It’s a £250m question, isn’t it?
On Tuesday, Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League as a result of a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat at the Volkswagen Arena, thanks to a brace from the Wolfsburg centre-back Naldo and a brilliant team goal by Vierinha relegating the Red Devils to the Europa League. It was viewed as potentially the most important game in Louis Van Gaal’s 18-month reign at the Old Trafford club and the result was as bad as it was unsurprising. Not only was the result unsurprising (although the performance wasn’t, in some ways), the Dutchman’s post match presser was equally catastrophic and bordering on diabolical.
He said a lot of things that the supporters would not have wanted to hear from a Manchester United manager. Now, does it sound familiar? Forget the pressers. Some of his decisions, be it in-game or transfer-wise have been utterly bewildering to say the least. Let’s look at the good bits, shall we? First off, Louis Van Gaal was portrayed to be given this major rebuilding job to sort the mess that was left by (or to?) David Moyes, stabilise the sinking ship that was United and build on it from there. As much as it would be criminal to say he has not done the first two things in this first half of his career as a Manchester United manager quite as promised, it won’t be unthinkable to admit he’s ruffled way too many feathers on the way trying to impose his own ‘philosophy’ on a football club which has its own, has had its own style of football for the best part of the last 70 years?
Van Gaal has got away with a lot of things at this football club. And he will continue to get away with his latest and by far the biggest setback – the dumping into the quagmire that is the Europa League. From day one, Van Gaal has had it his way at Manchester United: from the scheduling of the pre-season tour to the formal ‘supper’ meetings, that a lot of players haven’t taken to as well as he’d have liked. He achieved the bare minimum in his first season, spending circa £150m bringing in the likes of Angel Di Maria and failed miserably to get the very best out of a bunch of big names. It is comical, in hindsight, that the first half of the 2014/15 season when the Dutchman was basically juggling his formations like a professional juggler would do bottles, playing 3 at the back and 4 the other and finally stumbled upon a 4-3-3 sort of a setup with Herrera playing in a slightly advanced position that resulted in a string of good wins, especially away at Anfield and at home against neighbours Manchester City. Once a place in the top four and participation in the following year’s Champions League were pretty much set in stone, the team started to underwhelm. Following the 4-2 rout of City, United won only one in their next six, losing 3 and drawing the other 2 and incredibly, scoring in only 2 of those 6 games. The famine was coming.
Van Gaal, again, had talked his way into tweaking his side’s pre-season schedule trying to avoid longer journeys and to be honest the friendly games have never been indicative of what was going to come. Manchester United also flexed their financial muscle once again bringing in Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian and the record purchase for a teenager Anthony Martial. The 64-year old was given the luxury to spend close to another £100m on players and fair-play to him for plugging some of the long-existing holes in the squad especially in the midfield, even Sir Alex failed to. You’d think the club was finally going to spread its wings and fly back to where it belonged – among Europe’s elite like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – but hey, Van Gaal clipped their wings like he did Manchester United’s long-standing obligations to playing attacking football, to entertaining the capacity crowd at Old Trafford.
Some of Van Gaal’s decisions were actually not that bad. He got rid of some of the deadwood which Sir Alex, again, failed to do in his later years at the club. But some of the outgoings could have and dare I say, should have been avoided. Shipping the likes of Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Darren Fletcher, Cleverley was perfectly sensible as they were all outcasts in what was supposed to be a Manchester United side that was hitting the next level. But the same can’t be said about Javier Hernandez who has scored seven goals in the Champions League group stages alone, Adnan Januzaj who is being wasted on Dortmund’s bench and James Wilson who was never really given a proper run of games despite the lacklustre form of Wayne Rooney, all of those could have easily made a difference in any of those five 0-0 draws that has plagued Manchester United since August, especially when the strikers available are all shooting blanks barring maybe Anthony Martial.
Drifting back to the good bits, Van Gaal has brought a structure to the club, something David Moyes did fail to do, and when most of the first choice defenders are fit and as unlikely as that is, Manchester United will have got themselves a really good, functional back four/five that can hold their own, against any side, especially at home. But as the Wolfsburg debacle has revealed, this must come at the expense of scoring goals. The home form has definitely improved and so has Manchester United’s record against the fellow top 6. And talking about injection of youth, Van Gaal has stayed true to his own ideologies and that of Manchester United by giving debuts to an array of footballers that have come through the ranks at United, most notably, Jesse Lingard, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett, Andreas Pereira and more recently Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. It’s an unwritten law at Manchester United that they provide a platform for homegrown players to grow and build a career, year in year out and under Van Gaal, it has been no different.
But the more pressing issue for Manchester United on the pitch, is goals or the lack of them. No side in the top seven has scored fewer than them. This can be attributed to several things – the poor form of his captain Wayne Rooney and how he gets to feature in the starting eleven whenever fit, the fact that Manchester United create so few chances every game despite dominating about 65% possession, on average. And the fact that Louis Van Gaal actually considers going a round further in the Capital Cup than the season before as ‘progress’ is a bit shocking thing to say, even by his standards. Whisper it quietly, Manchester United reached the semi-finals of the league cup under the previous manager, with a much poorer squad on paper.
The pressure is mounting on him as I write and nothing less than a top three finish and an FA Cup win (or a super long run) should keep him in the job. The former is very much achievable by all means with the squad at his disposal and the wide open nature of this season but it takes a lot more than that. The Dutchman needs to manage his players better and more so the games better. Manchester United, on Tuesday, finished a game they must win in the Champions League with so many inexperienced players, it was as nonplussing when the final whistle was blown as it was when Phil Jones took corners for Manchester United for a brief period.
So, are Manchester United actually better than they were last year? On paper, yes, and that again should not surprise anyone given the answer is valued at £250m. But as things stand, the improvement has been very marginal and less tangible when compared to the massive outlay involved. That is not to say I want, or the majority of match-goers would want the manager to be sacked after United draw 0-0 against Bournemouth on Saturday.
And it is appropriate, of course, to quote Van Gaal here, ‘it is a process’ but the lingering question to Van Gaal that clouds every other is, when will it come to fruition?