Pressure mounts on Van Gaal to plot a clearer way forward

United fans growing frustrated at the consistent tactical chopping and changing

Manchester United’s Dutch manager Louis van Gaal:  his side face an important home clash against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP

Manchester United’s Dutch manager Louis van Gaal: his side face an important home clash against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP

 

As a boy in the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal was seduced by Tottenham Hotspur’s white shirts, by the club’s double-winning campaign of 1961 and by the twinkle-toed genius of Jimmy Greaves.

“I was a fan of Tottenham during my childhood,” Van Gaal said. “Jimmy Greaves was my idol. Those fantastic white shirts. And Jimmy Greaves ... ”

The approach from Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, came last December, after the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, and it was effectively to offer Van Gaal the manager’s job at White Hart Lane.

Van Gaal made it clear that anything would have to wait until the summer, because of his focus on the World Cup finals with Holland, but he wanted to come to England and Tottenham ticked a lot of boxes.

Then, in April, Manchester United sacked David Moyes.

At Tottenham, they had begun to fear that Van Gaal was holding out for a bigger Premier League club and they were prudent to broaden their search for a permanent successor to Tim Sherwood. They settled on Mauricio Pochettino; Van Gaal would go to Old Trafford.

“I came very close,” Van Gaal said of Tottenham. “Very close.”

It is difficult to find any Spurs supporter who is not grateful or a little bit relieved at how things worked out.

Before the league fixture between the clubs at Old Trafford tomorrow, Van Gaal’s travails are big box office, particularly in the wake of Monday night’s tame FA Cup quarter-final exit at home to Arsenal and Pochettino has emerged as his antithesis; as an uncomfortable counterpoint.

Looks dynamic

Tottenham had four of their own in the line-up for the Capital One Cup final against Chelsea, which they lost 2-0 – Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and Andros Townsend – and another starter, Danny Rose, who is a product of the Leeds United academy, has been with them since he was 17.

The fans identify with these players, especially Kane, and a bond has been built. “The connection between the team and supporters is special,” Pochettino says. “At the beginning of the season, it was different. Now it is fantastic.”

Van Gaal’s philosophy, by contrast, appears stodgy, confused and alienating. He did warn that it would take time to take hold. But, in mid-March, the process remains painfully slow, which is a neat way of summing up how his team have looked.

Van Gaal continues to give the impression he does not know his best team or best system. According to Opta, Pochettino has started with a 4-2-3-1 formation in all but two of Tottenham’s 28 league games – he went with a classic 4-4-2 in the away wins over Aston Villa and Swansea City.

The squad have become increasingly familiar with their roles and Pochettino has arrived at something approaching a regular line-up. Eight players have started in 21 or more league matches. Pochettino said, after last Saturday’s win at Queens Park Rangers, that “the most important thing I got from the team is they believe in our way”.

Van Gaal has flitted and is still flitting. He switched to 4-2-3-1 for the first time in the league for United’s last two fixtures - the wins over Sunderland and Newcastle United but, generally, he has favoured 3-4-1-2 and 3-1-4-2 (six times apiece), and 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond (nine times).

There has also been 4-1-4-1 (four times) and 4-3-3, once, in the home win over Hull City – a performance that Van Gaal rates as one of the best of the season.

What is striking about Van Gaal’s selections is that, in broad terms, he has given each system a run of consecutive games before moving on to the next one.

Most of them have not been mere flashes in the pan but there is the sense that he has not been comfortable with any and does not trust the players to play the way he wants.

In his own words, the 4-4-2 diamond formation gives him a “twitchy ass” and he seems to feel more secure with three central defenders. But for this to flourish, they have to be comfortable on the ball and creative, and his centre-halves hardly fit the description.

Van Gaal has overseen progress of sorts. It is important to remember his team sit fourth in the division. The record at Old Trafford is decent. Only three teams have scored more league goals and – thanks in part to goalkeeper, David de Gea – only Chelsea and City conceded fewer.

A mess

Van Gaal has support behind the scenes and the little touches have gone a long way. For example, players have their lunch with people from other areas of the club, such as administrative staff, to get to know them and their roles.

But what is bugging the fans is how un-United it all feels. To them, results are only part of the equation and slow, safe, sideways football – let alone lumping it long to the head or chest of Marouane Fellaini – is never going to sit well.

Van Gaal has sought to nullify the lesser teams rather than simply going for it and his comment after the home win over Leicester City was jarring. “I want the players to play forward, without risky passes,” he said.

Tottenham will travel to Old Trafford with the belief that their glass is half full. Pochettino’s season has not been without glitches and he spoke early on of a softness about the players’ mentality.

But his methods have helped point the club in the right direction. The fitness regime he has overseen has led to remarkably few injuries and enabled the squad to cope with more official games than any other Premier League club.

This is a young team that is growing and becoming harder. Pochettino has spent relatively little on transfers so there can be further satisfaction at how he has kept Tottenham on the fringes of the top four. Unlike Van Gaal, he is not expected to qualify for the Champions League. But for now United desperately need to rouse themselves. Guardian Service

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