• Alan Tyers

A thinking Man United? Good luck, Louis

Alan Tyers
August 18, 2014
The brains trust at Manchester United might be limited solely to the dugout © Getty Images

Louis van Gaal has got a problem. In fact, he's got three.

First, the culture of football in England. Showing that a way with a snappy soundbite is among his many talents, he wrote in his Saturday programme notes that players must think about "not only running, but also to use your brain".

A man as thorough as Van Gaal will surely have watched the Premier League before. Even the games with Stoke and Aston Villa. He's that dedicated. But boy, if football in England is about one thing, it's about running around a lot and leaving the brainwork to the expensive migrant workers. To tinker with the formation or personnel is one thing, but this is an attempt to change an entire way of footballing life.

He also said recently that his new club comprised of "a lot of players playing intuitively. But they have to think".

Again, nicely put.

So why make Wayne Rooney the captain? The Artist Formerly Known As Wazza has many qualities, but when he at his best, he has always played with a joyous, instinctive, unfettered power, a force of sporting nature. And when he is at his worst, the same: he plays without thought for bookings, for his manager's instructions, for staying in his position. Whether raging bull or rabid junkyard dog, Rooney is unthinking intuition made pasty flesh.

And so it may be that handing him the armband is an attempted bulwark against the third problem facing van Gaal: a long, proven and proud record of falling out with other big egos everywhere he has worked. At Bayern it was Ribery and Robben, at Ajax it was Cruyff and Ibrahimovic, at Barcelona it was Rivaldo and Cruyff (again). In fairness, all five of those would try the patience of a saint. Indeed, you could make a fair argument that being disliked by Arjen Robben is an excellent character reference. But even still, Van Gaal will surely upset some of the major players at United somewhere along the line. It looks that making Rooney captain is an attempt to get him onside early, and hope that the star can drag the dressing room with him.

United's switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 was like buying a very small child an expensive toy only for them to ignore it but play happily inside the cardboard box it came in

At Bayern, it wasn't just the players with whom he failed to get along: he also did not shy away from conflict (or actively sought it, depending on who you believe) with club legends like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness. Whether he feels like it or not, Van Gaal must above all else keep Sir Alex Ferguson sweet. The merest sniff of ill-feeling with the Dark Knight will be a sensation in the media, and even Van Gaal hasn't got big enough balls to come out on top against Sir Fergie.

Van Gaal has been able to conduct himself with such a splendid blend of authority and arrogance for the simple reasons that he has got lots of decisions right and has won trophies without fail. On the decision-making front, his United tenure is off to an interesting start, to say the least. The first XI sent out by the tactical genius lined up in a 3-5-2, which seemed ambitious, not so much because of the formation but because of the personnel: Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have their qualities but are not footballers of vaulting intellect, while the third man of the back three was Tyler Blackett. It was a lot to ask of a 20-year-old on debut and neither he nor the two established men looked sure how to play the system.

Wing-backs Jesse Lingard, also on debut, and Ashley Young were likewise unconvincing. Van Gaal switched to 4-4-2 at the break and everyone seemed a good deal happier. It was like buying a very small child an expensive toy only for them to ignore it but play happily inside the cardboard box it came in.

Obviously, it is early days, but it must be accepted as a possibility that the Moyes era was not a blip, a momentary lapse of reason, but in fact the shape of things to come. While the two managers could hardly be more different - one convinced of his own infallibility, the other out of his depth and knowing it - they can, like all of us, only wee with the willy they have got.

United simply do not have enough good footballers, and their owner-saddled debt makes it far from certain they can buy the quality needed. Suarez-free Liverpool aside, their rivals have all strengthened appreciably in the summer. Arsenal even won a game at the weekend with a performance that was more effective than it was pretty. We are living in strange times.

Between the Glazer debt millstone and the mismanaged succession to Old Red Face, United have lost their place as the country's undisputed heavyweight champ. Throw in a manager trying to shoehorn a modest squad into an approach to which they are not suited, chuck in a few juicy ego clashes and perhaps a board refusal to spend the money the manager deems necessary, and we could be looking at another Moyes situation, only with added hubris.

The New Boss may be nothing like The Old Boss, but the fiasco could yet be all too familiar. Whatever happens, it will make for fantastic viewing.

Alan Tyers writes for the Daily Telegraph, ESPNcricinfo and is the author of six books, the most recent of which is 'Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects'

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