Van Gaal sticks to his beliefs as Man United fail to win at Burnley
BURNLEY, England -- Confusion still reigns in the court of King Louis. Having gained just two Premier League points from an available nine, Louis van Gaal must face down accusations of employing system over substance. His 3-5-2 -- or more properly, his 3-4-1-2 -- at Burnley has so far lent United an image of teetering uncertainty. The day when fluency finally arrives seems distant. Three months, said van Gaal on Friday, though he has mentioned a year as a timescale for his ambitions being realised.
Are Manchester United gripped by a World Cup hangover? Van Gaal is hell-bent on repeating the tricks that took his Dutch team to third place in Brazil with a squad that currently looks entirely unsuited to such an approach. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie shuffled around each other like perfect strangers. Goalless it ended.
"At this moment, it is certainly not," van Gaal replied when asked how far off being world class his team of purportedly world-class players were. "But we have to wait and believe in it that it shall happen. You shall see."
Angel Di Maria, all 60 million pounds of him, was a shadow of the player he was in Brazil, and even more so of the virulent force who won the Champions League final's man-of-the-match award in Lisbon back in May from Sir Alex Ferguson, an interested spectator in the Bob Lord Stand on Saturday.
"It was not the world class player we have seen in Madrid," van Gaal said of the Argentinian. "You cannot expect that because he has to adapt to the English culture and his fellow players. And the fellow players have to adapt to his way of playing."
Yet even at reduced capacity, Di Maria was still United's greatest threat. Though Burnley's agile and eager midfield closed him down in numbers, there were moments when his running threatened to take the pitched battle into open territory. Two incisive passes set up chances that van Persie and Juan Mata failed to profit from. Both players' performances were hugely below his level; Rooney's was lower still.
In a squad of players struggling with the system, Rooney's instinct to track back and get involved has been neutered. He looks a reduced force as a result, though several of his colleagues might empathise.
Once Di Maria had been withdrawn for Anderson having taken a kick to the calf, creativity dried up. United piled on territorial pressure, but Burnley held them at bay with ease, while away fans suffered jangled nerves as Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, indoctrinated since childhood with playing in a flat back four, showed visible signs of their struggles with now having to be part of a three.
Both players struggle with the great distances that the new tactics place between them. Often out on the right, Evans looked a fish out of water as an auxiliary right-back, which his new role forced him to be. Ashley Young as an inverted wing-back, coming from the left on his right foot, looks yet odder.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, admitted the problems that the World Cup has caused him when explaining van Persie's visible lack of sharpness.
"When you play 60 minutes in his first game and 70 minutes in his second game, then you build up as a coach," he said. "You have to build up players in the season because of the World championship. That's also a pity, but we have to do that or otherwise he's never fit."
United's manager never mentions his own lack of a good break, a chance to generate fresh ideas and regroup. He arrived in Manchester straight from the final weekend of the World Cup, and his stubborn sticking to his Dutch masterplan is currently causing visible abrasions among a group unused to being adaptable. Daley Blind, for whom a deal is agreed with Ajax, will arrive as a player almost alone in being used to 3-5-2, or variations thereof. Currently only van Gaal appears to know why things are happening the way they are.
"He [Blind] shall come to Manchester to have his medicals, and maybe we have a new player," said van Gaal, who remains hopeful that Marcos Rojo's red-tape no-go is sorted soon. Luke Shaw's earlier arrival means that he may have three defensively adept left-sided players to call on, though van Gaal wryly suggested all can play together in the same team.
"Yes, that's very smart of the manager, I think," he said, though the self-aggrandisement stopped when he considered his team's lack of goal power.
"In the games we played earlier, we didn't give a lot of chances away, but we have to create more chances and today we have created chances to score and that is where we have failed. The progress is there, but you have to win. A club like Manchester United have to win. When you have two points [out of] nine, that is not good enough, and that is disappointing."
Progress has been as slow as United currently move the ball. Van Gaal is not for turning, however. "I have to repeat myself," said van Gaal, bemused and amused by the circular questioning of the English media. "I think everybody is tired of me."
He spoke as if realising that unless results arrive, his novelty will soon wear wafer thin.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.