Three At The Back - And Seven Up Van Gaal!

01/09/2014 14:59

Three At The Back - And Seven Up Van Gaal!

Netherlands` coach, Louis Van Gaal, arrived at Old Trafford on the back of a World Cup semi-final defeat to Argentina, 2-4, after extra time and penalties when the full time score had been 0-0. The loss was his last managerial credential before joining Manchester United as their manager for the 2014-15 season. Van Gaal`s appointment was a move to hire a legitimate successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, and as the former manager of Dutch club side, Ajax, who`d won the European Cup in 1994-95, Gaal`s pedigree was adequate. After the year long debacle that was David Moyes, who`d arrived as manager at Manchester United from Everton at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Gaal was welcomed as a manager who`d seen success and knew how to awaken a big club. Ajax of Amsterdam were three times European Cup winners in 1971, 1972 and 1973, and Gaal had rejuvenated that sleeping giant so the hope was he could do the same at Old Trafford.

 At Everton David Moyes had been an expert at avoiding relegation for a dozen seasons with the `Toffees`, but at Manchester United he`d inherited a team that had just won the Premiership yet again in 2013 before United boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired with 13 championships, the two European Cups he was knighted by England`s queen, Elizabeth II, for having won, and sundry lesser trophies. Moyes also inherited a new Dutch centre forward from Arsenal, Robin Van Persie, who Ferguson had brought to bolster a makeshift squad desperate for a play maker to replace England`s Paul Scholes, who`d mysteriously been dropped by Ferguson for European Cup Final defeats to Barcelona, 0-2 in 2009 and 1-3 in 2011. Scholes had actually retired at the end of 2011 bitterly disillusioned before being begged back by Sir Alex to lead the campaign for the title in 2012-13, which United ultimately won with one of the least able squads Ferguson had assembled in his 27 years at the `Theatre Of Dreams` driven on by Scholes` persistent ability, as an already 10 times English championship winner under Ferguson, and of course there were Persie`s goals.

 David Moyes` catastrophe was to lose 1-2 on penalties in the League Cup semi-final to relegation candidates Sunderland after losing 1-2 away and winning 2-1 at home in the two leg contest where, as the teams were tied 3-3 after extra time, each side would have five penalty attempts to score. United only found the back of the net once with Scotland`s captain and right sided midfielder, Darren Fletcher, while centre forward, England`s Danny Welbeck, centre back, Phil Jones, left back, Rafael Da Silva, and rising young attacking Belgian midfield star, Adnan Januzaj, all failed to score from nine yards with only the `keeper to beat and a stationary ball placed for them to run up and take a kick at goal. If United had beaten Sunderland, Moyes would have had a final to his name and the team would have probably pulled together and gone forward as a cohesive unit, but embarassment in front of goal brings no forgiveness and the squad`s failure to progress afterwards in the league, F.A. Cup and European Cup meant the end of Moyes` credibility and tenure as manager at Manchester United.

 Louis Van Gaal`s tenure as Manchester United manager began without the possibility of European glory, because the club finished in 7th place in the league outside of the group of qualifiers for European competition. Defeat to League Division 1, Milton Keynes Dons, 0-4, in the second round of the League Cup meant Gaal had lost even the opportunity afforded to Moyes to give him a foundation for future success by progressing to the Final of the English Football Association`s third most important trophy after the championship and F.A. Cup. With a 3-5-1-2 formation Louis was introducing something alien to the usual way Manchester United play, which is 4-2-4 with wingers, full backs and a centre back pairing that leaves two midfielders and two forwards to support the wings and get the goals to beat the opposition.

