Of all the attempts to knock the enthusiasm out of Louis van Gaal’s arrival at Old Trafford, the least cutting jibe of them all has been the one about the Dutchman being some throwback who was only big in the 90s.
Besides being inaccurate—his post-2000 title-winning spells with AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich, and the Netherlands’ success at the World Cup this summer are all achievements that would enhance the CV of any manager—it seems odd to try and use the decade that birthed the Premier League as the frame of reference through which to criticise the new manager at Old Trafford.
After all, the 90s weren’t exactly a bad time for Manchester United, and with the team needing some inspiration following the short and troubled reign of David Moyes, harking back to the era that delivered both the club’s first league title in 26 years and the treble is hardly a distressing flashback.
Yet beyond nostalgic memories of how United returned themselves to the very top of the game there are also clear-headed reasons to welcome a 90s revival in spirit as the trends that shape European football look set to revive the 90s in their own way.
Brazil 2014 all but confirmed that on the pitch, well-balanced teams are in and tactical dogma is out. Spain played like a team lost down a cul-de-sac who’d forgotten how to change their direction. Eventual winners Germany struggled to find their rhythm until Jogi Low ceased trying to be clever with false nines and playing Philipp Lahm as a midfielder. Once the right-back was placed back in his native position and a natural striker was put up top, they blossomed.
This shift away from such stern playing philosophies, and the dire, ultra-defensive spoiler tactics created to counter them, has been clear in the Champions League since at least 2012-13. Bayern won that season’s trophy playing a style of play that some people described as Barcelona with brawn, but in truth they were a team that never limited themselves to chasing some narrow ideal like the Catalans. Real Madrid’s triumph last season, again playing good, well-balanced football with great players, was another win for the all-rounders.
What does that mean for United? Van Gaal isn’t without his own deeply held beliefs regarding how the game should be approached, nor does he lack the will to make his teams fit the systems and ideas he demands they play to on the field, but his principles aren’t based around fuzzy romanticism. His disregard for formations in favour of finding the most effective way of implementing his fundamental principles is clear in how he has used 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 throughout the years, shifting his preference for shape to best fit his values.
Speed, skill and intelligence are the attributes to remember his best teams by, not ball retention and three-digit tallies for sideways passes. That’s not to say that Ajax, Barcelona, AZ or Bayern struggled to control matches during his tenure, but they were all very dynamic and fluid teams that rarely dawdled when in possession. His work in Spain ultimately helped to lay the foundations for Pep Guardiola’s reign at the Camp Nou, which distilled his methods into a far more extreme version of what he initially put in place. Yet the man himself has claimed credit for the all-encompassing success enjoyed by Jupp Heynckes’ treble-winning Bayern side and their far more rounded and multifaceted style of play. Whether that’s entirely fair or not, the deliberate and systematic way in which the Bavarians took their opponents apart that season was very van Gaal, but they never seemed to get bogged down in chasing some strict centralised doctrine like Barcelona on a bad day.
The overarching idea is for players to perform within a system of well-defined and functional roles that still allow individuals to use their initiative to make the most of the opportunities that arise on the fly. Rather than fixating over long or short passes, the players in his teams are instead free to pick the right pass, whether that was a direct delivery to the front from Frank de Boer on the edge of his own box, or a smart, five-yard lay-off by Bastian Schweinsteiger at the border of the opponents’.
Pace, power, flair and cunning were the hallmarks of United during the 90s, and even though Sir Alex set his teams out to play with a touch more abandon than van Gaal’s meticulously prepared Ajax side, both managers shared a natural predisposition towards assertive attacking football.
That natural inclination to push forward may have waned slightly for Ferguson after the millennium to be replaced by the tactical cautiousness of the Carlos Quieroz era, but his Dutch successor at Old Trafford remains relatively unbowed. His Netherlands team—shorn of the injured Kevin Strootman—may have played a rather restrained, counter-attacking game at the World Cup, but that was the product of last-minute compromise rather than design. Prior to the loss of the Roma midfielder, the Plan A is Brazil was to play on the front foot in the best Dutch traditions of Total Football.
Just over two decades ago, it was Roy Keane who arrived at considerable expense to become the industrious heartbeat of Sir Alex’s powerhouse entertainers of the 90s. While uncertainty surrounds the details of United’s interest in Arturo Vidal, it seems as though a similarly complete and intense midfielder is near the very top of van Gaal’s shopping list this summer.
Securing such a player—even if it means waiting until January to make a move for the still-recovering Strootman—has been a priority for fans since the demise of Owen Hargreaves: someone able to win the ball, protect his team mates and drive the team forwards. As a new era dawns in which players feel free to attack in numbers, rather than sit back and exchange passing statistics, van Gaal’s 90s stylings and readiness to build on the resurgence of the box-to-box midfielder could return United to the summit of the English game and beyond, and in some style.