It’s just as well that Louis van Gaal has near total tunnel vision about his management because, depending on which of the many perspectives you look at Manchester United’s season from so far, it would be difficult not to greatly doubt any one opinion.
Take the aftermath of the 1-0 defeat to the Manchester City game, and the confusion over where exactly United are at – beyond 10th in the table. One view stood out: that was from the basic stats that said David Moyes was doing a better job after 10 games than Van Gaal.
The Scot had 17 points, the Dutchman just 13, while also scoring fewer and conceding more. Even the supposed simplicity of that, however, actually just begins to illustrate how complicated any concrete conclusions are right now. For a start, there’s the fact that Van Gaal’s stats are still affected by that uncertain early start, when a United still yet to make big signings took just two points from their first three games. So, it’s not quite like they’ve persisted so poorly.
From that, there are also the performances in front of our eyes, given that United just look to have more thrust and purpose than at any point under Moyes. They might also have claimed a 1-1 draw at City, in stark contrast to last season’s dismal 4-1, had Wayne Rooney been a little more alert for his late chance.
At the same time, there was also the importance of Michael Oliver’s view, given that the referee might well have awarded City two penalty decisions. That could have seen a repeat of last year’s result, and things would look even worse. Instead, it can just be seen how circular the debates are.
That perhaps sums up the most pertinent point: given the money he has spent, it would have been reasonable to expect Van Gaal to perform a little better; to show a greater departure from last season. At the same time, it’s only 10 games, which allows an awful lot of chance and fluke. So, what do the actual stats from the performances say?
The first and most surprising element is that the basic stats aren’t all that different. In fact, they’re strikingly similar. Van Gaal’s side have an identical number of shots (138), and try almost the same number of dribbles per game (10 against 10.2). Even the great cross against Moyes’ name – the actual number of crosses – remains so close, with Van Gaal’s outfit only producing 1.1 fewer per game.
If Van Gaal does have a distinctively defined plan of his own, it isn’t all that evident yet. The basic stats look very similar to Moyes. Of course, those stats are described as “basic” for a reason. Van Gaal has himself admitted – through the very evocative metaphor of going to the airport for the first time – that it’s about gradually changing things, and building blocks, to the point that growth in play feels organic. In that regard, there have been some nuanced changes.
For one thing, United are less predictable in terms of approach. Last season, as much as 41.9% of their attacks went down the right, with just 32.9 down the left. Teams learned to block United out. This season, it’s more balanced, with 36% down the left and 38% down the right. That has been reflected with more interchanges in the centre of the pitch. As well as playing a touch more through the centre (27% compared to 25.2%), they try marginally more through balls.
Van Gaal’s side also play more passes per game – 573 compared to 552 – but that has still led to greater pass success, at 85.5% against 84.4%. That has resulted in perhaps the most conspicuous difference between the Moyes and Van Gaal teams, other than the actual points on the table.
United now allow the opposition fewer shots, at 10 compared to 12.8 last season. That may seem like little now, but it generally leads to big changes over time, and points to the one big issue with Van Gaal’s side so far.
Individual errors are letting them down at the back, and leading to the concession of goals that the general performance might not otherwise allow. Of course, we know this. United should have signed more defensive players. Van Gaal is known to have wanted a commanding centre-back and a defensive midfielder. From there, things can better.
In other words, he has one clear problem to solve; one area that needs to be finished. With Moyes, it was hard to know where to begin. He had so many problems, which is why things just got worse.
There might not be significant evidence of Van Gaal’s grand plan yet, but there is only one grand problem. That marks the starkest difference. There is at least clarity about what’s wrong. Under Moyes, there was doubt about virtually everything.