Manchester United's problems run deep: Mismanaged van Gaal era a symptom not the disease
It is tough to claim that a coherent vision is guiding the boardroom's actions. The club's chief executive Ed Woodward, involved in a few ill-advised transfer forays, does not inspire confidence
When Louis van Gaal arrived at Camp Nou in 1997 to take over the reins as Barcelona manager, Jose Mourinho was left in a state of limbo. Having worked as an interpreter under Bobby Robson until then, the young Portuguese coach expected to be relieved of his duties now that his boss had decided to move to the role of 'General Manager'. However, van Gaal recognised the value of Mourinho's knowledge of the club and his sense of loyalty. Soon, the Dutch manager decided to include him in his coaching staff as well. Mourinho went on to become one of van Gaal's trusted lieutenants during his three-season tenure at Camp Nou.
It's tough to decipher the games fate plays. Nearly 20 years later, it's Mourinho who has all but put van Gaal out of his misery after a troubled couple of years at Old Trafford. The joy of the FA Cup win, Manchester United's first major trophy since Alex Ferguson's retirement, has hardly been felt as rumours of the Dutch manager's sacking started swirling minutes after the final whistle at the Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
It's far from the first thing United have mismanaged in the recent past. The club spent around 250 million pounds in a scattergun approach to transfers that belied claims that the club was proceeding on its time-tested principles of long-term planning. Angel di Maria was sold to Paris Saint-Germain after an underwhelming season; he had been brought to Old Trafford with much fanfare for nearly 60 million pounds. Bastian Schweinsteiger has similarly failed to match the expectations that his glittering pedigree brought.
It was quite fitting though that the winning goal in the FA Cup final was scored by Jesse Lingard. This is the legacy that van Gaal will bequeath to the club: A trophy and bunch of young players that he promoted partially out of necessity. The injury crisis that seemed to dog his tenure perennially forced him to tinker with the side. This often left players in positions that did not come naturally to them and invited accusations that van Gaal did not know his best team. Or even his best approach, for that matter.
United were roundly criticised for an underwhelming style that produced few goals, even though the side possessed an ever-improving and sturdy defence. It was, some said, a deep attack on the club's hallowed tradition of exciting, attacking football. The question that follows, of course, is that why should the club appoint Mourinho then?
It could be argued that van Gaal's troubles are symptomatic of the greater problems that afflict the club. Financially, United is in rude health but it is tough to claim that a coherent vision is guiding the boardroom's actions. The club's chief executive Ed Woodward, involved in a few ill-advised transfer forays, does not inspire confidence; his failed courting of Cesc Fabregas two years ago appropriately demonstrated his inexperience.
Only a year ago, it had been reported that club was laying a foundation that would serve it well for years. Van Gaal was supposed to mentor Ryan Giggs so that the latter could become manager upon the end of the Dutchman's contract. However, now the situation has turned sharply enough for the club to appoint a manager who does not score high on longevity.
This is not to accuse United of muddled thinking; rather, it is to accuse them of falling to the temptation of short-termism that pervades opinions at most big clubs. This is why Mourinho seems so attractive right now. His CV is full of trophies that did not take too long to win.
Where does this leave Louis van Gaal though? Is he out of sync with modern football? To the contrary, he is a victim of the expectations that he himself was responsible for lifting. Van Gaal had made his name at Ajax in the 1990s when he led a swashbuckling group of youngsters who wowed the world with their quick ball circulation and swift exchange of positions. It was a model of football that heavily influenced Pep Guardiola's thinking when he was appointed Barcelona's manager in 2008.
However, van Gaal's firm belief in the ethos of collective work rubbed quite a few talented players the wrong way. Di Maria left Old Trafford last summer on the pretext of some deep disagreements with the manager's vision. Van Gaal is known to react unfavourably to an assertion of individuality unless it's his own. He was famously known to assign numbers to players on the pitch who were expected to perform certain duties; their individual gifts were seemingly ignored, although that was not necessarily the case.
Working in a time where the final third was increasingly crowded, van Gaal decided to use a deep-lying defensive midfielder who could construct moves and dictate play. Frank Rijkaard was his choice for the role at Ajax as he wanted an experienced leader in that position. Van Gaal has always greatly valued experience and decisiveness in a player; Rooney was seen as an ideal fit for the role, but he was found to be increasingly lacking in the latter attribute. Van Gaal wants "killers" — much like Mourinho, who prized Eden Hazard during Chelsea's successful 2014-15 league campaign — and he failed to find any at United.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where van Gaal guided a Netherlands team to third place, made one more thing clearly obvious: LVG was wedded to the "safety first" policy. In control of a side that did not always demonstrate defensive control, he made the Netherlands more reactive and "boring". It's a tag that has followed the Dutchman throughout his career. Even when Ajax were the best side in Europe in mid-90s, former Dutch players — especially the ones who had played in Johan Cruyff's era — accused him of curbing the flair and style that made football beautiful in their eyes.
Therefore, this begs the question why were the United board and fans expecting to be wowed by a display of attacking football that has supposedly been the team's hallmark? As a result of those heightened expectations, people around the club were severely disappointed upon watching sterile performances. Van Gaal had promised United the achievement of major success when he arrived. He failed on that count but it's difficult to accept that attractive football was part of the package.
Van Gaal, though, kept one of his implicit promises. It was not only the promotion of young players into the first team, but also the fact that they received immense support that allowed the likes of Marcus Rashford to bloom. This aspect of van Gaal's coaching has been relatively under-emphasised. It needs to be recalled that he unequivocally emphasised the importance of La Masia to Barcelona during his time there; unlike now, the academy was not held in the highest regard back then.
Mourinho's poor record of promoting youngsters may mean that the leaps made by youth players under van Gaal will be lost. The future for the Dutch manager remains obscure as well. In happier times, he had intended to finish his career at Old Trafford. But the manner of his departure would sit uneasily with the strong-headed van Gaal. There's likely to be a badly bruised ego that would not sit easy until a point has been made. Van Gaal has won a trophy at every club he has managed, but clearly, silverware was not enough this time.
There's an anecdote from his tenure at Bayern Munich that provides a glimpse into the mind of a man who has immense belief in himself: He would not sit calmly until everyone else believed it with him. Once, when he wanted to state that he could drop any player from the Bayern side, van Gaal dropped his trousers in the dressing room. It was to demonstrate that he feared no one as he had big balls.
Hence, if one were to hazard a guess, van Gaal will not fade away with a whimper. He's old and probably past his best, but his spirit is still aflame. Dylan Thomas' lines probably give us a sense of what to expect:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
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