The search for a stable managerial situation at Old Trafford after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson is still on in earnest three full seasons later. There was first the season of David Moyes, a disaster of monumental proportions. Records were broken; but it was all the wrong ones. Manchester United slipped from first to seventh in the space of a season, and the mirage of league invincibility and fear factor was all but gone.
This has reverberated throughout the organisation and carried over to the next manager, Louis van Gaal. Hailed as a genius appointment at the onset, the man tasked with providing stability to the club and eventually getting them back to winning ways has in many ways been just as unsuccessful as Moyes. Now, with one year left on a three year contract and José Mourinho seemingly available (and looking a done deal), the right decision has to be made if Man United are to avoid slipping into a Liverpool-like comatose state. The main candidates for manager are three and we assess the merits and outfalls of all:
Louis van Gaal
The status quo…familiarity…is it stability or accepting mediocrity?
His first season was not without its hiccups and growing pains but even then his stubbornness began to show to a fault. Such is the ego and personality of the man that he remained steadfast in trying to get a 3-5-2 system and its variants to work despite aesthetic evidence suggesting that he abandon that ship, if not so much in results. It wasn’t that the three-man defense was horrible – 23 points from 13 games was along the lines of his overall record. It was that the 4-3-1-2 looked so much better, so much more fluid, but he needed to make his preferred formation the Man United formation.
The 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 relied on the wing backs being integral parts of both attack and defense. One would expect there to be an area of strength for Man United. Instead, they could choose primarily from Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Adnan Januzaj, and Jesse Lingard. That has been a recurrent theme in his stewardship, the inability to get the best from talented players and the obsession with fitting triangles in round holes. Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria all fell by the wayside – admittedly for varying reasons – but the manager must shoulder some of the blame for how he utilised his assets. Players like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera, two of the most creative and forward thinking players in the squad, have been stymied and reduced to afterthoughts in the grand scheme of things. because of the obsession with players out of position or for system overriding performance. Putting players in the best position to be productive and winning over the fans has never been van Gaal’s main obsession. Proving to the world that he can make his philosophy work has been priority one and anything else secondary.
Do fans want dull but stable football for another season? Do they want to know that despite not scoring many goals, they will be in the Europa league and be competitive for a fourth place spot? If improvement is the priority, and it must be, then is the van Gaal the man? His return of 1.78 points per game, 1.53 goals per game scored and 0.97 conceded translates to 67 points per season, 58 goals scored and 37 conceded. Rumblings about José Mourinho say the board doesn’t want it; and the overwhelming cry is that the fans don’t either. Former players schooled in the attacking Man United style (*cough* Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand) certainly don’t.
For Man United to continue along the van Gaal path until his contract ends at the end of next season would be to indirectly buy into his thinly veiled attempts at lowering expectations from fans of the most successful English club in the Premier League era. His touting of the Europa league as something that this team could actually be proud of both says something about the man and about the current state of the club. He wants to be successful, but even more so he wants the public to think he was a success.
The words Special One have a little less polish to them after the debacle of an early 2015/16 season at Chelsea under his management. His mind games, bravado, and wit were all for nought as he gradually wilted into his shell after poor result after poor result. The team he had so meticulously assembled to execute his vision were less than a shadow of themselves and even relegation seemed more likely than a top four finish.
Leicester are league leaders, are they not?
When Chelsea finally pulled the plug and went for the safety of Guus Hiddink, the damage was already done. The title could not be won and Mourinho had taken a hit, both professionally and psychologically. It is perhaps those with an ego as his that would feel it most. What happened? His simplistic attacking setup finally gave in. The narrow victories turned into narrow losses as his frugal defensive unit betrayed him. His trump card, Eden Hazard, who could turn matches in their favour just enough for the solid backline to see it through was thoroughly non-existent. Branislav Ivanović, a faithful servant to the club since 2008 and a winner of nine trophies in his time looked slow and was just about as mistake prone as Johnny Evans on a bad day.
Nothing could go in his favour. What then, makes him a good candidate for the Man United job?
His record speaks for itself. He’s a proven winner at any club he graces. He wins league titles (8), Champions Leagues (2), UEFA Cups (1), and others (12) for a total of 23 since he took up management in 2000. The winning percentage is just over 66%. Mourinho won at least one title every calendar year between 2003 and 2012. That’s great. It’s exactly what Man United need after three years without even a sniff at one. The caveat, and it’s just as significant as the trophies, is the cost of those titles. He left his last two jobs on a sour note after reportedly falling out with many players. His two stints with Chelsea ended mid-season in 5th and 16th position, the latter an embarrassing situation for all involved. He brought trophies but what he left in the aftermath can be a worse situation than what he arrived to. Do Manchester want a short-term fix where they can bank on trophy success and a potentially toxic environment after he leaves? Can José learn new tricks? Can he curb his naturally combative nature to guide the club back to prominence? He will attract top quality players. He’s the more risky option for long term stability but he is the most likely to bring short-term success.
That will be the dilemma with José. One thing is certain is that he would bring some life and excitement (and controversy) to a team that has been drained of such by Moyes and van Gaal. Can he get this team to play football close to the ‘Man United way’?
The manager in waiting for some time now might still be waiting at the start of the 2016/17 season. The availability of Jose Mourinho has thrown a spanner into the works and made Giggs seem a secondary choice to the Portuguese. His credentials are nil in a managerial capacity. However, there is no one with more years under their belt in the club’s system as a player and assistant manager. He is one of those who has first-hand knowledge of how the team used to play and how fans still would like to see them play. A major concern is that Man United has lost their identity these past three seasons. A team known for high tempo, wing centered play has now become one more focussed on patient build-ups and solidity in defense. There is a place for that style in football…but will that ever be embraced at Man United?
He would be the man most likely to revert to the familiar. However, he would be the most likely to stick to familiar players who may be past their best. He is the least likely to be able to lure top quality just solely on name. There is the thought though that if he is to get the managerial position it must be now. How much longer will he wait in the wings? From the little we have seen from him he is schooled in the Sir Alex Ferguson way. Man United fans loyal to the Class of ’92 will hope he is trusted with the job and that the fairy tale recovery begins with him. This is the real world, however, and we must think that he is an outsider in the minds of many for getting the job.
What direction does Man United take? Does the club remain with the existing situation and hope that the third year will be the one where van Gaal’s philosophy magically takes hold? The alternatives are a volatile, charismatic but winning manager in Jose Mourinho. If the thinking is for a short-term return to glory which can then catapult the team onto more success after his likely (not certain if we think he covets the job enough to take on a long term project with long term success) departure then Mourinho is the only choice from the three.
Last will be the one with the least experience in club legend, Ryan Giggs. He’s looking to begin his managerial career while van Gaal is winding down his career. One feels that he will get his chance to manage the club even if he is shunned now. He has more varied options and may have an even better chance of landing the job since Paris Saint Germain will also likely be on the market for Mourinho. In that sense it may out of the club’s hands but if the club are serious about a long term investment, he is the choice from these three.
There has been considerable difficulty in replacing Sir Alex and the managerial choice for the upcoming season must be seen as the club coming to a three-way (or more) fork in the road. Which choice will be the right one for stopping this (currently) three season lull? What must be the aim of the next manager is to put his own imprint on the Man United style. We must recognise that this football was perfected by Sir Alex and will be hard to replicate to a tee. The return to the top in the post-Sir Alex era must start now. Mediocrity breeds more mediocrity. Choose well.