Considering Manchester United’s game against Chelsea on Monday evening pits Louis van Gaal against his compatriot Guus Hiddink, his replacement as Holland coach in the summer of 2014, it is worth remembering Van Gaal’s tactical approach that took the Dutch to third place at the World Cup.
In charge of an unusually poor group of players, Van Gaal played a cautious counterattacking game, generally sacrificing possession and encouraging his players to use the ball as quickly as possible. Arjen Robben was unquestionably the main man but Robin van Persie’s magnificent header against Spain, from Daley Blind’s long pass, was a perfect example of Holland’s urgency and directness.
Since taking charge of United, Van Gaal has preached the exact opposite approach – he is obsessed with dominating possession, and therefore his players are astonishingly conservative with their use of the ball.
On paper, that usual approach should play into the hands of Chelsea – even if the defending Premier League champions are understandably strategically uncertain just a week into the Hiddink regime. Chelsea will surely arrive at Old Trafford determined to play on the counterattack, particularly as Hiddink will be keen to improve Chelsea’s poor defensive organisation before concentrating on attack.
Besides, this is a team naturally geared to play on the break – with Diego Costa suspended, the quick Loïc Rémy is likely to start upfront and make constant darting runs into the channels. Meanwhile, Pedro Rodríguez and Willian ensureChelsea have plenty of players capable of carrying the ball forward from deep, even if Eden Hazard misses out through injury.
United have suffered against counter-attacking teams in recent weeks, particularly when pushing their full-backs high up the pitch. Here, Van Gaal is in a no-win situation, because he has often been forced to field makeshift full-backs such as the midfielder Blind and the winger Ashley Young: if they push forward they leave the centre-backs exposed, but if they sit deep they’re negating their natural strengths.
Blind struggles against quick players in one-against-one situations out wide, while Young simply doesn’t have the natural defensive instinct to anticipate danger and adjust his position accordingly. Against such a pacy Chelsea attack, United could be overrun at the back if they push up the pitch routinely. The answer for Van Gaal is surely to negate Chelsea’s counterattacking threat – and therefore playing counterattacking football himself.
That is not the type of football United fans want to see at home against a bottom-half side, but then it’s hardly any more boring than an approach which has seen United average the highest share of possession in the league, but only the 16th-highest number of shots. They would surely be best off sitting back and breaking sporadically, using the pace of Anthony Martial and perhaps the energy of Ander Herrera.
Van Gaal’s team selection will be determined largely by attempting to rotate his side just two days after the 2-0 defeat to Stoke City. He is fortunate to be welcoming back Bastian Schweinsteiger – presumably perfectly fresh after serving a three-game suspension – while Morgan Schneiderlin should start alongside him having been omitted in recent weeks.
The headline decision will be whether Van Gaal hands a start to Wayne Rooney, who was omitted against Stoke. But, realistically, the key decision is Van Gaal’s overall gameplan: if United sit back, counterattack and triumph like Van Gaal did regularly with Holland, it could be a season-changing game.
If not, United’s hierarchy might attempt to find someone capable of setting up the side in such a manner – and that, of course, would surely mean José Mourinho.