“Where are the club going? They’re going the wrong way, there’s no doubt about that. Manchester United have spent £300m in the last three years. They should be up there with Barcelonas, the Real Madrids and the Bayern Munichs of this world because of the resources they’ve got”. – Paul Scholes
That the Red Devils of Manchester United have been without the FA Cup trophy since 2004 is a significant anomaly. This cannot be denied. However, those who worry the success of Louis van Gaal’s tenure and whether the FA Cup can save his job will be determined by what happens on Sunday May 22 must put their fears to rest. This is if Ed Woodward and co. have any semblance of bravery and ambition. The objectives have not been met, and while the cup would be a nice sendoff, the wheels should be in motion (there is more evidence to suggest they are than not) to find a successor. That successor will be in all likelihood Jose Mourinho but let’s examine how Manchester United have done under van Gaal.
“I have also said the expectation is very high”. “Especially the fans, they are expecting a lot. But I think these expectations are much too high, we are a team in transition. It is what I said when I started. But maybe I have to bring over the message more than I have done.” – Louis van Gaal, Sky Sports interview
Van Gaal has tried to play a clever game. Just how many of the fans or the board have bought into his pronouncements that title aspirations were fantastical or that Europa League football was an honour for a club the size, stature, and standing of Man United is questionable.
It’s human nature, even more so for a man with such pride and confidence in a failing philosophy. Van Gaal has remained steadfast in his belief that his players must fit his system, and not his system and tactics fit the players at his disposal. The result has been attacking statistics that make for grim reading and the under-performance of just about every flair player not named Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford. Maybe it is their youthful exuberance which allows them to just play, to play unencumbered by a manager’s wishes that they taper their natural instinct in favour of upholding his beliefs as to how football must be played. Note the word ‘must’.
Whatever he has convinced himself is true about what the team’s realistic ambition is irrelevant. Given the investment and the first year qualification for Champions league, trying to adjust the bar on what is realistic is a light slap in the face of Man United supporters.
“Manchester United — a club that I love and have followed since I was a kid — have bored me to death this season. We are one of those clubs dragged in completely the wrong direction. All the hard work that Sir Alex put in to recover what was there from Sir Matt Busby has been undone in a very short period of time”. – Peter Schmeichel
This is definitely the most convincing reason to let Van Gaal go. Schmeichel’s words may be too strong but that’s expected from a former player. There has simply been a regression of the team in too many ways. First, the glaring aspect is playing style. The traditional Man United style is one dominated by wing play and quick, free-flowing football. At least that was the aspiration and Sir Alex Ferguson’s very best teams exuded that very philosophy. We cannot condemn a manager for trying to impress his own style on the team but when it goes completely against the tradition of the club, the strengths of most of his players (his most influential Wayne Rooney is a glaring one), and gave more than a few indications it wasn’t working pretty soon then questions must be asked. At times the back passes, the slow build-up, the lack of ideas from a team not built to open up the opposition in that fashion and the wastage of so many first halves of football were embarrassing. It was just woefully inadequate. Can an FA Cup paper over the fact that fans, pundits, former players and quite a few of the players are displeased with the football being played by the Red Devils after a roughly £250 million outlay?
Next is what the statistics say. They completely support the notion of a regression this season under van Gaal that goes deeper than 4th to 5th in the weakest league in years. Goals have taken a plunge from 64 in 2013/14 and 62 in 2014/15 to all of 49 this season. Defensively, there has been solid improvement which is a combination of Chris Smalling coming into his own and the overall dour style which has stifled games from both ends. Getting a bit more intricate it’s obvious why goals have dried up. There has been a drop in chances created from 391 to 312 in one season, all of 20%. That has led to 16% less shots being taken and another stat which lends credence to the timidity associated with the van Gaal philosophy is an 11% fall in fouls suffered. Less of a willingness to put defenders in awkward positions is both a symptom and a result of the football being played at Man United.
Consolation but no Redemption
The FA Cup would be a nice sendoff but…
When all is said and done, Van Gaal has met the minimum requirements in his first season. However, even though the second season has been disrupted by numerous injuries there has been no evolution in the style of play and key players continue to underperform. That is more a system problem than a player problem. Yes, players like Juan Mata and Memphis Depay must shoulder some of the blame but playing a limited player out of position is plain setting the player up for failure. He has brought through youngsters, mainly out of necessity and must get some credit for that. At the same time, Adnan Januzaj has regressed (partly his fault) and Andreas Pereira has been left out in the cold while Jesse Lingard remains a trusted option.
It is his inconsistency, indecision, and the refusal to somewhat evolve how Man United play beyond his own rigid interpretation of the game that means he must go. He has failed by any measure. Another fourth place finish too would have been inadequate, make no mistake. The ends would not have justified the boring means by which they reached there. The investment demands more commanding football. It didn’t have to be vintage Man United but it cannot have been football that produced zero first half goals in 20 league games this season. Forced austerity is over. Caution was warranted after a nightmare season but there has been little growth, little positive evolution in playing style that can be attributed to him. There are positive things to take from his tenure but Man United must look to reclaim their position in the upper echelons of football. He stabilised a ship rocked by David Moyes but now that seas are calm and winds are favourable he has stalled and it’s time for a change. Whether that change is the right one remains to be seen.
“Every day when we are losing or we are out of the Euro League or another league, then you put the question. Why? I have a three-year contract and the process is three years…You are now for four months writing that I shall be sacked. I have read that. Four months already. You think that is logical, that is normal?” – Louis van Gaal
Looking at the football being played, it’s a job requirement.