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Does Van Gaal know what he is doing?

I’ve never rated Robbie Savage as a pundit but I must say that his recent observation around the freedom Louis van Gaal has been given at Manchester United is spot on.

The former Blackburn and Derby County midfielder pointed out that, after having spent an excess of £150 million in marquee signings this summer, Van Gaal’s team have been anything but spectacular. In fact, he compares the current team to a beautiful house that has the nicest roof on the street but has blown out windows on the ground floor.

United’s results and points tally after five games are the worst in the team’s history in the Barclays Premier League. So it is no surprise that fans of the club are scratching their heads in amazement, especially after a pre-season where the team went unbeaten against top-level opposition.

Days before the opening game of the season, Van Gaal strutted the terraces of Carrington and had a room full of delighted journalists eating from the palm of his hands. It was a typical Van Gaal conference, one that the journalists had been exposed to only a few weeks before in Brazil, where he guided the Dutch national team to a third-place finish.

The Swans were the visitors to Old Trafford in what was a reverse fixture from the previous season. Armed with a new 3-5-2 formation that had worked extremely well in pre-season, you fancied United to walk away with all three points.

Swansea beat them convincingly and, in effect, exposed cracks that had been papered over in pre-season. United just did not have the personnel in defence to execute a system Van Gaal favoured. Smalling and Jones were made to look like bartenders who had one too many drinks before their shifts started. Long after Gary Monk and his team had departed the previously hallowed grounds of Old Trafford, fans sat back in bewilderment.

A subsequent loss to MK Dons in the Capital One Cup and two draws against Sunderland and Burnley set the alarm bells ringing, but it was the 5-3 loss to newly promoted Leicester City that got tongues wagging.

In fairness to Van Gaal, United had looked in control before some howlers by Mark Clattenburg changed the complexion of the game. United’s defence capitulated in dramatic fashion and, suddenly, the rousing speeches of only a few months ago began to give way to indignant complaints.

The 3-5-2 formation has since been jettisoned in favour of a more predictable four-man defence that looked better than it really was against a muzzled QPR team. Unfortunately for Van Gaal, his defenders are falling away to injuries like leaves from a tree.

Change was required and the directors knew that Van Gaal was one of a few available coaches with the conviction to carry it out. Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra were ultimately consigned to fresh pastures and, in one fell swoop, United lost three decades of experience in the back line.

So why did a manager with the technical nous of Van Gaal not adequately replace them? Why was a midfielder in the mould of Nigel de Jong (who did such an admirable job for Van Gaal in the recently concluded World Cup) or Alex Song (who was being offered to everyone by Barcelona) not snapped up?

While Daley Blind looks a potentially good player and a calmer influence in midfield, he hasn’t quite looked like an upgrade of the injured Michael Carrick and seems a bit lightweight against bigger and better opposition.

Van Gaal is conceited, stubborn and crass, if nothing else, and he has continued to insist that he will not be forced into panic buying a defender during the January transfer window. Instead, Paddy McNair and Tom Thorpe have been drafted to the first team from the reserves, with the former giving a good account of himself in a highly charged encounter against West Ham this past weekend, but is he the answer to United’s problems at the back?

By the time Everton visit Old Trafford this weekend, United might have either Johnny Evans or Chris Smalling back, if not both. After admitting earlier this week that he’s made too many changes and given the players too many instructions too soon, will Van Gaal revert to his favoured three-in-defence or continue with the much more reliable 4-4-2?

What will it mean about his philosophy if he decides to continue with the latter?

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