This was supposed to go differently. I was ready to talk about Louis van Gaal’s lack of a footballing style – I wouldn’t call it a philosophy yet – and how his United side look so much the antithesis of an United side. Put simply, Van Gaal’s United so far have been, well, boring.
There was no impetus to attack, let alone attack in the mold of the old United teams that came at you in droves. Where the United of old were daring, this iteration of United was cautious and methodical. Old United sides came at you swinging. This United side just tapped at you until you went to sleep.
Then yesterday happened, and all of a sudden, you could see what Louis van Gaal wanted to do, sorta. The problem is that he doesn’t have the personnel to do it.
After getting dumped out of the FA Cup by Arsenal (the London club recording its first win at Old Trafford since 2006), Manchester United looked lost, aimless. The first calls for van Gaal’s head came through the media, and it looked like the Dutch master was on his way out.
Then van Gaal had the fortune of playing Tottenham Hotspur, and United looked like a proper team for the first time in ages. Not coincidentally, LvG made two changes to his side that probably played a big part in the transformation: Juan Mata played as the auxiliary striker, and Michael Carrick was deployed in midfield.
It took twenty minutes for Carrick to remind everyone how much this team misses him in the middle of the park, as the former Spur recorded an assist and a goal in the first half. Carrick’s confidence on the ball (not to mention Mauricio Pochettino’s failed deployment of Andros Townsend to start the game instead of Moussa Dembele) gave United a much needed spark and something approaching some kind of philosophy.
Granted, this game was mostly about Pochettino getting his tactics wrong rather than van Gaal getting his right, but based on this display, Carrick should start the majority of the games going forward.
Likewise, Mata, ostracized in recent weeks (and months, and years), came on and looked immediately more comfortable playing behind Wayne Rooney than Angel di Maria (who missed the game through suspension) ever has.
While neither player has the right skills to play that position in the way van Gaal probably wants it to be played (which is basically be Arjen Robben), Mata is more comfortable in that advanced role than Di Maria is since it is not unlike the role he played for Chelsea.
Juan gives LVG an interesting dynamic. He allows the Dutchman to employ his best striker, Rooney, in his favored position, while Carrick can help retain possession and move the ball better than any other midfielder on United’s books this season.
It would seem that two players who were pegged to be surplus to requirements at United in the beginning of the season may just be the keys for van Gaal to get his philosophy entrenched at Old Trafford.
How’s that for philosophical?