Van Gaal’s revolution at Manchester United slowly taking hold despite injuries

Dutchman has been exceptionally unfortunate with 43 injuries since taking over at Old Trafford, writes Jonathan Wilson

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, right, looks on prior to the English Premier League match against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on November 8, 2014, in Manchester, England. Clive Rose / Getty Images
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On Monday, after the 2-1 away win at Southampton, there was for the first time since he took the Manchester United job, a sign of the temper for which Louis van Gaal is notorious.

He snapped at a couple of questions in the post-match news conference and was clearly annoyed that Gary Neville had described his former club as “a pub team” during his television analysis.

That he was so irritable seemed instructive. This, after all, was United's fifth win in a row. They are third in the table and there are some who would suggest they are in the title race – although it would take a bizarre turnaround if they were to close the eight-point gap to the leaders Chelsea, even if they do not have European commitments to distract them.

But on the face of it, things are starting to go right for Van Gaal.

The problem is – and this is probably why Neville’s comment stung so much – that United were awful on Monday.

Their passing was sloppy, they were left defending desperately and they only managed three shots in the whole game – fewer than in any game since Opta began collecting such statistics in 2003.

It was a game won by the goalkeeping of David de Gea and the finishing of Robin van Persie. Van Gaal himself said afterwards that only three players had come up to scratch.

That won’t be good enough when Liverpool visit Old Trafford on Sunday.

What is troubling is that, despite the run of results, there is little sign of cohesive team play, or Van Gaal's philosophy being instilled. The pattern at previous clubs has been of a slow start followed by an improvement as players adapted to his methods, but there have been only glimpses of that so far.

At the moment, what is winning games seems to be Van Gaal’s personality as much as anything else – his astonishing will bending games to meet his wishes.

The mitigation is the injuries. When Chris Smalling limped out of the first half on Monday, it was the 43rd injury United have suffered since Van Gaal took charge.

Some have suggested his training methods are to blame, but there has been no similar gut of injuries at previous clubs he has managed. Maybe his training does not help, but fundamentaly Van Gaal has been exceptionally unfortunate.

Given the absentees, it is hardly surprising he has not yet found a preferred line-up or system – but then it may be that that does not bother him especially.

It is a very English mentality that demands a side should essentially play the same way every week; Van Gaal may be quite happy to switch between a back three and a back four, while his use of Angel Di Maria – injured for Sunday’s game against Liverpool – in certain away matches suggests he could be used as Arjen Robben was during the World Cup, as a sort of central winger, his pace leading the counter.

There are reasons why adaptation is taking longer than might have been hoped, but on Monday even Van Gaal seemed frustrated by how long it was taking. Results are good, but he needs performances to match them.

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