Louis van Gaal's honesty the best policy as Man United's season continues on a knife-edge

The Dutchman needs to temper both the highs and lows – they can’t continue to exist at such extreme levels.

Image: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport

AND IN AN instant, all of Manchester United’s issues didn’t seem so severe anymore. What a difference a day makes.

Once Louis van Gaal’s Friday press conference was finished, it was hard to absorb the rapid change in atmosphere.

Let’s just rewind a few days to when United were in a state of disarray. According to the speculation, Van Gaal faced a mutiny with players unhappy that Rafael had been sold and that a video analyst was boring them with his relentless videos. Then there was the botched deal to sell David de Gea – which meant the club had a player on their books who didn’t want to be there. And there was the arrival of Anthony Martial – the youngster who arrived on deadline day for huge money despite minimal experience. Just what was going on? The rumours swirled about how United had tried to sign a litany of high-profile names as part of one last, desperate supermarket sweep. Muller? No. Bale? No. Neymar? No. The general consensus was that things were out of control.

Then, on Wednesday night, van Gaal was with executive season ticket holders at an event at Old Trafford and spoke openly on a variety of topics. On the signing of Martial, he admitted the size of the transfer fee was ‘ridiculous’, that it was a reflection of ‘the crazy world we are in’. He outlined his feeling that Ryan Giggs will be the next Manchester United manager. He responded to criticism from Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. He discussed league position, he chatted about the loan deals involving Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson. Nothing was off limits.

Soccer - David de Gea Filer Source: Peter Byrne/PA Wire/Press Association Images

And then there were the events of today. Firstly, and rather spectacularly, de Gea performed a remarkable u-turn and signed a new deal before van Gaal tended to his media duties. And it was there that the real turnaround came to fruition.

Inevitably, he was quizzed on the rumours of problems within the dressing-room. Van Gaal didn’t shirk the challenge. He didn’t evade the questions, he didn’t offer up some vague response. Instead, he told the press what had happened.

Rooney and Carrick came to me and said the dressing room is flat – they told me to help me. I communicate not only with my captains, they try to warn me. I then go to my dressing room and discuss with my players and we discussed a lot of aspects – but not what some have written.”

“I think I have a superb relationship with my players. Maybe you have to consider how many players are coming to the manager to say something. In my career as a manager, I didn’t have so many who come to say something about the atmosphere in the dressing room or the way we train, or something like that. But it is very positive that they are coming to you and that they trust you.

I have read things that we haven’t talked about. It is the same story as last year, but the consequence of the philosophy is that we have to release players. The whole dressing room has been changed. Can you imagine when your friend must leave? What are your feelings then?”

And then there was the reference to the supporters.

“The fans are shouting every week, ‘Louis van Gaal’s army, Louis van Gaal’s army,’” he said.

“They are very satisfied and the players satisfied. Some players are coming to me to apologise about what has been said in the papers.”

The fans haven’t lost faith in him just yet. And little tributes like this do his reputation no harm at all. Suddenly, in such a short space of time, there’s a swelling of optimism and van Gaal’s honesty has had a lot to do with it.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester City v Manchester United - Etihad Stadium Source: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport

The timing could not have been more perfect. In an instant, van Gaal had popped a nasty blister and the relief is palpable. There was no drama. Everything was pretty matter-of-fact. De Gea was staying, the issues between players and management had been discussed and van Gaal agreed that the money paid for an unproven youngster was ridiculous.

With a home clash against Liverpool tomorrow, one can imagine the reaction if United win – a common trait of the season so far. There will be talk of motivation, of de Gea’s return sparking a renewed sense of purpose, of van Gaal showing his managerial nous in listening to his players and allowing them voice their concerns.

But what all of this shows more than anything else is that the fate of Manchester United is so finely balanced right now that the slightest issue seems to send everything tumbling. There are two extremes – very good or very bad and not much in between. When the club failed to sign a striker, there was outrage. But when Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick, everything was forgotten. When United won two straight games, it was a slow build of momentum. When they lost to Swansea, it was the apocalypse.

Already, this term is following the same pattern as the last one. United hit a well-documented purple-patch in late-March/early-April, winning four games in a row and delivering genuinely impressive performances against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City. It was a major high. And then, a slump – one win from their last six.

Man United Ferguson Source: Associated Press

What Ferguson was so adept at was the boringly good consistency. Commenting on United’s away win over Villa in mid-August, a friend said to me: ‘Under Fergie, this would’ve been 3-0. Competitive first-half, then a goal around the hour mark and another with twenty minutes left.’ He was right. But only because there was a pattern – United knew the games so well and how they’d play out, particularly with a core group involved season after season. And the opposition would too – something that certainly led to so many teams beaten before the game even begun.

What van Gaal needs to do is temper both the highs and lows – they can’t continue to exist at such extreme levels because, like anything, it simply leads to stress and strain. And for van Gaal, someone who prides himself on the careful, considered approach, it’s far from ideal. Players are creatures of habit and respond poorly to change. When there’s nothing but that, it will have an effect. The dressing-room changes are a prime example of that – so much has been altered so swiftly that it’s probably proving difficult to catch a breath and relax. And players respond well to that.

Van Gaal needs to be careful that the almost bi-polar nature of everything at the club is merely something temporary. The last few days have been a massive positive for him and the club but United have to make sure another crisis isn’t looming large around the next corner.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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