 Three at the back and a return to the old fashioned wing back, instead of defending full backs on the flanks at the back to take care of the other teams` marauding wing play, was Gaal`s initial plan for the team. At right half, Bob Duckworth, centre half Charlie Roberts, and left half Alex Bell were the old half back line for Manchester United in the early 1900s, which brought the side championship success in 1908 and 1911 and the F.A. Cup in 1909 before the First World War (1914-18) to defeat German Imperialism in Europe curtailed soccer in England for the duration of hostilities. By the time Manchester United won the F.A. Cup for the second occasion in 1948, the half back line system of play was beginning to change. United`s half back trio were right half, John Anderson, centre half, Allenby Chilton, and left half, Henry Cockburn, that is, Matt Busby played three at the back as Louis Van Gaal was to do at the start of his reign as manager.

 Sir Matt Busby went on to win another F.A. Cup with United in 1963 and championships in 1952, 1956, 1957, 1965 and 1967 before crowning his career and retirement with a knighthood from England`s queen, Elizabeth II, after the European Cup Final win over Benfica of Portugal, 4-1, at London`s national Wembley Stadium, with goals from superstar midfielder, Bobby Charlton (2), who`d won the World Cup there with England in 1966, Northern Irish wing genius, George Best, and rising young England centre forward, 19 year old Brian Kidd, replacing the injured Scottish goal king of Old Trafford, Denis Law. That United team had recovered from the Munich air disaster of 6 February, 1958, when the plane crashed on take off carrying the players home after a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia had seen them through to the semi-final of the European Cup where, depleted due to the deaths of several players, United would lose, 0-4 in the away leg, after defeating A.C. Milan 2-1 at home, and would fail to reach the Final.

 Manchester United had lost a team and so had England lost the backbone of a future at Munich where captain and left back, Roger Byrne, reserve left back, Geoff Bent, centre half, Mark Jones, midfield star, Duncan Edwards, wing half Eddie Colman, centre forward, Tommy Taylor, left wing, David Pegg, and Irish forward, Liam Whelan, all lost their lives. United`s transition into the modern era was necessarily perforce as new centre back pairings replaced the old half back lines. The single substitute rule implemented in 1958 for injury meant that teams a goal behind could deploy an attacking player and leave a centre back pair to cover in defence, which eventually became the normal pattern of outfield play.

 Although the scene blurred at Munich for Manchester United, the old half back line and its value to English soccer was losing importance. England right full back, Bill Foulkes, emerged as the `stopper centre half` partner at the back with stiff tackling Nobby Stiles, who would dance with joy alongside Bobby Charlton as a World Cup winner with England in 1966. But United`s love affair with the half back line of right half, centre half, and left half disappeared with the loss of Edwards, Jones and Coleman at Munich, while the emergence of Foulkes as the protypical United `stopper` aligned with Stiles tidying up after the big man, who made the rugged challenges and air interceptions as the ball was played in along the ground, or by wingers to opposing forwards, ensured that the half back line would remain a thing of the past until Dutchman, Louis Van Gaal, reintroduce the old system of play at the beginning of the 2013-14 English football season with Manchester United.

 Although Louis played three at the back without full backs, which was different to the original half back line deployed by English soccer sides in the years before the substitute rule allowed teams to bring on attacking players to change the scoreline by replacing a half back with a forward, the notion of wing backs as full backs wasn`t new. England`s John Aston, who also played at centre forward, was left full back for Manchester United in the 1948 F.A. Cup winning team against Blackpool, 4-2, while Irishman, Johnny Carey, originally an inside left bought from Ireland`s St. James` Gate for £250 in 1937, played right back. Van Gaal`s new look United reintroduced the concept of the wing back instead of the full back, and wingers, Ecuador`s Antonio Valencia and England`s Ashley Young, were asked to perform dual defensive and attacking roles down the right and left flanks.

