on the ball. It is not to dissimilar to the compact nature of Barcelona's style of play when the Catalans lose possession. Jamie Carragher noted the 25 yard distance between the entire Barcelona team in the recent El Cassico. van Gaal did the ground-breaking of that philosophy at Barcelona and so it was easy to see where he was going with this Manchester United side.
Secondly, it was interesting watching Wayne Rooney record his lowest number of touches in a game (35) ever for Manchester United. Neville rightfully pointed out that the Wayne we have come to know is one that will not allow himself to be starved of the ball even if it means dropping as deep as the defence to get involved. What Louis van Gaal has successfully done is to keep Wayne in between the two central defenders of the opponents and in effect, deny the opposing full-backs help from their centre backs. It is such a discipline-demanding job that you wonder how LVG managed to get the all-action Wayne Rooney to tuck in and sit tight while all the action was going on around him. The reward has been to afford Ashley Young, Marouanne Fellaini 2 or 3 v 1 situations down that left hand side or leave Juan Mata free of central attention on the right hand side to race onto through balls unattended to. Guessing LVG's thoughts post-match, he probably must have had Wayne Rooney up for his best game of the season despite having the fewest touches in a game in recent memory.
Questions remain abound as to whether the players in the first team are currently the best at executing those instructions or whether the system would still rip most sides apart regardless of what they do For now though, the credit has to rest with the Dutchman for successfully changing the Sir Alex model of playing football at United and being successful at it, all in his debut season.
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