This time last year, Manchester United fans across the world were lamenting the admittedly, below average performance of doomed – from – the off manager David Moyes. Indeed, in hindsight, Moyes was massively out of his depth and unquestionably struggled to bring the players around to his way of thinking. Which was…….?
Moyes’ task, replacing the most successful manager that English football will ever see, Sir Alex Ferguson, was gargantuan from the off. Nonetheless, he shopped poorly during the summer, like a panicked man on Christmas Eve, and limped unconvincingly through the opening weeks of the season before the wheels well and truly came off. By May, even the most ardent of Moyes’ sympathisers, this column included, knew the time had come for the Glaswegian to walk the plank.
And so, all the way from the Netherlands, came the much touted, Louis van Gaal, to save the ailing giants. Of course, one can see the point of view of the board, and particularly Chief Executive, Ed Woodward, desperate to recover from the disastrous Moyes experiment. Woodward is commercially astute and ensures the club maintain their incredible, worldwide profitability but supporters don’t celebrate wildly upon hearing of the continued economic viability of their club over a sustained period of a time. They want success. Just ask any Arsenal fan if they’d prefer record profits or a team who could win the Premiership. Thus Manchester United needed a big name managerial signing this summer gone by. Louis Van Gaal, the successful but confrontational Dutch manager, provided this to a certain extent.
Granted, Van Gaal led the Netherlands to the World Cup semi-final in Brazil last summer and we give credit to his strict regime, which contributed handsomely to the Dutch side’s very impressive third place finish in the tournament. The Dutch seem to be a strong minded bunch so perhaps his dictatorial approach was necessary to keep the squad focused and prevent the infighting, infamously associated with the Netherlands squad at most major tournaments. The Netherlands appear to have a seemingly infinite conveyor belt of tactically astute, technically competent players. Winning them over mentally and getting them to co-exist is more than half the battle.
This is not the case at Manchester United. From day one, players arrive at Manchester United knowing they are but a small cog in a huge wheel that will continue to turn long after they’ve departed. This is an outlook particularly associated with the Alex Ferguson era. Even Ferguson himself, ludicrously successful, knew that as great as his impact would be, the club would inevitably have to move on after his reign if not by desire, then certainly by necessity.
The concept of bringing in an experienced coach to steady a suddenly rocky ship seems completely sound in principle but the choice of Aloysius Paulus Maria Van Gaal was not. One can’t help but feel that Van Gaal took this job to put an exclamation point on his own career as much as to bring stability to the red side of Manchester. The 63-year-old seems to be an extraordinarily complex character and one that has an unbending belief and insistence on adhering to his turgid system, the much-debated 3-5-2.
One of our main gripes is that if Manchester United wanted a man to bring a calming influence and a sense of familiarity then, why not perhaps Guus Hiddink, equally experienced but far less confrontational. Van Gaal’s professional appointments are rarely lengthy. Interestingly, however, almost all of the jilted clubs and the Netherlands, opened their door to him once more proving beyond doubt that he has an excellent football brain but not the demeanour to match.
Incidentally, he never returned to manage Ajax, the place where he had his longest tenure and his greatest success, winning the Champions League with a dream team including, amongst others; the de Boer brothers, Ronald and Frank, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars. Was this because he achieved everything he felt he needed to while there? The second bite at the Netherlands cherry came after he failed to obtain qualification for the 2002 World Cup, a humbling defeat to the Republic of Ireland sealing the Dutch fate. The Barcelona return was seemingly necessitated after the first spell was marred by what Van Gaal saw as cultural differences and a refusal by certain players (see Rivaldo) to follow his systematic approach.
Most damningly, at least from Manchester United’s point of view, is the fact that they have brought in a man who has decided to cast aside the attacking philosophy always so closely associated with the club. Why bring in someone who completely disregards the belief that entertaining the fans is almost as important as winning? Right now, Van Gaal seems to have sapped the enthusiasm and love for the game out of some outstandingly talented players.
Look at Angel di Maria, man of the match in last year’s Champions league final. The Argentine is a mercurial player, one who is willing to try the audacious. Players of this ilk will lose the ball more often than the man who passes it ten yards, square. However, they also possess the ability to pull off the incredible and, for this very reason, should be allowed express themselves.
Right now di Maria looks like a friend you might know that used to be the life and soul of the party, a bit wild, until they met a person who seemed determined to sap all the fun from them. Look too at Radamel Falcao. The Colombian looked a major coup in the summer, even if only on a rather expensive season-long loan deal. Left in his tracksuit on Wednesday night as Manchester United bumbled their way to victory in St James’ Park, he looked like a man already contemplating whether Madrid or Paris would be nicer in the autumn.
Manchester United will not challenge for the Premier League for a number of years. Even qualifying for the Champions League seems a tall order at the moment. However, if they are going to lose, they should do so playing the cavalier football so closely with associated with the famous old club. David Moyes’ brief era was rightly criticised for a lack of direction from the manager and a failure to identify a specific style of play. A season later the side are playing some of the most aesthetically unappealing football in the league but are being excused because the coach has some mythical philosophy and the board dare not consider firing a second coach in a year, after an unprecedented era of stability.
When Van Gaal parted ways with Barcelona for the first time in 2000 he famously uttered, “Amigos de la prensa. Yo me voy. Felicidades.” (Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations.) The British press have been far more forgiving, admittedly it has only been seven months. However, if the abject nothingness of Manchester United’s style of play continues, then how long, one would wonder before the knives begin to sharpen?