 With five players in front of a half back line featuring Gaal`s 19 year old £30 million signing, left back Luke Shaw from Southampton, centre back or right back Ferguson signing, Phil Jones, and Ferguson nurtured protégée, Irish centre half and 3 times English championship winner, Jonathan Evans, wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young had both defensive and attacking roles. Although United kept faith with their pattern of a two man midfield with wingers doubling as defensive wing backs, Spaniard Juan Mata signed on 24 September from Chelsea for £37.1 million by former United manager, David Moyes, was given by Gaal a combined playmaker`s and deep-lying third striker`s role behind Dutch striker Robin Van Persie and England`s captain and premier goalscoring sensation, Wayne Rooney, who`d been nurtured by Moyes at Everton, but had been transferred for £25.6 million to United as an 18 year old teenager himself for the 2004-5 campaign and had over 150 league goals to his name at the beginning of Gaal`s managership.

 Manchester United lost at home to Swansea 1-2 on the first day of the 2014-15 season with Van Gaal`s new old system of a half back line with wing backs and a five man midfield that included Mata as the deep-lying centre forward and play maker in the Bobby Charlton mould that had been United and England`s trademark in the 1960s when Sir Matt Busby had continued his 1940s and 1950s love affair with wingers. England`s John Connelly and George Best were Busby`s best known 1960s pairing on the wing and, with the now established Foulkes and Stiles centre back pairing, Busby deployed his deep-lying centre forward, Bobby Charlton, to such good effect that the team won the F.A. Cup in 1963, the league in 1964-5 and 1966-7, with the coveted European Cup of 1968 as the crowning glory to a career Busby couldn`t improve upon as a manager and retired after a disillusioning defeat to Estudiantes of Argentina in an violently ill tempered Intercontinental Cup Final over two legs, 0-1 away and 1-1 at home, which saw George Best sent off for retaliation.

 Busby had been at Old Trafford since the dark days following the end of the Second World War (1939-45) to again beat German Imperialism when United`s stadium had been made into rubble by the German bombs and the club had to beg Manchester City to use theirs at Maine Road. It wouldn`t be until 1999, when United faced South American champions and winners of the Copa Da Libertadores, Palmeiras of Brazil, that the club would win the Intercontinental Cup, 1-0, with a left wing cross from Welsh winger Ryan Giggs that found midfield dynamo, Ireland`s Roy Keane, at the far post putting his boot out to steer the ball home in the 35th minute. United had qualified for the Final as European Cup winners beating Bayern Munich, 2-1, with late goals from substitute forwards, England`s Teddy Sheringham and Norway`s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (on for England`s Andy Cole and Trinidad and Tobago`s Dwight York) to wrest that cup of triumph from the Germans` hands.

 Successive draws, 1-1 at Sunderland`s Stadium of Light, and 0-0 at Burnley`s Turf Moor, were the meager fruits of Louis Van Gaal`s initial games as manager at Manchester United, following upon his home defeat to Swansea on the opening day of the campaign, 1-2, and most fans` opinions were that two points from nine wouldn`t win championships and so that pattern couldn`t be repeated throughout the season even if Gaal`s three at the back half line was a permanent fixture in the Dutchman`s plans for the team`s future at the `Theatre of Dreams`.

 Versatile Argentine defender, Marcos Rojo, left back in the losing Argentine side in the 2014 World Cup Final against Germany, 0-1, was brought to Manchester United by Gaal on 19 August, 2014, from Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon, for £16 million, and United brought Dutch international, Daley Blind, on 30 August from Ajax Amsterdam for £13.8 million. Blind had played in the left wing back position for Gaal`s Dutch team, beaten by Argentina and Marcos Rojo at left back on their way to the World Cup Final, 2-4 on penalties after extra time with the full time score at 0-0, and so Blind might be expected to fit in easily with the manager`s new system and plans. Argentina`s Angel Di Maria, a left winger, had already arrived from Real Madrid on 26 August for a club record transfer fee of £59.7 million, as Louis Van Gaal rebuilt a Manchester United side looking to develop a novel tactic for wrong footing what tends to be mainly right sided opposition, because having very good left footed players in every position is prohibitively costly for the less rich clubs and a sure way of obtaining a technical advantage for the wealthier.

