A game-changer like Ferguson


(Wesley Sneijder 88, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar 90+4-pen)
(Giovanni dos Santos 48)

If Manchester United supporters are looking for good omens, Holland's dramatic last-gasp 2-1 victory over Mexico certainly stands out.

For the third time in four games in Brazil, Louis van Gaal's side have fought back from a goal down to win the game.

Does he remind you of anyone?

Sir Alex Ferguson had many strengths as a manager - his eye for a player, his refusal to be stuck in a rut, his unshakeable belief that the good of the team outweighed the needs of the individual, but his strongest attribute was his ability to change a game.

Whether it was simply the force of his character or the shrewdness of his substitutions, you could never write United off.

It's a trait shared by van Gaal, certainly in this World Cup, at least.

After 44 minutes of their opening Group B game, Holland were a goal down to Spain and fortunate that it wasn't two. They went on to win 5-1.

Mile Jedinak's penalty gave Australia a 2-1 lead in the second group game. The Socceroos eventually lost 3-2.

And now this remarkable comeback in the most challenging of conditions.

For a northern European nation to score twice in the dying stages of a game played in temperatures of almost 39 deg C is extraordinary.

To do it against a side accustomed to those conditions was even more incredible.

Had the Dutch rolled over and capitulated when Giovanni dos Santos scored three minutes after the start of the second half, it would have been entirely understandable.

But, even in stifling humidity, they managed to find the energy to push up and search for a goal.

Those players, a disparate bunch of solid professionals like Ron Vlaar and Nigel de Jong, and more high-maintenance personalities like Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, would not have done that for any manager. But they did it for van Gaal.

Much has been made of van Gaal's decision to dispense with Holland's traditional 4-3-3 formation and switch to a back three.



Some have seen it as a betrayal of the nation's values. Van Gaal didn't even flinch.

By his assessment, his team lagged behind the competition's favourites and they didn't have the quality to play the free-flowing football he required.

It was his judgment that the best way to prosper would be to put up a three-man wall at the back, flank it with cautious, not flying, wingbacks and look to do everything on the break using pace and quick thinking. And it has worked.

There are many reasons David Moyes failed at United, but his aversion to conflict and criticism was chief among them.

Nemanja Vidic announced that he wanted to leave, but Moyes allowed him to keep the captaincy.

Wayne Rooney wanted to leave. Moyes cosseted him.

A number of players vocally objected to his methods and disrespected his coaches. He allowed them to remain at the club.

Moyes once remarked that he left van Persie on the pitch when United were losing because he was worried what people would think if he withdrew his top scorer.

Van Gaal would laugh at such timidity.

Indeed, van Persie was one of the men to be withdrawn by his coach in Fortaleza, replaced by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

A man of van Gaal's self-confidence probably didn't even stop to think what other people would make of the decision but, if he had doubted himself, Huntelaar's calmly-taken match-winning penalty vindicated his strategy.

And van Persie is one of van Gaal's closest allies. Imagine how he'll treat people he doesn't like?

If Rooney believes that his contract and his wages make him untouchable at Old Trafford, he's in for a very nasty shock.

Van Gaal will not be intimidated by players and he won't be intimidated by the challenge that awaits him.

He will be respectful of Ferguson's legacy, but it is unlikely to trouble him unduly.

Even if Moyes' failure hadn't already drawn an end to the softly-softly approach to succession, van Gaal would have no truck with caution.

That's good news for United. Next season is going to be absolutely fascinating.

The only bad news is that it's now going to be at least another week until the Dutchman starts work at Carrington.

But, on the evidence of this morning's game, they'll be happy to wait.

This article was first published on JULY 1, 2014.
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