Narcissistic, charismatic and autocratic, irascible, egomaniacal and delightful: the characteristics required to succeed as Manchester United manager are well defined, and Louis van Gaal is all of them. Except that he isn’t, because, since arriving at Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal has barely been Louis van Gaal.
Before his official appointment, he attracted headlines by making sport of journalists sent to mither him when he had a World Cup to pursue; his confidence was palpable and rightly so. Rarely, if ever, has a manager’s influence been as significant and as obvious.
The he arrived in Manchester and everything changed. The orgasmic serial killer who who high-fived Robin van Persie; the improvisational opportunist who turned a game in an unscheduled drinks break; the confidence trickster who manipulated a penalty shoot-out; all gone.
For reasons unclear, Van Gaal decided that, amidst the maelstrom of the Premier League, he was going to be unimpeachably equanimous, the cocktail of lunacies that brought him to that point subsumed by stubbornness. Previously, he performed flying kicks on the touchline, now he sits there scribbling like Susie Dent; where once he dictated to the press, now he gets all hurt when they write and report; he used to lose it, now he just loses. Shrinkage is a terrifying thing.
Louis van Gaal of Manchester United
Image credit: Imago
Van Gaal now believes that once his players are on the pitch there’s nothing he can do, so he’s better occupied making notes for substitutions that are detrimental more often than not, and for the next game that is equally bad more often than not. And perhaps he’s right; perhaps the demonstrative poncing that consumes his colleagues is simply their struggle to reconcile how much they care with how little that matters.
But there exists an alternative argument, which goes as follows: the sight of a loved, feared authority exhorting you to greater effort and expression is inspirational, and the ferocity of the best English teams reflected the demeanour of their managers. That doesn’t make it the only way, but it’s certainly a way, and while you ponder the point, riddle yourself this: name a Premier League side who play with less devil than Van Gaal’s stultifying agglomerate of automatons, incapable of a single red card between them.
What’s odd about it all is that Van Gaal is the arch pragmatist. At Ajax, he compromised Dennis Bergkamp while building a team that won the Champions League; his AZ team defended deep and broke quickly because it was the only way they could win a surprise title; and when Kevin Strootman got injured before the 2014 World Cup, 4-3-3 became 5-3-2 in defiance of the Dutch tradition, and Holland almost made the final.
Yet, at United, he has refused to adapt - to the players he has, the league he’s in and the club he manages. The thrill of “philosophy” trumps all, and for no apparent reason. The Premier League is not won with patient football. The Premier League title has never been won with patient football.
Manchester United's Chris Smalling, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and David De Gea look dejected at the end of the match
Image credit: Reuters
Roy Keane once said that “you don’t contest football matches in a reasonable state of mind”, an attitude that underpinned an excellence and influence of staggering consistency; prior to United’s latest embarrassment at Sunderland, Van Gaal announced that his team would be “trying to play a positional game”. It is not even a question of which is the right way to play, though there is also that; rather, the pro forma for success in England is set and incontrovertible.
You can still be precise in your play – hell’s bells, Roy Keane was that – but he was also furious, inventive and brave. And for a manager, the same rules apply: if you’re chasing a game and your right-back gets injured, you stick a midfielder there and bring on another attacker; you do not bring on another right-back. If you’re drawing 1-1 and playing badly with nine minutes to go, you do not need to bring on another striker when your opponents go ahead; you needed to bring on another striker quite some time previously.
Unless you’re Van Gaal, whose cautious approach means that every team United play are in the game. The fabled lack of first-half goals isn’t simply a coincidental product of their uselessness, but a direct consequence of its principal cause. Proper teams blow opponents away, and watching them, you know when a goal is coming. With Van Gaal’s United, you know when one isn’t coming.
His obsession with possession warns his players against forcing the issue, instead waiting for class to tell. Except there isn’t that much of it about, and the ways of breaching a massed defence – long shots, dribbling and quick passing – involve the kind of risk that get people excommunicated.
Manchester United's manager Louis van Gaal looks dejected
Image credit: Reuters
The failure to improve in this aspect, despite encountering it nearly every week, explains why United are where they are. In nine games against the bottom six they have taken just 11 points, with the defeats to Swansea, Bournemouth, Norwich and Sunderland fair reflections of the chances created. Essentially, United have four problems: defence, attack, defence into attack and attack into defence.
Unable to get Sergio Ramos in the summer, Van Gaal decided that Daley Blind was an adequate partner for Chris Smalling, a decision not entirely unintelligible; no point was seen in wasting money on a player he didn’t really fancy, when Blind offers nous, composure and creativity. And, though United’s most accomplished defensive effort came at Everton via the novel experiment of fielding four actual defenders they have looked reasonably secure at times. At times. At other times, they have looked raggedly desperate to concede and unable to conceal Blind’s obvious failings, while Smalling’s level has dropped since his December injury.
Accordingly, trying to protect rather than increase narrow leads over Newcastle and Chelsea was an odd call. When Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra were around, behaviour of this ilk was possible; though Edwin van der Sar was an excellent goalkeeper, recalling his great saves is tricky, so well was he protected. Now, not so much. It is not cheating for a goalkeeper to excel – that is why he is there – but David De Gea is forced to nearly every week, in which context, it is absurd to rely on not conceding. No one is infallible and sometimes the finishing is too good.
Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea
Image credit: Reuters
United’s attack, on the other hand, has been almost uniformly horrendous, Astapor’s Unsullied on Viagra. Much of the criticism for this has been absorbed by Wayne Rooney, much of it fair – but not all of it. In the spring of 2013, the greatest manager of the modern era, who had managed him for nine years, decided he was expendable - before, in their infinite expertise, David Moyes and Ed Woodward decided that they knew better. Rooney did not award himself his own 5½ year contract - ! – nor did he force United to purchase 100 per cent of his image rights, paying him a weekly wage believed to be near double the mooted figure of £300,000 per week. The only deal of its type in world football, it entrenched him at the club and is seen in the industry as a historically awful piece of business.
On the pitch, Rooney is still good, just not as good as teams who win titles tend to have as first-choice centre-forward - nor has he been since 2011. Even at his peak, he suffered with streakiness, sloppiness and injury, and yet, Van Gaal decided to rely on him scoring often enough to fire a title challenge.
It is also Van Gaal who started James Wilson only twice since his smart clinching goal at QPR last January, usually omitting him from the matchday squad too. Both he and Will Keane have torn it up in age-group football, and though this does not make either good enough to play for United, Wilson is confident, direct and unusually sharp in the box - not qualities with which the current squad is replete.
Manchester United's James Wilson in action with Middlesbrough's George Friend
Image credit: Reuters
When United were unable to match the spending of Manchester City, the way Ferguson kept them competitive despite an obviously inferior first XI was with options. Amongst the substitutes in every game would be forwards and wingers of different varieties, ready for use depending on the circumstances, and even in the early years of his success, when space was limited, there would always be potential matchwinners available. Conversely, when United played Liverpool in September - a game Wilson was deemed good enough for a year earlier - Marouane Fellaini was up front. Frequently, there have been no strikers on the bench despite there now being seven spaces to fill, and despite the crucial goals contributed to title wins by the likes of Dion Dublin and Federico Macheda.
For United to challenge this season, it was always likely that Memphis Depay would need to come off. That he has not is simply bad luck – who could have foreseen that a talented child with a troubled past upon whom was lavished riches and adulation would play like a talented child with a troubled past upon whom was lavished untold riches and adulation? In his first four months at United, he scored four lovely goals and one important goal, but has been denied the perseverance that might improve someone with just 76 starts in his club career. Of course, it’s possible that he won’t be helped - in which case the question begs as to why he was signed, given he was a player Van Gaal knew well.
Not dissimilar is the case of Adnan Januzaj. Picked for four early-season games in attacking midfield, he scored the winning goal in one and showed pockets of promise in others, then was abruptly sent out on loan. What can possibly have happened in that time as to make Van Gaal so certain that he wasn’t worth keeping, ripe for improvement under the tutelage of such a celebrated coach? How much worse could he – and Andreas Pereira, for that matter - possibly have been than those preferred to them? Though a small squad has allowed opportunities for youth teamers, with the exception of Jesse Lingard the beneficiaries have all been defenders, even though the team is crying out for exuberance and spontaneity.
Adnan Januzaj while at Borussia Dortmund
Image credit: AFP
None of these attackers have been helped by United’s formation. Last season, their best football came in the 4-3-3 which yielded consecutive dominating wins over Spurs, Liverpool, Villa and Manchester City. Not once since then has Van Gaal selected the front six that worked so well, despite the unconscionable amount of time it took him to find a combination that worked.
Instead, after concluding his summer transfer business and presumably appraising a stronger squad, Van Gaal inserted an extra player into defensive midfield. Despite the absence of sustaining argument, he has stuck to this formation in every game bar two, most notably rewarded by the resounding clean sheets kept at home to Newcastle and Sheffield United.
Ander Herrera has become the martyr of this negativity. While it is true that his quality is more relative than absolute, until the recent win over Stoke he was the common factor in each of United’s best performances under Van Gaal. Yet, he is afforded no leeway, dropped at the first semblance of hint of a justification and denied the opportunity to develop.
Unfortunately for him, he seeks to play the ball forward quickly, doesn’t fear risk and is able to play a holding, box-to-box and creative role, a control-freak’s anathema. Van Gaal likes specialists, not mavericks – with the obvious exception of Van Gaal.
In a similar predicament is Morgan Schneiderlin, presumably bought after extensive scouting, and deemed inessential almost immediately afterwards. It’s true that he could have done more to demand inclusion, but with a longest run of four consecutive games, quite how that’s meant to happen is difficult to fathom; even Paul Ince and Roy Keane took time to settle at United. In every field of human endeavour, happy, relaxed people perform better, and though no one should take a spot in the team for granted, the constant fiddling can’t be helpful.