 Cerberus was the three headed dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld of Hades in Greek mythology and Manchester United`s Cerberus under Van Gaal would is the half back line trio he fields against opposition playing mainly the four at the back system of full backs at the left and right of the `keeper defending against wingers with two centre backs as `stopper` and `sweeper` in front of the `keeper preventing opposition forwards from getting through and putting the ball in the net. Consequently, Van Gaal`s problem was the same as Manchester United manager Ernest Mangnall`s when Duckworth, Roberts and Bell were the half back line. Although Mangnall`s United won league titles in 1908 and 1911, as well as the 1909 F.A. Cup, Sir Matt Busby would face the same difficulty as Mangnall`s when Anderson, Chilton and Cockburn were his half back trio. United won the F.A. Cup in 1948 and the title in 1952 before the famous young players known as the `Busby Babes` began to emerge through the F.A. Youth Cup system of developing players and the `personality` of the half back line began to change in favour of adaptability rather than a team built on the cohesive efforts of just three individuals.

 The United youth side won the F.A. Youth Cup on the first five occasions from its inaugural inception in 1953 until 1957 and more adaptable young players such as the `gentle giant`, Duncan Edwards, who could play anywhere in defence, midfield or the forward line. Although Edwards, Jones and Coleman took their positions in a senior team that won English league titles in 1955-56 and 1956-57 until the Munich disaster curtailed Busby`s ambition to win the European Cup, youth`s adaptability meant that players could fill their boots without loss of impetus to the team. After Munich Geoff Cope emerged as a young centre back that made the Final of the F.A. Cup in 1958 while Wilf McGuinness, who`d qualified for championship winning medals in 1956 and 1957, and would be manager at United after Busby, was always a fringe member of the squad. Jeff Whitefoot was a right half for United in the title winning teams of 1952 and 1956, while Jackie Blanchflower, sometime Irish inside forward and a `better player` than Ireland`s captain, Danny Blanchflower, according to Danny, who captained North London`s Tottenham Hotspur to the double of league and F.A. Cup in 1961, was left half and centre half before Edwards` emergence as a more versatile and skillful asset to the team. Versatility was the byword for the modern Manchester United and the opportunity to improve the side`s striking capability from the substitute`s bench in 1958 meant the eventual disappearance of the half back line as two centre backs were believed to be enough defensive cover for teams going forward much more to score and secure victory without fear of injury thwarting their thirst for a win.

 Although Van Gaal`s three at the back formation with Manchester United at the beginning of the 2014-15 season seemed new fangled and controversial, in fact it was a return to the tried and trusted formula of the era before the 1958 substitute rule, which allowed teams to go forward more without fear of injury because a replacement forward on the subs` bench could be called upon to augment a team weakened by opposition `hard men` looking to break legs; as England`s `Chopper` Harris at Chelsea and Norman `bite yer legs` Hunter at Leeds United were known to do in their successful club sides of the 1960s and 1970s. Teams that promoted skill such as Manchester United rather abandoned three at the back after 1958 in favour of two centre backs and a left and right full back defending with the `keeper behind midfield, wingmen and forwards up front looking to score against teams adopting the protective strategy of substitutions for injured forwards. Gaal`s buying of predominantly left footed players for his half back line, midfield, and wings at the commencement of the 2014-15 season indicated his perception that the more creative would fit his Cerberus half back line as a system in which very good individuals would be the equivalent of Busby`s `Babes`, who could play anywhere and constituted the avante-garde of English soccer professionalism before Munich curtailed their efforts to transform English soccer from the half back line.

 According to the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) six substitutes could be used, including a `keeper, in competitive matches at the time Louis Van Gaal began his tenure as manager of Manchester United at the start of the 2014-15 season, which afforded additional protection for a team suffering injury to the half back or forward line. In other words, a half back line and a forward line could now be deployed, because the number of substitutes permitted of injury to either without damaging the team`s pattern of play. Van Gaal`s genius was to perceive that he could return to deploying a half back line and so reestablish that tradition of development at Manchester United outlined by his predecessor, Matt Busby.

