The reluctant Louis van Gaal

Published: September 1, 2014

I have utmost respect for a man of Louis van Gaal’s caliber but, at the same time, I am not afraid to say that he underestimated the toughness and the high intensity of football in England. PHOTO: REUTERS

For over two decades, Manchester United ruled over English football. We have seen them win titles with both extraordinary and, at times, the most ordinary of squads, all under Sir Alex Ferguson. But now, things at Old Trafford have changed rather dramatically.

The stories of a late Manchester United comeback and the myth of ‘Fergie time’ are all well and truly preserved in the past. The question here is what was the secret behind Manchester United’s ultimate dominance for so long? It sure had nothing to do with the transfer market; the reason, in fact, is way too simple to guess. The Manchester United of Ferguson’s era had two significant qualities. One was the ‘never give up attitude’ and the other being the ‘4-4-2’ formation.

One may contradict that Ferguson also used the ‘4-2-3-1’ in the later stages of his career, but the point here is that he made it look so simple that at times you wondered how ‘textbook’ can football really be. Manchester United supporters are going through a really tough time these days. The appointment of Louis van Gaal as the new manager of the club was meant to be a sign of good fortune for ‘The Red Devils’. But, so far this season it has been anything but that. Winless in all competitive games and knocked out of the League Cup is not the type of a start to the season a club like Manchester United is used to.

I have the utmost respect for a man of Louis van Gaal’s caliber but, at the same time, I am not afraid to say that he underestimated the toughness and the high intensity of football in England. He has every right to change the system of this football club, he is in charge of it after all. But the one thing that he may not be realising at the moment is that if he doesn’t stop making the same mistakes every game week, before he knows he will lose the confidence of the fans (or even the board). He needs to change this three-men-defence (3-5-2) formation. The defenders are caught ‘out-of-position’ more than often plus he needs to understand that forcing the players to play in their non-preferred positions won’t do the trick. Even the club legend Paul Scholes showed his concerns over this formation,

 “I understand that Van Gaal is trying to make a lot of changes very quickly, but the problem is the players don’t seem to have adapted comfortably to 3-5-2 yet.”

In the opening few games we saw him use the 3-4-1-2 formation and fail badly, especially in the game against minnow MK Dons. After the introduction of the British record breaking signing of Di María in the starting-11, this time he used the 3-1-4-2 formation and once again failed to prevail. Premier League’s great Martin Keown also felt the same as Paul Scholes,

“He’s persisting with this three at the back, and I don’t believe the players are picking it up well enough. They don’t seem to understand it.”

Moreover, Louis van Gaal is demanding too much from the wing-backs. He has asked the wing-backs to play double roles of both an attacking winger, who delivers the crosses inside the box, and then that of true right-back. Not only is this making them exhausted but also leaving the team vulnerable to counter attacks. Now Manchester United does not have players with such attributes and perhaps are also running out of time to find such perfect replacements. I believe the sooner he switches to the traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation, the better it will be for players to showcase their true abilities. With the addition of Daley Blind, the ‘2014 Dutch Footballer of the Year’, in the squad who can play as a CDM, LWB and LCB, Louis van Gaal must stop experimenting and assign permanent roles to the players before it’s too late.

The more reluctant van Gaal will be to change his tactics, the more his club will suffer through this difficult period. With the 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations, Manchester United will have most of their top players in the starting line-up, along with their favourite (preferred) playing positions. This will not only be good for the club but will also send out a strong message to the opponents who have always feared Manchester United at their brilliant best.

Hamza Babar

Hamza Babar

An electrical engineer from COMSATS, Lahore. He loves Football and has been following the game for more than a decade now. He tweets @thefutbolwizard (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Waseem Sarwar

    I am sorry but 4-4-2 is the most outdated system in footballing world right now. Even SAF struggled in his last few years, especially in Europe against pacy teams. United can’t play 4-3-3 with this midfield and defense and LVG has played his teams successfully in 3-5-2. I think problem isn’t the new system, its the players. RVP, Rooney, Mata, Di Maria won’t score much when Young, Valencia, Tom Cleverley and Anderson are providing assists. LVG is building his own team and i believe he can make top 4 with this team on the expense of Arsenal who are very average without a good striker.Recommend

  • Hamza Babar

    I absolutely respect your opinion mate. But as I have mentioned that there is no point of choosing a formation that doesn’t allow you to select most of your top players. Besides, as van Gaal demands, we don’t have the players to perfectly fit in as wing-backs.

    And we don’t want Mata & Di Maria to score, they should be providing assists instead of Young & co. Anyhow I know its still too early to say so, let wait and watch what van Gaal has installed for us (now that the transfer window is closed).Recommend

  • Faisal

    Well said blogger, i think Premier league is not a good place for 3-5-2 because of its pace. I remember Roberto Mancini starting the 12-13 season with 3-5-2, but he quickly reverted to 4-2-3-1 after several defeats, even though he had players having genuine wing back qualities like kolarov, zabalata, maicon at his disposal. 3-5-2 works well in Seria A or other slow pace leagues but not with Premier league. However 3-1-4-2 can work considering the defensive work ethic of Blind and Di Maria as CDM and RW/LW respectively.Recommend