Comment: Louis van Gaal is the man to restore style and panache at Manchester United

Manchester United trail Tottenham in the race to land the services of Louis van Gaal, but when has being behind ever stopped the three-times European champions?

The former Bayern Munich manager’s availability provides United with an opportunity to return to stylish winning ways after last week’s announcement that Guus Hiddink will replace his compatriot as Netherlands manager following this summer’s World Cup.

Van Gaal, 62, has made no secret of his desire to manage in England before he retires and he has been linked with Tottenham, although the north London club also believed they secured the signing of Willian last summer before the Brazilian forward moved to Chelsea.

Could United muscle in to claim one of the managerial greats of the modern era for themselves?

Current Old Trafford boss David Moyes, for all of his integrity and bravery under fire, simply looks out of his depth despite an impressive 1-1 draw with European champions Bayern last night.

The odd victory this season aside, Moyes was handed a near-impossible task in succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson last year though the fall from grace of a team so used to winning has been staggering.

There are few signs that Moyes has the ability or conviction to make the most of the time Ferguson asked United fans to give him.

Even if he did manage to sign some top players (with no Champions League football on offer) this summer, it is unclear how he would get the best out of them.

Despite splashing out on Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, Moyes’ United are ponderous and predictable and frankly a pale shadow of Ferguson’s teams.

Moyes’ own performances in front of the camera have not been much better – his frequent use of ‘hopefully’ shows a lack of confidence, and his throwaway comment last week that he ‘aspires’ to be like Manchester City cost him further supporter goodwill

Sentiment is needed in football – indeed, there should be more of it – but sense must prevail.

Moyes appears a man without a vision. At the club of Busby’s Babes and Holy Trinity, and Ferguson’s production line of attacking swagger, that is unacceptable.

Whereas Moyes appears torn between his own defensive instincts and United’s swashbuckling tradition, Van Gaal is a man who knows what his beliefs are and never strays from them.

In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson writes that Van Gaal’s core principles boil down to discipline, communication and team-building, qualities currently lacking at Old Trafford.

His authoritarian style of management and refusal to bow to ‘star names’ may have bred conflict in the past, but his teams have been winners, and stylish ones at that.

Van Gaal’s 1990s Ajax side reinvented Total Football for the modern era, prioritising possession of the ball and pressing opponents: they were the forerunners of today’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

If United want to compete with these teams, then they must rethink their relationship with the ball.

Ferguson’s last great United team, of 2007-08, was based on the counter-attacking menace of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, but Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes controlled the play behind them.

Since then, they have been left behind by the masters of possession.

Van Gaal stresses the importance of keeping the ball ‘in circulation’. That means controlling and retaining the ball under pressure and passing it at speed, either short or long depending on where the space is, as illustrated by this wonderful Ajax goal.

Ajax were the best team in Europe in the mid-1990s, and the dominant force of today, Bayern Munich, owe much to Van Gaal, who managed there between 2009 and 2011.

Van Gaal brought Manuel Neuer and Arjen Robben to the club, and nurtured the academy players David Alaba, Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller.

Their style – monopolising possession and pressing relentlessly – came from Van Gaal, and is further evolving under Pep Guardiola, which United somehow managed to keep at bay in last night’s Champions League quarter-final first leg.

Should United choose to entrust Van Gaal with transforming their style, it would be a risk – it would mean overhauling their current midfield and adapting to entirely new tactics.

But there would, potentially, be long-term benefits.

Van Gaal takes an active interest in youth players, building title-winning teams out of them, whereas Moyes – Adnan Januzaj aside – has appeared unwilling to take a risk on the likes of Jesse Lingard and Wilfried Zaha.

And, most significantly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of football lies with teams who play at a high tempo and make the ball their own.

Van Gaal would not be a long-term appointment, but could prepare the ground for one of his younger disciples, Guardiola, Frank de Boer or – better still – a British coach with a forward-thinking approach, to succeed him and flourish.

Last summer, United erred by choosing a trophyless Scot over Jose Mourinho. That can be put right, if they act decisively to beat Tottenham to Van Gaal’s signature.

Appointing an abrasive, totalitarian manager like Van Gaal would represent a gamble, but so too would sticking with Moyes beyond rational limits.

One will ‘keep working’ and ‘keep trying’ until his head is battered bloody against a brick wall: the other has the pedigree and vision which could take United back to the cutting edge of world football.

Main image courtesy of Hayters Teamwork via YouTube, with thanks.

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