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Analyzing a season of tinkering at Man United under Van Gaal

As we draw upon the close of the Barclays Premier League season, there will probably begin a series of talks to reflect upon the performance of every team over the course of the campaign. At Old Trafford, there is a sense of optimism after a strong showing since the turn of the year but noone expected that a manager of Louis van Gaal’s stature will experience such drama in his debut season in England.

What went wrong for the Dutchman? Let’s go back to the start.

A season of tinkering at Man United under Van Gaal

Van Gaal had arrived and had promised a complete overhaul. The United faithful truly felt that they were not going to be mediocre anymore. The right transfers would be the first step for the massive rebuilding project that he had vowed to undertake.

He did make some excellent decisions by snapping up talented youngsters such as Southampton’s Luke Shaw and Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera along with World Cup stars Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind.

On the other hand, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, big money signings and world class players in their own regard, were not the most suitable options at a time when there was a more pressing need to procure a left winger and a right-back.

Everyone expected Van Gaal to go with his signature 4-3-3 formation but he instead went with the 3-5-2 tactic that had worked for him in the World Cup. Instead of a formation that had been perfected with the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he went for an unproven tactic that had only been employed due to injuries suffered by key Oranje players.

Analyzing a season of tinkering at Man United under Van Gaal

A season of tinkering at Man United under Van Gaal

Try telling Van Gaal that he had gotten it wrong, though, and you would likely get more than a boot thrown at your head.

When he did realize the tactic’s inefficacy, he began to change things constantly. Sometimes he went with a traditional 4-4-2 diamond or else he opted for an adventurous 4-3-1-2.

He even tried a tactic that I can only describe as an asymmetrical circus – Marouane Fellaini played as the most advanced player with Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney behind him, Di Maria was on the right flank and Ashley Young played as a left wingback.

Just like in the game of musical chairs, everyone took their turn at different positions and all hell broke loose.

If you thought the Dutchman’s tactics were eccentric, they paled in comparison to his team selection. Whether it be Fellaini playing as an advanced forward, Young playing in defence or Rooney playing all over the pitch from defensive midfield to attack, there was never any consistency.

As they were constantly playing in unfamiliar positions, they were unable to perform to their usual high standards and suffered a loss in confidence. Disjointed performances were thus common through the early part of the season.

To make matters worse, Van Gaal didn’t seem keen on setting too high a target.

A season of tinkering at Man United under Van Gaal

Everyone expected a winner when he walked into the United setup. A man unashamed to boast and unafraid to dream big. But Van Gaal announced from the beginning that he his only aim was Champions League qualification.

The team might not have been good enough for the title but aiming big is a basic requirement at a club as illustrious as Manchester United.

The lack of ambition on Van Gaal’s part played a part in the lackluster start to the season as the players never really felt the pressure to mount a winning run. Only when they were struggling at the end of the year did they finally get their act together and play like a true United side.

Apart from these factors, injuries to key players, Falcao’s inability to adapt to the Premier League and the lack of a backup plan whenever Michael Carrick was injured led to a roller-coaster of a season.

Thankfully, United bounced back with a couple of winning runs that included morale-boosting results against rivals such as Manchester City and Liverpool. United have achieved Van Gaal’s basic objective and there seems to be some tactical stability in recent games.

Was this a poor season? Absolutely not. Was it average? Maybe. But I would like to think that this season was more of an experiment and Van Gaal might have expected it to be that way. In the following season, there might be a greater cohesion within the team and a clear view of player roles and tactics.

At least, that is my understanding of the first step of Van Gaal’s three-year project at the club but we will have wait and see how they conclude at their end of season talk in the United boardroom.

Image Credits: Getty

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