Neil Humphreys: Time for van Gaal to make brave decisions
Van Gaal needs to get tough again to make hard decisions
MAN UNITED v CSKA MOSCOW
(Tomorrow, 3.45am, StarHub TV Ch 212)
Louis van Gaal once wallowed in his anarchy. He did as he pleased.
To watch him up close at the World Cup was to watch an unapologetic autocrat revel in his absolute power.
The Dutchman savoured his cruel decision to substitute goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul in the quarter-final penalty shootout against Costa Rica.
He swatted away probing questions with a smile. He wasn't concerned with stepping on toes along the road to victory.
He wanted to win matches, not hearts and minds.
But that man has gone. He's taken a leave of absence. Old Trafford should check the missing person's list. The bully has left the building.
In Holland, van Gaal is known as the Iron Tulip. In Manchester, he's looking like a wallflower.
The decisive ego has given way to a safe conservative, seemingly incapable of taking the tough decisions that could arrest the scoring slump and improve United's chances against CSKA Moscow tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
From Russia, there's no love. The Red Devils are yet to defeat Russian opposition on home soil and that unwanted record could be extended, if van Gaal's hard-headedness doesn't return.
The 64-year-old hasn't lost his Midas touch, but his miserable touch, the ruthless streak that would have put Wayne Rooney out of his misery a month ago.
United's barren spell, which now stretches across three consecutive 0-0 draws and 325 minutes of largely turgid football, hasn't been helped by their skipper's ineptitude.
Rooney can't score. He can't assist. He can't keep up with the game's pace. Of late, his contributions have rarely extended beyond leading out doe-eyed matchday mascots and tossing the coin.
The thought of a younger van Gaal indulging such a peripheral footballer is inconceivable.
And yet, Rooney endures, huffing and puffing in a slightly antiquated fashion usually associated with Thomas the Tank Engine but without the smiley face.
So does the static formation.
Van Gaal speaks of possession football in a 0-0 draw like a dejected teenager desperately trying to prove that holding a girl's hand is just as good as stealing a kiss.
It isn't. It's anti-climatic and every bit as dull as Paul Scholes said it was at the weekend.
But the tactical tinkering and creative spontaneity that once typified van Gaal's teams has eluded both the manager and his men on the pitch.
Whether he's being cautious or cantankerous, the Dutchman's refusal to accommodate his only attacking performer in a more advanced position will be justly scrutinised and criticised if he repeats the trick against CSKA Moscow.
Van Gaal's insistence on leaving Anthony Martial on the left hurts United on two fronts.
The timid move reinforces Scholes' scathing critique that van Gaal is risk-averse. United's players are straitjacketed and their performances are akin to eczema itches that can't be scratched.
The irritation is permanent, with the only available soothing balm lost in the wilderness of the left wing.
And tactically, United are an open book. With a 4-2-3-1 formation bereft of speed, the Red Devils were easy opponents for Crystal Palace. Alan Pardew made the elementary point later. Shut down Martial, shut down United.
Once the young Frenchman is neutered, United are impotent, slow and rudderless in attack.
If Martial plays further forward, he's not only harder to isolate, he's potentially able to bring others into the game, with his back to goal, a function that is currently beyond the plodding Rooney.
But van Gaal inexplicably perseveres with a failing system. He fumbles on with a fading centre forward and persists with a pair in midfield who are heavy on industry but sometimes missing a light touch.
Morgan Schneiderlin makes quiet progress, but Bastian Schweinsteiger labours with the grace of an elephant in stilettos. Admittedly, Michael Carrick doesn't bring pace. But he can still play a pass.
Van Gaal continues to amplify the meaningless possession stats, but goes awfully quiet when it comes to penetration. At the moment, United's passes don't count.
And yet, Rooney and Schweinsteiger stay.
Juan Mata drifts in and out like an afternoon snooze, not quite asleep, but not fully alert and composed either. While Martial is left alone on the left, as if sent to the back of the class for showing off too much.
So Old Trafford wants to welcome the old van Gaal against CSKA Moscow, the one who was always happy to make tough choices with a dash of belligerence.
The Iron Tulip must return to take care of his shrinking violets.
Of course I am concerned (about the lack of goals)... It can change in one match and let it be against CSKA because we need a victory.
— Man United manager Louis van Gaal
I know it will be a huge issue if van Gaal takes the bold step and leaves Rooney out for a couple of weeks, but that is what needs to be done for the player’s own good.
— Former England striker Alan Shearer