Louis van Gaal Got It Wrong Against Argentina : Next Up, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, and Arsenal
The first press conference is done, and the new Manchester United manager came away from it with the image he's projected for some time still intact. Confident to the point of arrogance, with a whiff of humour in his deliberate delivery of replies in his non-native English, there were collective sighs of relief from journalists when he took his leave, as if somehow they'd escaped a mauling.
It's a projection van Gaal has cultivated as he has moved through the various European managerial positions with clubs, and has since underlined with displays in the recent World Cup, which at one point, had people extolling his gift for intuition/foresight/tactical genius as worthy of fame usually reserved for psychic octopodes in regards to predicting outcomes! Which is all very nice, perhaps even accurate, save for the fact that, when it came down to it against Argentina, van Gaal got it completely and utterly wrong.
I watched the game in an Australian themed bar in Leiden, The Netherlands, where only a few days earlier the locals and expats who frequent said bar watched the Dutch play one of the games of the tournament against the Aussies, after having also enjoyed the annihilation of Spain in the same venue in the days preceding the Socceroos match. Optimism was high, not least because the Argentinians had so far shown little or nothing in the way of looking like a threat to a side which had hammered Spain so emphatically. However, from the start it was easy to see what the plan was, and it was a simple, one dimensional one: stop Lionel Messi!
Now some would say as tactics go, that's not a bad place to start. The man has more personal awards than you can shake a stick at and commands a certain degree of attention and respect, but in truth he had, and continued to have by his standards, a bland competition. There were goals, against lesser teams, but this was an Argentina side who were scoreless against Iran after 90 minutes. If the Dutch had attacked, and shown faith in their own ability, the ignominy of a defeat via a penalty shootout could easily have been avoided. Instead, the game was dour, and the Dutch got what they deserved for their own negativity.
So, transpose this to the Premier League. For all of van Gaal's talk of winning is the only objective, the reality is Manchester United finished 22 points behind the eventual winners Manchester City. That's some serious surmounting to achieve. In fact, they finished 15 points outside a Champions League position which suggests a gulf far larger than there ever was between Argentina and Holland. If van Gaal adopts a similar strategy against Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal, he may find himself 2 or 3 nil down before he knows what's hit him. Arsenal tried something similar in their away games to catastrophic results while having at the time the best defense in the league at their disposal.
The fixtures have been kind in that, not until October 26 will United face a team from last year's top 4, which will see Chelsea pitted against the Red Devils at Old Trafford. By then van Gaal will have had time to settle in, examine his team, and work out where to go from there. The league is never won in the first 9 weeks, but it can certainly be lost by then. For all the United fans out there the requirement to hit the ground running at the start of the season must be paramount, because while many seem to have ignored the tactical failures of their new manager in the World Cup Semi Final, those failings do not go away through selective cognitive dissonance.
The Premier League is a volatile arena where perceived auras and mantles can be shredded in a few swift minutes. Vulnerabilities are quickly found out, exposed, and exploited. While van Gaal has a right due to previous successes in club football to adopt his of superiority he might be wise to take some of his cautious tactics from the football field to the interview chair. If his facade is found to have cracks, people like Jose Mourinho will take him apart with mind games off the pitch, and then proceed to do the same on it. Add to that the British media, who love nothing better than to slaughter anyone they can lay their hands on, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that United could be staring at another massive severance package, scratching their heads, and wondering what more could go wrong.
David Moyes must be sat on a beach somewhere thinking, "Good luck Louis! You'll need it"
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