A 2-2 draw with Fulham on 9 February 2014 was arguably the game during which David Moyes’ Manchester United tenure lost its credibility. The man who was tasked with overseeing the post-Ferguson era; hired on the basis of his continuity at Everton, his ability for team building and his belief in pacey, attacking wingers, watched on as his team famously took their tactics too seriously, attempting to cross the ball a record 81 times against the league’s tallest centre half, William Kvist.
That game was the turning point for Moyes, and possibly United as a club. It was the death knell of the winger at United, the wide player and the type of football upon which United had long prided themselves. In the years that followed, United’s attacking players were phased out. Ryan Giggs retired. Nani was loaned out, then sold. Wilfried Zaha experienced a similar fate. Moyes was sacked and replaced with Louis Van Gaal, a once transformational manager who had knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League in 2010 with a pacey Bayern Munich team and had experienced success at the 2014 World Cup with Holland.
Despite his reputation, his history and his bluster, Van Gaal’s football at Manchester United appeared stale and one-paced. There was little imagination or deftness to the attacks, and the fans soon became bored. The talk was of philosophies and Louis Van Gaal’s Red Army. There was nothing revolutionary and Van Gaal the man soon became a punchline.
Louis Van Gaal has departed Manchester a mere two years but the footballing landscape has altered significantly. Pep Guardiola lost his crown as the world’s preeminent footballing genius before emphatically reclaiming it. Maurizio Sarri has become celebrated as a footballing innovator; playing beautiful, attacking footballing that looks strangely like that once advocated by… Louis Van Gaal.
Chelsea’s thrilling 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge this season was a triumph for those neutral and not so neutral. The football on display was both sublime and awful and it was a feast for the eyes, as Arsenal failed to deal with Chelsea’s attacking overloads on the wings in the first half before failing to score the chances they were fortuitous to get. Marcos Alonso and Willian worked in brilliant tandem to highlight the defensive frailties of Hector Bellerin and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Arsenal’s left side, and the results were inevitable as Chelsea soared to an early lead.
‘Sarri-ball,’ the name fondly used to describe the tactics of Maurizio Sarri, is little more than a dynamic re-jig of Van Gaal’s Holland 4-3-3 tactics at the 2014 World Cup. Performed more aesthetically at Chelsea, Sarri utilises Jorginho as the main playmaker playing at the base of a midfield three. This contrasts with Van Gaal’s use of Wesley Sneijder as Holland’s main playmaker operating at the front of the midfield three with Nigel De Jong in the deeper role. Sarri’s system is also augmented by mobile, attacking wing backs in Marcos Alonso and César Azpilicueta.
It was watching Chelsea against Arsenal that made me wonder what might have been had Van Gaal brought the same type of football to Manchester United in 2014. Van Gaal would later say that Holland’s 4-3-3 had been forced upon him by necessity of the players available. Upon arrival at United, Van Gaal decided that a 5-3-2 was the formation of the future though a calamitous performance at Leicester City in September soon informed Van Gaal that he did not have the players required to play such a system.
Interestingly enough, Antonio Conte would bring a 5-3-2 formation to Chelsea in 2016 (briefly also copied by Arsenal) and achieved great success with the tactical approach in his debut season.
It is now apparent that we may have seen Sarri-ball at Manchester United through the lens of its originator — Louis Van Gaal — in 2014 had Van Gaal decided to utilise his 4-3-3 formation. Manchester United are a team built on pacey wing play, so why did Van Gaal not default to that type of play?
It was perhaps a hangover from the Moyes era, though Van Gaal was unlikely to be influenced by others’ failings. What is more likely is perhaps a lack of skilful wide players in the Manchester United team to properly execute Louis Van Gaal’s tactical plans. Adnan Januzaj was the rising talent of David Moyes’ Manchester United team but by Van Gaal’s arrival, stories were already starting to spread about Januzaj’s poor attitude and application.
Which ultimately brings us to José Mourinho and his tenure at Manchester United. A transfer window has just unravelled during which Mourinho lamented the Board’s lack of support in the transfer market in his desire to sign players – attacking wide players at that – such as Ivan Perišić and Willian. Had Manchester United had these players during Van Gaal’s era, there is no telling how his team may have performed.
What’s more, six weeks after Manchester United sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for eighty million pounds in 2009, Arjen Robben was signed by Louis Van Gaal for Bayern Munich for twenty-five million euros, in what must represent one of the best deals of the last decade.
Manchester United’s lack of attacking wide players is no new phenomenon and perhaps the greatest travesty of all is that one bad performance in February 2014 may have led to a bad taste in the mouth of Manchester United supporters for almost half a decade since. It is high time that Manchester United listen to their manager and sign the type of players that can be seen bringing outstanding, attacking football elsewhere in England.