The requests to get yours truly to pen another blog since the last are well appreciated but there was always the great unfortunate danger of sounding like a broken record repeating the same old song about Louis van Gaal’s reign at Manchester United. Incredibly, the one-paced columns about United were fuelled by the fact that United’s season remained relevant up until late on Saturday evening.
Such has been van Gaal’s incredible luck this season that the top four battle was not lost until the final day of the season. As such, all talk of his departure this summer was mute until the club were mathematically ruled out of the Champions League next summer. Now that it is all over, perhaps something new about United can be penned.
For a start, we’ve won the FA Cup! But more on that later. The aftermath of the Cup triumph has been overshadowed by immense speculation that Louis van Gaal will not be allowed to complete his tenure at United because the club have agreed a contract with Jose Mourinho. Indeed, all media houses but the club itself have confirmed that particular change. It leaves an unexplained eulogy about the Dutchman’s two years at the club.
Coming to Manchester as arguably the coach of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Louis van Gaal boasted the CV, the arrogance and persona to walk into Manchester United and lift it from the sorry state that David Moyes had reduced it to. In his first presser as manager on July 16th that year, the Dutchman talked up his ambition to see Manchester United as the best in England, to keep in tune with similar success everywhere he has been before.
In his first summer, van Gaal bemoaned the lack of a ”fast winger” as one of the most significant shortcomings of the squad he inherited. Indeed, the Dutchman name checked Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria as one of the players he thought would vastly improve his side. Now, United’s Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward is not one to give a manager much of an excuse largely because of the considerable size of the club’s transfer budget. The club’s transfer record was smashed by some distance to prize Di Maria away from the then European Champions. It’s fair to say, fans were gobsmacked by that purchase. It had been a while since United had brought in a genuine world beater at the peak of his powers from a club of equal stature with United.
When Radamel Falcao joined Di Maria in United’s forward line that summer, United’s odds to clinch the league title in van Gaal’s first season were tentatively placed at 5/1 at some point during the completion of that transfer on deadline day. Alongside Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, United boasted an incredible array of attackers, so much so that by the first 65 minutes of their clash at Leicester City one Sunday afternoon, yours truly thought that we were going to walk the league.
Obviously it didn’t go according to plan, cue a new set of excuses for van Gaal to conjure. This time, according to the Dutchman, we were in a period of transition and that the fans had to be patient for his philosophy to take effect. He initially timed it to three months, then mid season, then the entire first season if he at least got Champions League football. After achieving the latter, he guaranteed himself a second season to push on from 4th place.
|LVG struggled to explain away his enduring failures at the club|
Except that by then he also had to come up with an explanation as to why his expensively acquired fast paced winger had struggled under him. The Dutchman accused the Argentine of failing to adapt to his methods whilst the Argentine counter-accused the Dutchman of playing him in different positions every game so much so that he failed to acclamatise to any of them.
By the turn of the following season, van Gaal had culled more than half the number of players who won the title in 2013 under Sir Alex. Finally one could say, it was his team! However, despite spending another huge outlay in his second summer, the Dutchman, by his own choice, started the 2015/16 season with just 21 squad players. He explained that going into the season with a bigger number would mean that the youth of the club would be suffocated by a lack of playing time.
By Christmas when United suddenly couldn’t win a game anymore, the Dutchman went on about how injuries had affected his squad so much so that he was left with a very young team to play. When the kids revived United’s form by the end of February, van Gaal sought credit for having the audacity to play youth. A typical case of desiring your cake after eating it.
When it appeared ever so likely that the club were going to fall short of the minimum standards, van Gaal told the media, and by extension the fans that expectations by the fans were too high. Quite a change of tune from that 16th July unveiling presser!
Even so, United fans are a patient bunch! Many were willing to do away with the reality that the club could not challenge for the title if the style of play remained true to the club’s ethos. The spirit of the club dictates that United always have a go. That regardless the circumstances, they would give every fibre of their being to aid the club’s cause. It is that spirit that forms the essence of the club’s never say die attitude.
Louis van Gaal’s biggest indictment at the club therefore is draining that spirit from the club. The amount of 0-0 draws that the club has suffered during his reign have been the most painful symptom of the general state of affairs during his tenure. Indeed, one less 0-0 draw would have secured his job for a third season given that at top four has become the benchmark upon which the manager is sacked or not.
It is therefore sad that the Dutchman has claimed credit for a trophy he would not have won if the players had stuck to his straight jacket routine in Saturday’s FA Cup final. The flaw in LVG’s routine of control by possession is that the club remains vulnerable to a break away counter from the opposition. It’s a weakness that has accounted for nearly all of United’s defeats under the Dutchman (and they’re not few!). True to script, Palace broke away with one ball over the top and took the lead with less than a quarter of an hour left to play, having hardly bothered De Gea before that point.
