Louis van Gaal changing landscape of Manchester, English football after strong start at United
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 07:15 am
MANCHESTER, England - "Welcome to Vanchester" reads the message on a giant billboard on one of Manchester's busy streets.
Above the words, a picture of a smiling Louis van Gaal — his arms outstretched in a triumphant pose — dominates the red background.
And it's not just the landscape of the city that is changing following Van Gaal's hiring as Manchester United manager.
With three days to go until the Premier League season begins, English football is also wising up to the fact it has a new firebrand coach in its midst, someone who has never been afraid to speak his mind or issue reminders of his qualities and past achievements.
Manchester City, the reigning Premier League champion, is talking about finally making its mark in Europe. Arsenal is sensing its best chance to win the league title in years. And Chelsea has been installed as one of the favourites for the championship following the arrival of attackers Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas.
But the real intrigue heading into the new campaign is how successfully, and quickly, Van Gaal settles in at United and whether he can restore the fortunes of England's biggest club, which went into free-fall in the 10-month reign of David Moyes last season.
Van Gaal has wasted no time in making his presence felt at Old Trafford — and, as expected, he's been in the thick of the headlines.
Already, he has spoken of his concerns that United's vast commercial commitments were impinging on football matters. He has questioned the suitability of the main field at United's training centre. He has changed the formation of the team to one rarely used in English football — a 3-5-2. He has been openly critical of one of his player's fitness (new signing Luke Shaw). And he is in the process of overhauling the playing squad, with some high-profile names either already out of Old Trafford or starting to pack their bags.
"He looks to be his own man who knows exactly what he wants to do," United goalkeeping great Peter Schmeichel said. "I think we should be contending for the title again this season under him."
Many United fans will be of the same opinion.
Having collected league titles in spells at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Van Gaal already had a big opinion of himself before heading to the World Cup in Brazil with the Netherlands. There, his ego was massaged even further.
He made game-changing substitutions and tactical tinkerings, not least in a quarterfinal match against Costa Rica when he changed goalkeepers seconds before a penalty shootout. The incoming keeper, Tim Krul, saved two spot kicks and the Dutch advanced.
A third-place finish was better than most had anticipated and Van Gaal came away from Brazil with his reputation bolstered. From this position of strength, he has laid down the law in his first month at United.
At his unveiling in mid-July, he flagged up the club's focus on money-making and repeated his concerns during the preseason tour in the United States, making it clear he will not accept grueling summer schedules that see the squad jet all over the world to boost the club's brand.
"Manchester United shall do everything to adapt to my rules for good preparation," Van Gaal said.
By that time, Van Gaal had identified problems at United's training ground that had been structured by former manager Alex Ferguson, complaining that the windy conditions affected practice sessions and reportedly ordering new playing surfaces.
Now his focus mostly is on the team.
Van Gaal sanctioned the departure of experienced defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, who joined Nemanja Vidic in leaving United this off-season, and the arrival of young players Shaw and Ander Herrera for a combined 50 million pounds ($84 million).
More reshuffling is expected before the transfer window shuts on Aug. 31, meaning fringe players like Nani, Anderson, Javier Hernandez and Marouane Fellaini will be fearing for their future. And Van Gaal won't hesitate to make these big decisions.
Even braver, he has not held back in stamping his own authority on the team by changing formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2.
The tactical change will likely get the best out of Juan Mata, who can now play in his preferred position behind the front two of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, the team's new captain. The system is a gamble considering the three centre backs he will likely use — Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling — have never played in a three-man defence and he is currently relying on wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to play as a wing back.
But it has worked so far, with United ending its preseason campaign with six straight wins — the latest coming against Valencia on Tuesday.
The good results may continue into the beginning of the season because United has been handed the easiest start of any club, based on the finishing positions last season of its first five opponents.
By the end of September, it would be no surprise to see United at the top of the standings. And Van Gaal wearing the same grin he has on that billboard in central Manchester.