Louis Van Gaal’s side are the sum of their improved parts
‘Philosophy’ has been the most annoying buzz-word of the season. Used in relation to Louis Van Gaal, it has become a non-specific way of explaining Manchester United’s haphazard performance level without ever having to actually explain it.
It’s tired. Few seem to properly understand what the Dutchman’s methods consist of yet, time-and-again, there’s that word again: Philosophy.
On Sunday, United produced one of their finest performances of the season, beating local rivals Manchester City 4-2 at Old Trafford. The result was great, but the sense of progression was better. There was a cohesive feel to the home team and while the fragility of their back-line was never far from the surface, they attacked with a swaggering class which was far too rich for their opponents.
The reaction will be predictable. This, inevitably, will be pronounced as a D-Day for Van Gaal; the doubts have been vanquished, success is now inevitable, and all the early-season hand-wringing will be mocked for the folly that it so obviously was.
The philosophy is now in place, whatever that means.
Melodrama aside, this was an excellent display and it was the third win in a sequence which has been very impressive. United were good against Tottenham, better at Liverpool, and best at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal is due plenty of credit, for certain, but the great obsession over his general ideology is coming at a cost. Manchester United are playing fluid, ambitious football and they are clearly better organised that at any other point of 2014/15, but they have also improved on an individual basis and perhaps that’s in danger of being lost to the bluster.
Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia; four players whose careers had, to different degrees, stalled at Old Trafford, yet four players who have each been integral to this mini-renaissance.
Van Gaal has been successful in other areas, too, and clearly Michael Carrick’s return to the side and Ander Herrera’s permanent involvement are also pertinent, but the improvement in those four aforementioned players warrants special praise.
Juan Mata’s influence is the most obvious. Van Gaal has slotted him into a dexterous attacking unit and, from the right-hand side, the Spaniard has had a pronounced impact. The accepted wisdom was that the he needed to start centrally to have consistent influence, but his current right-sided role contradicts that. Across this three-game stretch, his performances haven’t been characterised by intricate passing or creativity, but by well-timed, precise runs into the penalty-box and off-the-ball movement. His play may still be laced with that familiar technical quality, but there’s now an added touch of dynamism to his game..
Fellaini, too, has rightly been lauded. Latterly – and appropriately – acclaimed to be ‘undroppable’, the Belgian has become an essential part of what United do in their opponent’s half. While it’s assumed that he has simply found his feet at Old Trafford and that, prior to now, he has simply been suffering through an adjustment period, such an assessment is probably reductive – this is actually an evolved player.
There are still hints of his Everton self to his game, but Fellaini now appears to be a broader talent. He still does the same things well – he’s physically abrasive and an obvious asset in both penalty-boxes – but there’s now an additional dimension to his play. Once seen as merely a symptom of unimaginative football, Fellaini is maturing into much more than just a focal point for direct play. Like Mata, his movement has greatly improved and, rather than simply out-muscling defenders, he’s starting to out-think them, too, and the positions he takes up within the final-third frequently exploit vulnerable space rather than just his size advantage.
Perhaps the mark of his development is his literal change, though. His bursting run through the Tottenham defence was so out-of-character as to demand a double-take, and his economic use of possession throughout this weekend’s game was at odds with his associated clumsiness.
Ashley Young is, for all intents and purposes, still just Ashley Young – but a better, more reliable version. Post-derby, Van Gaal identified the winger as his Man of the Match and complimented him for doing his job.
Young isn’t the attacking force that he once was at Aston Villa, but he’s become a player of exemplary discipline. He still employs the same cut-back-and-cross method that he has throughout his career but, with better execution and Fellaini’s presence and improvement, his has become a more high-percentage contribution.
Of all the players at Manchester United, Young is the one whose return to prominence is most surprising. The player himself is owed a healthy slice of recognition, of course, but Van Gaal and his coaching staff have coaxed a previously regressing talent back to form. The twenty-nine year-old has clearly endeared himself to his manager by virtue of his ability to follow tactical instruction, but he’s fulfilling more than just a mechanical purpose and his play has that long-lost menace which has been a hazy memory for far too long.
And Antonio Valencia.
The Ecuadorian’s transformation from emergency right-back to regular incumbent has been another shock. Some of the issues in the attacking part of his game persist, but his maturing defensive contribution is now his principal trait. Valencia has always been a fantastic athlete, a prerequisite for a contemporary full-back, but his recognition of the play and awareness without the ball have improved almost immeasurably over the past few months.
Again, those aren’t attributes which just grow organically, they are a response to coaching.
The problem, sometimes, with big-name managers is that the weight of their personalities and reputations obscure the smaller details. Whether it’s Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho or, in this case, Louis Van Gaal, the temptation is always to look only at the bigger picture or the overall ideological identity.
Yes, Manchester United are a better collective unit and, yes, their structure is starting to conform to a particular style of play, but they are still defined by their individual components and the work which has obviously gone in to adapting them around this new, improved purpose.