Van Gaal Reveals His Defensive Streak

Manchester United manager questions Scholes\'s decision to criticise team despite having insisted on his own right to provoke debate.

Published: 03rd November 2015 08:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd November 2015 08:34 AM   |  A+A-

Van Gaal-AP

Listening to Louis Van Gaal's rebuke of Paul Scholes before Manchester United recorded their third successive goalless draw, away to Crystal Palace on Saturday, brought to mind a couple of incidents from Hugo Borst's caustic book O, Louis about the author's relationship with the Dutch coach.

It is a publication that should come with a health warning, a savage and revengeful piece of work - more about Borst, the Dutch football journalist, than Van Gaal, the manager with whom he spectacularly fell out after being so besotted by him.

But, deep into it, turn to the chapter entitled "Freedom of Speech" which chronicles Van Gaal's criticism of Marco van Basten, then the coach of the national team, in a Dutch magazine called Sportsweek from 2006.

Van Gaal's analysis is apparently well argued but proved incendiary and, according to Borst, led to other Dutch coaches such as Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard hitting back at Van Gaal, who then received an official reprimand from the Association of Professional Coaches, "the very organisation of which he himself is honorary chairman and ambassador".

Eventually, according to Borst, Van Gaal "terminates his membership on the spot and - oh, the irony - he does so with the following words: 'I will not be silenced. I hold freedom of speech to be a great good'."

By all accounts - not just Borst's - Van Gaal has been a punchy and lively television pundit over the years and one who was not shy to voice an opinion or a criticism, which obviously put him in demand.

He commented on Rafael Benitez's Liverpool, for example, with: "It's not the kind of football I like." He also took part - along with Borst - in marking the Dutch players out of 10 live on television after a Euro 2004 qualifier.

What if Scholes had sat in the studios of BT Sport, for whom he is a pundit, and done just that? Instead Scholes effectively echoed Van Gaal's criticism of Benitez: the football that United are playing at present is not the kind that he likes.

"There's a lack of creativity and risk," Scholes said in an interview with BBC Radio Manchester - after the Capital One Cup defeat on penalties at home to Middlesbrough - and one he undertook to promote the Salford City FC documentary shown on the BBC. Scholes added: "It's a team now you wouldn't want to play against because they're tightly organised." Then came the killer line: "But it seems he [Van Gaal] doesn't want players to beat men and it's probably not a team I'd have enjoyed playing in."

Coming from Scholes, one of the club's greatest ever players, one of the Class of '92 and someone who has held two season tickets in the Stretford End, it would have hurt. And it would have had resonated widely.

"When you are a legend, you must speak with the manager, or his friend Ryan Giggs, or Ed Woodward, but he is paid by BBC or Sky to say some things," Van Gaal responded. "The compliments? That is not important either, because I know that if we lose, lose, lose, I shall be finished."

Scholes is a legend, undoubtedly. But was it necessary for Van Gaal to make a pointed reference to "his friend" Giggs, the United assistant manager and his long-time team-mate, or to suggest that the former midfielder is only saying what he said because he is being paid to "say some things"? (Scholes was not, by the way, paid for the specific comments to the BBC.)

And would he really prefer Scholes to call the club's executive vice-chairman, Woodward, to voice his criticism? Now that would be a story. And a cause for concern for Van Gaal if it were happening.

There is also, implied in Van Gaal's words - and the rather bizarre use of a nursery rhyme by saying that "sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me" - the implication that Scholes's criticism is somehow vindictive and deliberate. That he wants to create headlines at United's expense.

The problem for Van Gaal is that Scholes is obviously right. Structurally United are brilliantly organised to avoid defeat - but not to win. They have now gone 325 minutes since they scored a goal, which is hardly an eternity, but that has to change in tonight's Champions League group match at home to CSKA Moscow. Another blank and the criticism will really increase. Then they face West Bromwich Albion at home on Saturday, with that Tony Pulis-drilled defence, which is not an appetising prospect for a team struggling for goals.

It is not just that United are not scoring. They are not creating much either. There are few opportunities to score. They build from the back, and there is nothing philosophically wrong with their possession-based game, but they do so in a way that is methodical and sacrifices their attacking play. For Van Gaal the back six is of far greater importance than the front four but the emphasis appears to be skewed too far.

The foundations are in place but when will United flourish? Until they do, until they come close to playing the exciting attacking football that Manchester City or Arsenal can produce, or until they win trophies playing this more functional way, or challenge to do so, then Van Gaal will be questioned.

What is strange is that it cannot be new to him. He has been at clubs, in the past, where that can happen. At Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, former players are not slow to voice complaints and pass comment on the incumbent coach and they often have more of a direct influence at the club than the likes of Scholes. It makes Van Gaal's sensitivity to what other former United players say all the more curious.

It is true that there are more former players in the media, especially among broadcasters, as pundits now. Brendan Rodgers complained about the former Liverpool players; Jose Mourinho has suggested Chelsea get a harder time because the club have fewer representatives in the media.

But it is a debate. That is all. Former players are not cheerleaders. Van Gaal has every right to counter and voice his opinion but to attempt to stop the freedom of speech that he has professed to hold so dear is wrong. Stopping it is simple anyway, if not easy. United just need to play better; score goals; win matches. Then Scholes's analysis will be very different.


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