Wayne Rooney, against the instructions of his manager, went on a mazy run that started from inside the centre circle and led him to the penalty box of Crystal Palace, incredibly for the first time in the game! The captain crossed for Fellaini who chested down for Mata and United were level within three minutes of going behind. If only they had started like that eh? Except, that is not in keeping with van Gaal’s methods and so the club were quickly back to routine.
It’s been well covered by the media that United players have been instructed to not to shoot first time so as to afford greater accuracy. Indeed, in the aftermath of United’s win at home to West Brom in the league, van Gaal claimed credit for Jesse Lingard’s strike that broke the deadlock because Lingard, acting under his manager’s instruction, took a touch before placing the ball into the bottom right hand corner.
On Saturday, if Lingard had taken a touch with the chance that fell his way in extra time, United don’t get that winner! The reality is, taking a touch in that moment affords greater accuracy but also allows the covering defender more time to effectively block the shot. Such goals are scored from pure instinct, not methodical education on the training ground. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes a chance from Teddy Sherringham’s knock down in the Champions League final in 1999, United don’t get that historic winner! And yet Ole will tell you that Fergie didn’t coach that on the training field. He simply didn’t kill it as a possible avenue to scoring a goal. Indeed, Ole has since said he can’t quite remember the whole episode. It was a blur. In such a situation, time to think, which LVG advocates for, is the enemy. Therefore, to see van Gaal jump up in elation again for a goal scored in total defiance of his clip-board instruction was stomach churning.
It has been well documented by van Gaal himself that he likes to go through minute details with his players to evaluate proceedings in matches. Initially, the highlighting of errors by individual players was done in such a general audience involving the entire playing staff that the manager ended up achieving nothing more than embarrassment for the affected players. Indeed, therein lies the reason why so many players at the club always look for the safe pass as opposed to ‘going for it.’
Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney approached him about this and the Dutchman sought to do it privately. Except that the inherent problem was not addressed! At full time on Saturday, a close inspection of the footage showing United’s celebrations immediately after the game has Louis van Gaal chasing up David De Gea to remind him that he was guilty of not catching the ball when he punched it clear in one of the final Palace attacks of the second period of extra time! Take a moment and let that sink in! Dave turned away immediately, but almost in utter disregard of the reprimand.
In van Gaal’s book, there is no room for mistakes (Yes, even though we are human). There is no room to think for yourself (Even though you are an intelligent being by design). There is no room to improvise (Even though circumstances dictate that you should). Everything must always be done according to text book (Even though he is the only one allowed to carry it around). You cannot come up with an independent conclusion from a given set of circumstances, no matter how effective it turns out to be (As De Gea came to find out). In his book, the end does not justify the means. The means justify the end. Where is the fun in watching that?
Perhaps, his biggest triumph at Manchester United was in sticking with the club’s youth policy. However, there is every likelihood that the Dutchman misinterpreted this cause. Fergie handed out debuts regularly to the kids even with a squad of 28 players.
Louis van Gaal failed to appreciate that it is a given that in the English league, given the amount of contact challenges that referees are prepared to overlook, injuries are part and parcel of the season. For instance, it doesn’t require psychic powers to predict that at some point next season, United will have 10 injuries at the same time. This is why a squad of more than two teams is required.
Even if we attribute the emergence of youth to him, the failure to appreciate that they were better options than some of his seniors at a time when he got back most of his players fit, was damning. Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian descended in form over the season to the point where Cameron Borthwick Jackson and Tim Fosu-Mensah were consistently turning in better games. The latter’s importance to the side defensively was best illustrated by the six minutes following his withdrawal at White Harte Lane.
The lesson was not learnt for United’s trip to West Ham that effectively ruled United out of the Champions League. What was more damning was that the manager left CBJ out of his FA Cup final team regardless the poor form and poor fitness levels of Marcos Rojo. Indeed, at some point during the final on Saturday, only De Gea and Chris Smalling were in their natural positions. Such has consistently been the state of affairs under Van Gaal.
|Manchester United won their 12th FA Cup inspite of not because of Louis van Gaal|
Louis van Gaal, walked into Manchester United and failed to correctly judge the essence of the club. His time at the club has been marred by the constant arm wrestle between his ego and the spirit of the club. United’s essence is not borne of insanity! The straight-jacket routine was meant for a team of mental patients, not one hose ethos is built on making dreams a reality. Even without success, the fans can tolerate a manager whose design appreciates those ideals.
Once upon a time, Jose Mourinho and his scorched earth policy as Manchester United manager was unthinkable. However, van Gaal has drained the club of its spiritual ideals, so much so that even the Portuguese’s approach affords a better alternative to what fans were constantly being served up under the Dutchman. Therein lies the verdict of Louis van Gaal’s reign as Manchester United manager.
Forget the cons that with Mourinho’s possible appointment as Manchester United manager, another lifeless season under van Gaal would be asking fans to bear one too many games of what we’ve been served up for the past two seasons.