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04th Jan 2016

Diego Simeone, Sadio Mane and the unstoppable spread of Van Gaal-itis

Nooruddean Choudry

No one wants to catch Van Gaal-itis.

That tends to happen when things aren’t going well. Guilt spreads by association and no one wants to be tarred with the same brush as a coach in peril. The thing about success having many fathers and failure being a bastard is always true in football.

It is why the likes of Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan continue to big up their respective parts in Fergie’s reign, whilst the only person who dines out on knowing David Moyes is Steve Round. Even David Moyes keeps that quiet.

The problem with Louis van Gaal is that he now represents only bad things for many of his (former?) Red Army. Just as love spreads, negativity suffocates its surroundings. The Dutchman is beetroot on a plate – everything around him is stained.

Manchester United v Swansea City - Premier League : News Photo

Most susceptible to Louis-by-proxy is Ryan Giggs. Such a skilled manoeuvrer will be acutely aware that he is somewhat coloured by the Dutchman’s toxic oranje. Thankfully he has chums in the media to absolve him of blame.

A bigger issue is that Van Gaal-itis has spread into the stands. Symptoms include glazed eyes, contagious yawning and a very blue view of the future. It’s not so much ‘glass half empty’ as ‘glass smashed against wall and used to slice throat’.

Even the usual muppetry that greets each transfer window is draped in the dark sadness of 73% possession. The United faithful are collectively acting like a heartbroken teen who has given up on love. And discovered Radiohead.

Sadio Mane and Felipe Anderson have been heavily linked to United in recent weeks, and either would inject much-needed pace into the side. The former in particular would be pretty much ideal as a rapid forward with emphatic end product and proven Premier League experience.

But even dangled carrots look rotten to those wearing sh*t-tinted glasses. United fans sulkily point to Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria. ‘Doesn’t matter who we buy, Van Gaal will just ruin them anyway,’ they spit.

Southampton v Arsenal - Premier League : News Photo

It’s as if the red half of Manchester would rather wallow in the dreariness of it all than even entertain the possibility of a solution. Their spirits are so broken that even signing Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar would be pointless under the incumbent.

What is perhaps even more bizarre is that even the thought of Van Gaal leaving doesn’t fully snap fans from their funk. Van Gaal-itis has infected the dugout too, so anyone who is even mooted to take over is pre-emptively cursed and damned.

Two of the names strongly rumoured to replace Van Gaal are Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone. Both still relatively young, both ridiculously successful, both snappy dressers with dashing good looks, and both – one would assume – eminently gettable. Good news? Not a chance.

A common retort is: ‘If you think Van Gaal is boring, wait until Mourinho/Simeone turn up.’ The suggestion being that either one of these new men would bring with them tactics every bit as turgid as those currently on offer.

This is either wilful ignorance or world-class pessimism. It is true that both the Portuguese and Argentine have built their successes on reactive, rather than expansive tactics, but neither subscribe to the death-by-a-thousand-passes doctrine, which has left United going sideways and backwards.

Club Atletico de Madrid Training - UEFA Champions League Final : News Photo

Quite the contrary. If you were looking for two coaches at the very opposite end of the managerial spectrum to Van Gaal, you’d do well to find better options.

Neither Mourinho nor Simeone care a jot for pointless possession; in fact they regularly invite the other side to monopolise the ball – making them ripe for attack.

Without Van Gaal-ing you with a tactical borefest, the very crude shorthand is thus: Louis will play keep-ball all day long. Players are told to stay in their zones and not lose possession. The opposition often sit back, get comfy and watch United do it. Eventually, through sheer probability, an opportunity will arise. It is imperative it is taken.

The alternative is to allow possession in areas that won’t hurt you. Stay narrow and compact. As soon as the opposition enter a dangerous area, you swarm them like killer bees. As soon as they surrender possession, you attack with blistering speed.

The latter may not be quite in keeping with the way an Arsene Wenger or Roberto Martinez view the game, but it’s the very polar opposite of how Van Gaal does. What it’s not is slow, ponderous or necessarily boring.

Manchester City v Manchester United : News Photo

There is a level of patience involved, but it is more anticipation for the next rapier attack.

United fans mourn their once legendary threat on the counter. Memories of a young Ronaldo and Rooney cutting a swathe through the opposition seem so distant and cruelly poignant now. Under a Simeone, the force would awaken.

And another thing… United fans have a special affinity to the 4-4-2 formation. So much so that they have chanted the formation like the name of a favourite player to both Louis van Gaal and Sir Alex Ferguson in the past.

You know who else loves 4-4-2? Diego Simeone.

But then, none of this matters. An influx of talented players under the current regime, or even a fresh face at the helm, is irrelevant. Van Gaal-itis has infected every facet of Manchester United and there is no cure.

Happy New Year.