 With the nickname of `Red Devils`, Manchester United`s three headed dog of a half back line, or Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, has a certain romantic attraction. Hades is the Greek concept of hell where the dead departed, who don`t go to heaven, remain. Hell is the place of torment by the `fallen angels` of Satan, known as `devils`, because it`s the place prepared for those humans who`re evil. Satan, of course, was the first angel of God, before he was cast down from heaven to the Earth along with the other `fallen` angels who supported his rebellion. God promised the fallen angels eternal pain forever as a punishment for rejecting God`s creation of Eve and Adam, the first man and woman, who would produce a humanity greater than the angelic host, but until then Christian iconography depicts the devils tormenting the evil amongst mankind with tortures devised by them. Although United`s half back line under Van Gaal represented the romance of keeping the opposition from putting the ball in the net, and that defeat which would be hell for the fans of the `Red Devils`, torment is undoubtedly a significant part of match days for supporters and players alike. If Gaal`s Cerberus half back line kept the ball out of the net, it wouldn`t be hell for the team or the fans and so Manchester United would remain in heaven.

 As Manchester United drew 0-0 with Burnley away at Turf Moor and left winger, Angel Di Maria, made his debut in midfield, Louis Van Gaal was on the brink of signing Daley Blind from Ajax as another defender with a left foot to play alongside Marcos Rojo and England`s Luke Shaw. Only Brazilian right back, Rafael Da Silva, England`s utility defender and midfield destroyer, Phil Jones, and centre backs, Jonathan Evans and Chris Smalling, remained from the era of Ferguson defenders. Although Uruguayan right back, Guilermo Valera, had been bought by Moyes from Uruguay`s Peñarol club, after Ferguson arranged the transfer at the end of his reign as United boss, Gaal`s influx of left footed players included his preference for formerly unknown, 20 year old Tyler Blackett, used as a left footed back throughout Gaal`s early games, and in the pre-season Champions Cup tournament in the United States of America in which Liverpool were defeated, 3-1, in the final. Gaal was sending a warning to right footed players like Da Silva, Jones and Valera that they might have to fight for a right back place with left footed players, just as Evans and Smalling would have to battle left footed centre backs to remain first choice defenders in the aftermath of 5 times English championship winner, Serbian centre half Nemanja Vidic`s packing his bags for Internazionale of Milan in disgust at Moyes` ineptitude and, his partner in defence at the back, former England captain and 6 time English championship winner, Rio Ferdinand`s equally dismissive exit to London`s Queens Park Rangers before Gaal`s arrival.

 Manchester United`s exit to MK Dons in the second round of the League Cup, 0-4, cruelly reminded many supporters of the team`s failure to progress to the League Cup Final of the 2013-14 season with the Sunderland goal at the mercy of their penalty takers in the home second leg of the semi-final qualifier at Old Trafford; Darren Fletcher, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Rafael Da Silva, and Adnan Januzaj. The players only managed to score once through Darren Fletcher out of five attempts, and the `Black Cats` went through with a meager two that ultimately signaled Moyes` failure and departure. Reliance upon three at the back in a half back line that harks back to the golden age of the early 1900s and Busby`s first championship winning teams might seem romantic, but letting in four to a third tier team isn`t. Success at Manchester United depends on the coach`s adopting a winning formula, and a balanced side of left and right wingers, with two strikers and two supporting midfielders down the middle as well as a centre back pairing, left and right full backs, works. Even with a `keeper that comes up to head goals in at corners, as Denmark`s legendary `keeper, Peter Schmeichel (1991-9), did for the `Red Devils` during the period in which he won 5 championship winners` medals. Schmeichel scored a headed goal against Russia`s Rotor Volgograd in the 1995-96 UEFA Cup to preserve the club’s unbeaten home European record, whereas Louis Van Gaal`s Manchester United lost their virginity at home in the first game of the 2014-15 campaign, 1-2 to Swansea City, with three at the back - and seven up!