Football Psychology: Louis Van Gaal – Roulette!

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Football PsychologyLucky!’ That was Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal’s assessment of Middlesboro’s Old Trafford shoot-out win last night. ‘It was more like the casino. Red or black’.

It’s an old argument that you don’t hear trotted out too often in the modern era. The notion that what happens from twelve yards after extra-time, is seemingly in the lap of the footballing gods. A lottery. Out of the managers hands.

So…the Dutchman is either putting a protective managerial shield around his players. Or failing to see the obvious. That the spot kick misses from Rooney, Carrick and Young weren’t unlucky. But indicators of his players fragile mind-set under pressure.

Van Gaal tells us that his players practised their spot-kicks the day before. Maybe the practise wasn’t intense and thorough enough. Maybe it didn’t create a robust enough individual process that could absorb Old Trafford pressure. All the missed penalties betrayed a lack of belief. The fear of failure was stronger than trust in self.

Van Gaal may choose to ignore such indicators. But it would be foolish to do so. For under-pressure against Championship opposition, his players failed to deliver. Where was the swagger…the authority…the supreme confidence that you would once expect from a Manchester United side at Old Trafford? Right now, those qualities appear to be overlaid by inhibiting cautions.

Having players who follow the Louis Van Gaal system and pre-planned game dynamics is one thing. But that doesnt help when a player has to deliver from the spot. System thinking is more about understanding and following orders, with subtle fears that can come from getting it wrong. If you are not careful you stop thinking for yourself and simply become a good player at doing what you are told.

If Louis Van Gaal gets to the heart of United’s spot kick failure, he may find clues that tells him where his players are really at right now. And as a smart experienced coach, help them play with a bit more freedom of expression. But if he remains in the cocoon of ‘penalty shoot out as lottery’ thinking, then his United team will probably fall short of expressing their full potential.