He should probably have ignored the whole thing, or had a dig back by, for example, wondering aloud whether Allardyce will ever get round to suing the BBC, or observing that it stings to be beaten at your own game. But then tactics are Van Gaal’s rawest nerve. He lives for the philosophy and the system. Thus it was much harder for him to ignore coverage of Allardyce’s comments that was at best disingenuous and at worst thick. For a man as obsessed with tactics as Van Gaal, this was tantamount to slander.
Anyone working in football who genuinely thinks Van Gaal’s Manchester United are a long-ball side should be sacked on the spot for ignorance. You do not need silly little data to understand their approach, only your eyes. They are largely a short-ball team whose slow tiki-takanaccio gives them the most sterile domination of games. On Sunday, they were losing so they decided to hit the big man, a tactic that has been used since time immemorial, and which directly led to Daley Blind’s equalising goal.

The widespread interpretation of United’s statistics over the whole season ignores the basic difference between a long ball and a long pass. By the prevailing logic, Paul Scholes was a long-ball merchant, when in reality he whistled crossfield passes with the same accuracy that famously allowed him to hit players on the backside while they urinated in the trees during training.
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Allardyce’s observations, though delivered with the smug twinkle of the wind-up merchant, were essentially correct: United did lump a few balls towards Marouane Fellaini, and it worked as they hoped. To a mature mind it was a non-story, yet the media jumped to attention as if Allardyce said he’d just seen Van Gaal wiping his backside with the Union Jack.

It’s clear that Van Gaal would love to have a proper chat about tactics with someone, anyone, in the media. And there are many with whom he could do so, except their editors would have no interest in publishing or showing such a conversation. England is crying out for the intelligent, detailed coverage of a publication like France Football. Even the heavy criticism of 3-5-2 amounted to little more than, er, it’s not the United way and it’s a bit boring, with scarcely any specific dissections of why it was a poor tactical choice.

The exasperating thing is that there are so many interesting and valid questions to ask of Van Gaal, whether about his unfathomable use of Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria, his increased tactical pragmatism in his career dotage, what Robin van Persie has to do to be dropped, what Ander Herrera has to do to get a game, and the merits of 3-5-2.

Van Gaal has had problems with the media in the past, most notably in Barcelona, but he will never have encountered anything quite like England. The forced wackiness of transfer deadline day, when middle-aged people behave like four-year-olds, reflects a culture that has gone terribly wrong, where almost everything is geared towards a perceived audience who are very stupid – even though Gary Neville’s insightful Monday Night seminars have been a complete triumph.
Such exceptions only highlight the poverty of the coverage as well. A culture of wilful gormlessness and collective trolling has developed, in which everyone is apparently allergic to nuance, and it’s getting worse by the day. Much of it is down to the pressure to fill rolling news and the panic created by the need for internet hits; every day banal quotes transmogrify into sensational headlines. The clickbait war of the 2010s is a dispiritingly naff version of the tabloid war of the 1980s.

Van Gaal’s biggest mistake was to think he could educate or reason with those entrenched in such a culture. It was a clumsy but sincere plea for reason and maturity when it comes to coverage of United and especially discussion of tactics. He’d have had more joy trying to explain Kierkegaard to a zombie.
Rob Smyth
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