Louis van Gaal's first task: Where does Wayne Rooney belong?
Where does Wayne Rooney belong on the field? That will be one of the first issues that new Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal will have to deal with when he gets to Old Trafford after guiding Holland at the World Cup.
Cynics have suggested that van Gaal was keen to get a Premier League job early in case of a possible first-round exit, given the Dutch's tough group alongside defending champion Spain and dark horse Chile. Regardless, he has his appointment in hand, and his first task is fitting Robin van Persie, January signing Juan Mata and Rooney, the team's star player, into the same side -- something that proved beyond his predecessor, David Moyes.
Given that van Gaal had painted himself as a dogmatic "systems" coach, wedded to a 4-3-3, it's understandable that the focus of his appointment has been just on where Rooney will fit in to the United team - though his planned experiment to play a 5-3-2 at the World Cup to compensate for the loss of midfielder Kevin Strootman is an interesting decision and provides food for thought.
Could Rooney join van Persie in a two-man strike-force with Mata just behind? Will Rooney make up part of a midfield three? Or has van Gaal got something else entirely planned for Rooney?
Van Gaal is no stranger to switching players' positions to get the best out of them. At Bayern Munich, it was van Gaal who converted Bastian Schweinsteiger from a flaky winger into the best German midfielder of his generation.
"One of the hallmarks of van Gaal's career is that he is very good at persuading players to adapt to a role they might not have thought of playing," David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com. "He is not quite as rigid with his 4-3-3 as everyone thinks he is. He likes his system, but he knows formations are fluid anyway and what also counts is attitude, energy and state of mind."
Winner interviewed Rooney in 2012 and was struck by the English forward's intelligence. Behind the lurid headlines and salary disputes, he found a thinker about the game, and someone whose appreciation of space and movement came from studying former Ajax (and Liverpool) forward Jari Litmanen. Rooney described himself as like a snooker player always thinking three or four shot (or passes) in advance. This will strike a chord with his new coach.
"What van Gaal likes best about players is their intelligence: Rooney and van Gaal are both highly intelligent, and so I don't think it will be too much of a problem," Winner said. "His teams are all about movement and space, and though they are very precise, at the same time there is an unpredictability and energy to it which tends to win matches."
Van Gaal already has a good rapport with van Persie: he made the United striker the Netherlands' captain and claimed to have never seen a player get to 30 "and still improve as a footballer, like Robin is doing." They have been seen watching games together, and talk about the game a lot.
"I always choose the captains of my team," van Gaal told FIFA TV. "I have to live with them and I give them more responsibility so I have to admire him also because of his personality and identity. My captains are very professional but also very ambitious and also have an honest personality."
Will there be problems between Rooney and van Persie if the Dutchman gets the armband at United? Almost certainly not, given Rooney has the better contract (in terms of status, these things matter), and as for whether they can play alongside each other, they did a pretty good job of that in 2012-13, when the two scored a combined 38 league goals (Rooney 12, van Persie 26) in winning the Premier League title.
Van Gaal could restore Mata to his preferred No. 10 position and persuade Rooney that dropping into a deeper midfield role would be best for the team. Rooney is good enough to play there; and in that respect, perhaps he is England's answer to Philipp Lahm, someone who could excel in every position. Van Gaal will have to be a convincing communicator and salesman.
"He's very clever," said Winner. "He might only stay two or three years, but he'll do something that we might not expect. And the joy is that he's a vivid character, and when he's around exciting things happen."
United fans will not have to wait too long to discover that for themselves.