As Manchester United slumped to another embarrassing result last week, this time at Bournemouth, the question could no longer be avoided – has the rot set in at Old Trafford, making Louis van Gaal’s reign doomed to disaster no matter what happens from this point?
Rewind a little over eighteen months to the final days of David Moyes’ spell as United manager and many similarities can be drawn in the lethargic performances on the pitch and the inability of supporters to envisage any sign of progress. The writing was on the wall after a limp defeat at Moyes’ old club Everton, which cost United the chance of Champions League qualification, but the truth was that his fate was effectively sealed in a 2-2 home draw with Fulham some two months before that.
Then, it was clear to see that the players did not seem as enthusiastic to play under their new manager; centre half Rio Ferdinand later lifted the lid over the disagreement he for one had with Moyes’ ideas of how things should be done. Back then, there was a salient point that couldn’t be ignored. Moyes wasn’t an experienced winner and was coaching a dressing room full of them; he had the unenviable task of trying convince these decorated stars that his way would yield more favourable results, an outlook even more ill-fated in the wake of recent comments made by Sir Alex Ferguson in his book ‘Leading’ about the value of routine for those players. Maybe he could have passed on that piece of advice.
Anyway. Now we move to the present day and the growing pressure on Van Gaal. There’s no point papering over the cracks; the Dutchman is squarely responsible for many of the reasons for his team’s underperformance so far this season. Up until the recent back to back goalless home draws with PSV and West Ham, discussion between the supporters has been split between functionality (ie. results above all else) and the entitlement to expect some entertainment. If United were to win the league playing dull football, then there would still be grumbles, but grumbles that could be appeased. If this Manchester United team were to be one that had serious intentions of winning the league then they should have been looking at at least twelve points from a run of five games that went : Watford, Leicester, West Ham, Bournemouth, Norwich. The maximum they can get now is eight, but the chances of adding to the five they have at all is not straightforward considering the size of the squad at Van Gaal’s disposal.
He can claim to have suffered abnormal issues with injuries and would be justified in doing so, however, he must accept the responsibility for trimming his squad so significantly that many of the ‘deadwood’ players so many have congratulated him for getting rid of, would now be providing valuable experience. The squad isn’t strong enough to cope with this sort of injury crisis and as admirable as it is that Van Gaal gives the opportunities to young players, many of them are simply not good enough – this is not a secret to most who follow United nor should it be a secret to the manager. So it is understandable, then, that it is seen as unforgivable to continue to throw Nick Powell on in times of emergency.
These rash decisions which contribute to poor results are exacerbated by the current climate; exit from the Champions League, and a failure to achieve what should be relatively straightforward results in the league which would already have put the Red Devils in a strong position in a season no-one seems willing to take it, in the space of a few weeks, has loudened that sound of dissent.
And so it is understandable that the good that has been done by Van Gaal is lost; their purposelessness under Moyes has been amended and their erratic defending following the loss of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra in the space of a few weeks has by and large been eradicated. It may have been lost amongst those who are keen to lambast the manager but the conservative and safeguarding style has helped Chris Smalling’s reputation blossom into one where he has been championed as one of the, if not the, league’s best defenders. He has improved, without doubt, but the significance of Van Gaal’s contribution will only be noted if and when the manager leaves and a new man with new ideas comes in.
Nonetheless, the blank chequebook the manager has been afforded means that excuses for pragmatism are thin on the ground and one gets the impression that United’s form should be bulletproof if it was to survive the media assassination it has endured, particularly from its own favourite sons. Long gone are the days where Sir Alex Ferguson had curried enough favour to balance out any opinion in the media; now, never a game goes by without one of United’s recent heroes sticking the knife in. Given that Ryan Giggs – held in such great esteem by his former team-mates – is in such a critical role at United, and those ex-colleagues know the weight of the words which they speak, one can’t help but wonder about the motivation behind it all.
Paul Scholes, for one, is closely connected with Giggs and is involved in business endeavours with his fellow illustrious Red. Why would he make comments which could be unsettling, and to the detriment of the club? All is clearly not well and the most worrying sign for any United supporter on Saturday was not the sight of the young players thrown in at the deep end. They equipped themselves admirably. But it is starting to feel all too familiar, akin to those last weeks under Moyes, where no fingers can squarely be pointed, yet, those you expect to lead by example are instead shrinking. The stories about Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick confronting Louis van Gaal about the atmosphere in the dressing room three months ago are telling; but as valuable servants as they have been, Rooney and Carrick are not Cantona and Robson, nor do either of them have the legs to build the next generation around. If these are the seeds of dissent then in a battle of who to keep around, why not put your money on the manager with a track record of handling transition?
After two and a half years of underachievement, however, you have to ask – when does form become the norm? These are hugely significant spells of players’ careers, long enough spells to suggest that almost all are at risk if a new manager was to come in.
These are almost all effectively redundant questions, for, it seems, the rot has already set in. For a man so used to total control, Van Gaal seems to be in a position we have seen him before at previous clubs – alienated from influential figures within the club, and faced with a disgruntled support who can no longer tolerate the style of play. You can never say never, of course, but it feels as if it’s a matter of if and not when the trigger is pulled. His demeanour at yesterday’s press conference seemed to suggest that he is almost expecting the worst. In those kind of situations, it is usually better to get it done sooner and move on for the betterment of all parties.
It is two and a half years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and those so keen to see Van Gaal relieved of his duties ought to ask themselves a couple of questions – primarily, are they prepared to undergo another six months to a year of another transition, and then, if so, are they more interested in substance or style?
There’s no guarantee that any manager coming in is any better equipped to move forward from this position – that includes the choice of many people, Jose Mourinho, fresh from his Chelsea dismissal. For all his success, Mourinho, lest we forget, has rarely shown his capability at turning round or uniting a lost dressing room – and, even if he did, (and it’s not out of the realms of possibility that if Van Gaal lost his job following a poor result today against Norwich, Mourinho could come in and even maybe win the title with this United team, such is the unpredictability of the league) then his own track record suggests that in 2 to 3 years time supporters will be right back in a similar position to the one we’re in now, not enjoying the football, and seeing poor results.
And that’s without the divide that so obviously exists within the club; with Mourinho available, and eager to return to management as soon as possible, how likely is it that the United board would appoint Giggs? How happy would Giggs be then, at the club under Jose? If, in this whole sorry mess, Mourinho is the only alternative, then are we not better getting behind the man in charge (and aren’t we better doing that anyway?)?
One of the most common comments being uttered over social media is that there has been no progress under Louis van Gaal’s management; this of course is not true, there are clear signs of progress in certain areas, it has not been as quick or as steep as we would have liked and it is arguable now that most of the good work (the control of matches, the discipline) is being undone, but to say there has been none is to simply demonise the manager because you want him out; like when a friendship turns sour, and you begin to find fault in every one of their mannerisms, even those you once found endearing.
Like I’ve indicated a couple of times in this piece it feels like a matter of when and not if the manager goes now, and although I feel like a lone voice, I for one feel it’ll be a shame. The nature of writing opinion pieces means that the reaction will be ‘well, what’s your solution?’ – thankfully I’m not the one in charge and I don’t have to have a solution. I just think it’s sad that it’s come to this, fans on the manager’s back, and I think it’s a problem that could have been avoided.