Manchester United: Louis van Gaal Has Developed David Moyes’ Worst Trait

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United (R) looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on April 10, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United (R) looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on April 10, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images) /

Manchester United risk missing out on Champions League football for the second time in three years after losing to Tottenham Hotspur.

Louis van Gaal has developed David Moyes’ worst trait as Manchester United manager: playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

When the Scot was in charge of United, he infamously commented ahead of a game against Newcastle United that his team would “make it as hard for them as we possibly can.” It was not a one-off.

Moyes continually set United up to play in a conservative manner. Ironically, in one of his best games as manager – a 1-1 draw at home to Bayern Munich – he was able to get away with playing such cautious football. It made sense to sit deep and play on the counter against the Germans, but not against Newcastle or any other Premier League team.

When Van Gaal was appointed, fans rejoiced that they again had a manager who was bullish and understood the style of football United needed to play.

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Although there were glimpses of that assertiveness during the Dutchman’s first season in charge, since December 2015 Van Gaal has developed the same Moyes-like characteristic of trying to avoid defeat.

United’s 3-0 loss to Spurs on Sunday was bad enough, and yet the worst part of the game was Van Gaal’s post-match interviewHe sounded almost proud of the defeat and happy that United had been level with Spurs for an hour – something that Jamie Carragher picked up on and rightly criticised.

The former Liverpool player, in his role as a pundit on Sky Sports, explained quite simply what United’s last two managers have failed to appreciate, saying:

"“That’s what it’s come to now, where Van Gaal is actually pleased that they just gave Tottenham a game. That’s what he said: ‘Before the first goal, we’ve given them a good game’, but this is Manchester United and they’re talking about Tottenham as if they’re Real Madrid! I’d be worried listening to my manager speaking like that after a game.”"

Like Moyes’ Newcastle gaffe, Van Gaal’s post-Spurs remarks were not standalone comments. His press conferences, tactical decisions and substitutions in the last few months have screamed of a manager desperate not to lose.

Against Spurs, Van Gaal continued a trend whereby he has substituted at least one full-back in 10 of United’s last 11 matches. Although this one was enforced – Timothy Fosu-Mensah was the best player on the day before going off injured – that statistic reflects the unadventurous nature of the Dutchman’s in-game changes.

Only last week, Michael Carrick toiled against an average Everton side for an hour. He was replaced by Ander Herrera, and United immediately looked slicker and more attack-minded.

However, when the teamsheet was announced prior to the game at White Hart Lane, it came as no surprise to see Carrick in the starting XI and Herrera on the substitutes’ bench.

Van Gaal once again chose to play two defensive midfielders who have not complemented one another at all well this season in a game that United realistically needed to win to have a chance of finishing in the top four.

He also withdrew Marcus Rashford and played Ashley Young as a striker in the second half – an extraordinary decision given that Young has recently returned from a long-term injury and, more importantly, is not a striker.

In a crunch game, United ultimately registered just one shot on target. That came when Anthony Martial cut through the Spurs defence superbly, only to shoot tamely at Hugo Lloris. Unsurprisingly, Van Gaal bemoaned the Frenchman’s miss as if not scoring a wondergoal somehow cost United the match.

United are currently averaging 1.22 goals per game, which is the lowest that number has been in the Premier League era. The top three scorers – Martial, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata – have 20 goals between them. That’s fewer than Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy have scored individually.

Really, though, it’s easy to understand why United are struggling to score goals. There is no creativity or flair. Structure and rigidity has come at the cost of expressive, attacking football.

Every time United work the ball close to the penalty area, everything becomes slow and ponderous. Contrast the incisiveness of Spurs’ first and third goals to United’s general play and it’s almost like watching a different sport.

At best, Van Gaal’s football sees United edge games by a goal or two. It’s not interesting or exciting to watch, but it’s reasonably effective. In reality, all it takes is a decent performance from the opposition to expose United – and Van Gaal – as completely mediocre.

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If Moyes was seen as a ‘Fergie-lite’ appointment, Van Gaal was supposed to be a manager like Sir Alex Ferguson: bold, abrasive, unapologetic and a winner. In recent months, Van Gaal has become increasingly defeatist in his words and actions, just like Moyes.