Morgan Schneiderlin has become a regular at Manchester United
Image credit: PA Sport
But a far worse indictment of Van Gaal than the players he’s bought are those he’s sold. Nani might not be everyone’s idea of a sound bloke, but he is miles better than whoever else United might deploy on the right wing; Javier Hernandez’s first touch isn’t great, but the knack of introducing ball to net is a handy one; Rafael was consistently superb throughout the only season he was able to stay fit, but Van Gaal deduced Valencia a better option; Jonny Evans makes mistakes, but has played well against good players.
And then there’s Ángel Di María, who didn’t really want to come to United; of course he didn’t! He was playing for the European champions alongside Ronaldo, Bale and Modric, living in a city he liked whose language he spoke. So good were his performances there that Carlo Ancelotti created a position for him in which he also did well for United, before he was shifted at the first sign of trouble. No, he wasn’t much into being tackled, but if Van Gaal had been given up on as easily as he gives up on others, well.
None of this is to say that the players are beyond reproach; the eight goals conceded in the final ten minutes of games is largely on them. But it is the job of the manager to amplify and augment the abilities of his squad, and Van Gaal is doing the reverse.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal waves to fans before the game
Image credit: Reuters
Eventually, though, any discussion of United’s failings arrives at the Glazers, Mornington Crescent and the colour of the driver’s socks all mixed. While Van Gaal has bought expensive players, he has balanced this with sales that have also cut millions off the wage bill. Most recently, there was not a single player in the whole of world football both available and good enough to strengthen United’s squad.
It does, however appear that more money is available than was given Fergie in his later days – his genius could be relied upon to keep the trophies coming in while the Glazers milked the club to the tune of £800m. Perhaps, as he left the Stadium of Light pitch in 2012, he wondered just what might have been had he not been quite so obsessed with horse semen, or kept to his word and fought against the takeover. And perhaps, as they survey the current mess, the Glazers are wondering just what might have been had they given Fergie even a tiny portion of the money allowed Van Gaal to strengthen properly in 2008 when United were the best team in the world, and not replaced Ronaldo with Owen, Obertan and Valencia in 2009.
And it is also the Glazers who are responsible for Ed Woodward. Now, credit where credit is due: he does have a rare genius for selling one of the world’s most recognisable and evocative names, built over generations of romance, tragedy, devotion and joy. His expertise in association football, however, is less pronounced, and he has most to lose by sacking another manager he appointed.
Because, make no mistake, Van Gaal has no business still being in a job. His team have played badly and boringly in the vast majority of the 82 games he has been in charge, showing no signs of imminent or consistent improvement. The players look unhappy, he looks unhappy and the fans are definitely unhappy. Were he at United for the long haul, you could pretend to contrive some justification for perseverance, but he isn’t – and in the summer he’s a lame duck, a circumstance that even taxed Ferguson.
Wayne Rooney and Louis van Gaal of Manchester United
Image credit: Reuters
For this correspondent, the tipping point came during October’s triptych of nil-nils which ran the entire gamut of the genre: cowardice against a weakened Manchester City, incompetence against the Championship’s Middlesbrough, consummate cluelessness against Crystal Palace. But even then, United were reasonably placed domestically and in Europe.
However, the failure to act in December defies all relevant rationale. The defeat at Wolfsburg that secured Europa League qualification was actually one of the season’s more invigorating displays; it was Van Gaal’s inability to rouse a reaction, not just from his players but from himself, that made his position untenable. Consecutive defeats to Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke stated an indefensible case for his dismissal.
At the time, the league was still in reach, never mind a Champions League place, all the more so given the availability of a vengeful José Mourinho. But instead, Woodward gambled all and is now caught in a paradox: the longer he keeps Van Gaal to avoid looking foolish, the more amazingly foolish he looks.
That said, the positing of Mourinho as the only acceptable replacement is nonsense. In part, this is a reflection of the time: the lecherous desire for immediate success, along with the speed at which those who succeed move on or are moved on, has developed a cadre of winners who mosey from superclub to superclub, and Mourinho is the only one available. On top of that, those building their reputations are promoted and discarded with equal abandon, so it’s impossible to be sure of their pedigree; in this era, Alex Ferguson would never stayed at Aberdeen long as he did.
Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford - set to become a familiar sight?
Image credit: Reuters
Even so, though, there are options. Diego Simeone, Massimiliano Allegri, Thomas Tuchel, Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte and Unai Emery are all interesting and exciting talents who should interest and excite anyone whose job it is to be interested and excited by such things.
But, for those interested and excited only by the bottom line, Mourinho is the percentage option. And, to some extent his appointment would satisfy the cosmic balance of football: he should have the job at some point for the world to see what happens.
It would also represent a scarcely believable stroke were he to be appointed after missing out to David Moyes: the position he always wanted; another title won while he waited for it; another pay-off; another signing-on fee; no post-Fergie pressure; a rival left in a mess; his standing among Chelsea fans unaffected. If that little lot can’t persuade him the game is his friend, nothing can.
In that regard, the letter he wrote to United’s board is a positive sign. This would almost certainly be his last chance at such a job, and as someone who clearly feels the weight of history, his fear of botching it might just help him change. It may well turn out be beyond him, and his methods may well be outdated, but United and Mourinho, on one together, is probably the combination their enemies fear most. Narcissistic, charismatic and autocratic, irascible, egomaniacal and delightful…