In his often tumultuous reign at Old Trafford, Louis Van Gaal has found his defensive record to be a source of pride.
Only three teams conceded less than his Manchester United side last season and only Spurs and Arsenal have let in less than them this term, the goals against tally usually used by Van Gaal when he’s being pilloried in press conferences like a hedgehog rolling into a ball when encountering a predator.
“Our defensive organisation is normally the best part of our game, we’ve proved that more than ever this season” he said back in November and last month he was pointing to his team’s frugality to justify the nondescript football that he remains strictly devoted to despite the continuous criticism.
Van Gaal was referring to the 3-3 draw at Newcastle when he buckled to the growing demands to loosen the shackles on his team but was rewarded with a free-flowing counter-attacking display that was undermined by some haphazard work at the back.
In the four games since Van Gaal has evidently toyed with the idea of giving his team more license to play but the majestic 3-0 win over Stoke was sandwiched between a turgid 0-1 loss to Southampton and the 1-1 draw at Chelsea where United, although good in possession, weren’t as impressive as the Dutch coach would have everybody believe.
It was quite clear from the 6-goal stalemate on Tyneside last month that Van Gaal finds it difficult to trust his team to be too open because they can’t deal with the opposition’s quick transition when the ball is lost.
It was his “twitchy ass” that gave way to the 3-5-2 systems of last season and the slow, possession-based football that adheres to 2 defensive midfielders which has become a theme this term.
Phil Jones, Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett, Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick and Tom Thorpe were all used at centre-half last season by Van Gaal who saw his squad torn by injuries and who wrestled with his own agitations over his defensive make-up.
The summer represented a chance to fix that but here we enter the Van Gaal paradox; a manager who appears to be so preoccupied and aware of the limitations of his centre-halves but steadfast in his refusal to sign a domineering and experienced centre-half.
An effort to pluck Sergio Ramos away from Real Madrid always seemed to be speculative while Nicolas Otamendi opted to join their neighbours on the blue side of the city.
Van Gaal racked up the summer spending beyond £100 million as Matteo Darmian came in at right-back and Morgan Schniederlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger bolstered the defensive areas of midfield but there was still no centre-half.
Blind and Rojo came in the year before but they are more comfortable at left-back, or in centre-midfield too in Blind’s case.
Fixture at center-back
Blind played at centre-half only twice in Van Gaal’s inaugural year with United but this year has made the spot alongside the unmovable Smalling, whose development under Van Gaal has been one of the few discernible success stories of the Dutchman’s reign, his own.
There have been some difficulties including being bullied by Graziano Pelle in the 2-3 win over Southampton on the south coast, looking bewildered by the shock and awe of Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in October’s 3-0 defeat and the toils at Bournemouth and Stoke in December that pushed Van Gaal close to the managerial precipice.
But the 25 year old’s form, in a position he has had to learn on the job, has been largely encouraging. Blind is United’s third-highest rated performer out of those who have managed more than 10 games.
Only Smalling has managed more clearances than Blind’s 82 but unlike his partner, the Dutchman’s balls out from the back have been productive, he is United’s most accurate user of the long-ball (bar goalkeeper David De Gea) and also of the short ball, boasting a pass completion rate of 86.1%- the third highest in the United squad- which helps United alleviate pressure from the back by keeping possession in the process.
A calm and assured distributor of the ball, it is clear why Blind is so valuable to Van Gaal and his unwavering enthusiasm for possession to be continuously recycled, plus he is also an asset when it comes to actually defending.
Only Darmian has made more tackles than Blind’s 72 and only Smalling has made more interceptions than the Dutchman’s 52.
A sure starter, but doubts still remain
Some doubts do still remain, he will certainly have to cut out the “sh*t moment” that was a factor in United surrendering two points to Chelsea last weekend if they are to chase down a top four spot, while his ability on the ball and the type of intelligent and incisive run that earned him a vital goal in the FA Cup tie at Derby at the end of January would arguably be better served in a position where he isn’t inhibited so much with defending his own goal.
But Van Gaal’s faith in his defence meant he chose not to enter the January market for any additions, either that or he is no longer trusted with funds by a board that has slowly lost patience with the manager, so Blind will have to continue his impressive, yet understated, form if United are to have a successful conclusion to an underwhelming season.
Van Gaal will know that if he is to end this season with any credibility remaining, Blind would have played a huge role.
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