LONDON – It is only Louis van Gaal’s cv that is preventing him from receiving the sort of merciless criticism directed at David Moyes last season.
After 21 games, Moyes’ Manchester United had 37 points, the same as van Gaal’s side which cost £270 million, £150 million spent by the Dutchman, to assemble but which failed to manage a single shot on target during the 1-0 defeat by Southampton.
Van Gaal has been successful wherever he has been in charge — Ajax, Barcelona, AZ, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national side — so he is being cut some slack. United has played well only three times this season, against Queens Park Rangers, who are Saturday’s opponents, Hull and Newcastle. Moyes was never afforded that luxury because he was “only” a former Everton manager and was run out of town before he had completed a season in charge.
Of van Gaal’s summer recruits only Daley Blind has been a true success, injuries affecting the impact of Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria plus on-loan Rademal Falcao. Adnan Januzaj, who promised big things when he burst on to the scene, has barely had a look in under van Gaal.
The belief is that as van Gaal has triumphed in his other jobs he will follow suit at Old Trafford. This is a dangerous logic, not least because United is some way behind Chelsea and Manchester City when it comes to the quality and quantity of their squad. Van Gaal will need to spend another £150 million to bring United to somewhere nearer the big two’s level.
The three-man defensive system van Gaal is sticking with is unconvincing and vulnerable and United has to be thankful that David de Gea has come to its rescue so often. It says everything about United’s season that its goalkeeper has been its outstanding performer.
During the five months he has been with United, Falcao has struggled to hit the heights he did with Atletico Madrid and Monaco. Before his knee injury a year ago, the Colombia striker was a regular and ruthless finisher; now he is a bit-part player — at £280,000 a week a very expensive bit-part player — and United is unlikely to part with the £43 million to make Falcao’s move permanent.
In contrast, Manchester City has signed Wilfried Bony from Swansea in a £28 million deal. It is a statement of intent as it slugs it out with Chelsea for the title.
Since the start of 2012-13 only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Graziano Pelle have scored more goals than Bony’s 56 in that period. Bony may just prove to be the difference between finishing first and second.
Reluctant as it was to sell him, the move represented good business for Swansea. In 18 months it made a £16 million profit, Bony scoring 25 Premier League goals in that time, a figure only Sergio Aguero (31), Luis Suarez (31) and Yaya Toure (27) have beaten.
Bony joins Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic as Manuel Pellegrini’s options in attack. After Diego Costa, Chelsea has Didier Drogba and Loic Remy; Jose Mourinho must hope the Spain international keeps fit and keeps scoring.
While Chelsea and City have shown the consistency of would-be champions, United has been particularly disappointing away from home with only two wins. Saturday’s game at Loftus Road promises to be a physical encounter against a QPR team whose 19 points have all come at home.
“We are still in a process,” said van Gaal. “We have to show better form away. We have to dominate away matches like we have at home. We have only won two away matches at Arsenal and Southampton and we were the lucky team in both of them.”
United is fourth, which is hardly a crisis, but this is far from a vintage Premier League season, the drop in standard working in van Gaal’s favor as he attempts to make his expensively assembled team contenders rather than pretenders.
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ROY HODGSON is often criticized for his team selections, but to be criticized to the point of humiliation for his vote in the Ballon d’Or is another matter.
The England manager chose Javier Mascherano, Philipp Lahm and Manuel Neuer as his three top players. Not Lionel Messi, not Cristiano Ronaldo, but a dogs of war defensive player, a fullback/midfielder and a goalkeeper.
Hodgson, the general opinion was, has lost his marbles.
Of course, Mascherano has none of the flair, excitement, unpredictability or the ability to do the near impossible tricks that Messi and Ronaldo possess. He scores as often as Halley’s Comet appears.
Hodgson ignored beauty and went for the beast.
Yet should football awards be the property of only superstar forwards?
Do we ignore the unseen work that goes on in the engine room and just appreciate the more visible skills of the front men?
For me, Mascherano was the outstanding player at Brazil 2014.
Not at all.
Without Mascherano’s midfield guile and graft, Argentina would not have reached the final. Without Mascherano’s defensive solidarity, Barcelona would not have dominated as it has.
Whether it is in the center of defense or in midfield Mascherano is, in his own way, every bit as reliable and consistent as Messi or Ronaldo.
How many players are equally effective in two different roles?
No, I can’t think of any either apart from perhaps Lahm, another Hodgson vote, though he is still more effective at fullback than in midfield.
Voting for Messi or Ronaldo was easy and, yes, obvious. The pair have dominated and lit up European football and rather than compare them, we should just be grateful television coverage allows us to see them trade goals regularly.
But there can still be an appreciation for a world-class defensive player and like Messi and Ronaldo in an attacking sense, Mascherano ticks every box for his less glamorous job.
Hodgson knew either Messi or Ronaldo would win so he decided to champion Mascherano’s overlooked but immense contribution to Barcelona and Argentina.
For that he should be praised, not pilloried.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.