Sometimes it is the messenger as much as the message that resonates most. The ranking is up for debate, of course, but there is little doubt that Manchester United’s Europa League defeat at Liverpool on Thursday night was one of the club’s most embarrassing in the past three decades. Paul Scholes knew it, Rio Ferdinand saw it, the travelling United supporters left Anfield certain of it. So what is it, exactly, that Louis van Gaal and his paymaster Ed Woodward cannot see?
The message from Scholes and Ferdinand was brutal; as it should have been after Van Gaal’s team served up a performance of such total ineptitude that pundits, supporters and even players were lost for the vocabulary to adequately describe United’s nadir – save, of course, for the observation that defeat by just two goals was a flattering scoreline for the Dutchman’s utterly bereft team.
It shouldn’t be like this after Van Gaal’s 21 months in the job and countless millions spent reshaping his squad. In the aftermath of such ineptitude, Van Gaal should have been fired. Not within months or weeks, but moments after the final whistle brought a merciful close to proceedings. On such occasions are managers rightly judged and, in defeat, Van Gaal and his team embarrassed 2,700 visiting fans and a 135-year-old institution. He should be gone and stay gone.
Yet, stories this week, presumably planted by Woodward’s cronies, suggest that Van Gaal is certain to retain his job, at least while Champions League football is theoretically possible, via the league or the continent’s second competition. Van Gaal may even see out the third year of a disastrous spell at Old Trafford with the Board split on appointing the out-of-work José Mourinho or the Dutchman’s silent deputy Ryan Giggs.
While nobody, bar Van Gaal and Woodward, can stomach a scenario in which the Dutchman remains in Manchester beyond May, it is not inconceivable. Such is the depth to which Woodward has taken the club on behalf of owners that prioritise profits over entertainment.
Scholes can’t stomach the thought of Van Gaal remaining in post, of course. Here is a man whose uncomfortable assertion that he doesn’t “want to see the manager sacked” was all but exposed for a lie by the observation that United’s “standards are falling way short.”
“United didn’t have a clue,” added Scholes on BT Sport. “United should be competing to win the Premier League and Champions League every season. They have spent £300 million and they are sixth in the league. They should be competing with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Imagine seeing this at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – you’d be out right away.”
At far lesser clubs too. It is a dismal indictment of Woodward’s impotence and weakness. After all, it was not just that Van Gaal’s team lost in humiliating fashion at Anfield, but that it offered up a performance that manager and players accepted as all but inevitable.
Yet, Van Gaal not only defended his team in the aftermath – laughably asserting that £27 million Marouane Fellaini was the “best player on the pitch” – but he went on to argue that his philosophy is paying dividends. Some cojones that.
“It is working,” Van Gaal trolled. “I do think it is working. The style is also working. When you don’t have too many players and you have to play in three competitions it is very difficult. After the defeat in Midtjylland, you have sacked me already and then we stood up and we got into the next round and that is still possible against Liverpool. Against West Ham United it is also possible.”
Few supporters believe it.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Van Gaal not only defended his team in the aftermath but he went on to argue that his philosophy is paying dividends. Some cojones that.[/blockquote]
On the pitch Van Gaal’s team was second to every ball, outplayed by a Liverpool side that is far from vintage, but progressing under the effervescent Jürgen Klopp. The sheer scale of United’s demise under Van Gaal was magnified in starkest circumstances. It was, after all, the fixture that matters most to United supporters, yet one where there was clear blue water between the German’s transitional side and a Van Gaal team closing in on its second season of development.
The Dutchman offered up a team of total imbalance in the face of Klopp’s pixel-sharp philosophy. The German’s team pressed; Van Gaal’s sat back, too often in desperation. It was a crass indictment of the veteran’s much-discussed approach.
Thursday’s game was a clash of eras as much as belief. Klopp’s team was high-energy and higher-tempo to Van Gaal’s plodding conservatism. The United manager is a shadow of a different age; Klopp seemingly a beacon of development. In the end, Van Gaal has only luck and David de Gea to thank that this was not an embarrassing scoreline to go with the disconcerting gulf in class.
Not only was United’s performance well below par, but so was the manager’s. Van Gaal got key decisions wrong – as he has for much of the past two seasons. It was odd to use teenage striker Marcus Rashford in a wide berth, but more confusing still to switch to a mind-bending three-man defence in the second half.
Rashford was sacrificed to Van Gaal’s decision to deploy a rapidly declining Michael Carrick in the back three. Not for the first time the Geordie fell well short in that role, while a little further forward Fellaini’s touch mirrored that of a fumbling teenager on a first date. It is shocking that the Belgian remains at Old Trafford, but not as much as Van Gaal’s decision to use a patently unfit player for the full 90.
United did not create a single decent chance on the night, while De Gea produced a succession of outstanding stops to keep the visitors in the tie, in theory at least. United conceded eight shots on target at Anfield, the joint-most Van Gaal’s team has faced in a single game this season. Liverpool? Just the one.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Not only was United’s performance well below par, but so was the manager’s. Van Gaal got key decisions wrong – as he has for much of the past two seasons. [/blockquote]
Yet, Van Gaal dismissed his critics in the lead-up to the game, accusing fans of “living in the past” if they expect Champions League knock-out football. Much like the Dutchman, whose contribution over the past two campaigns has served only to take the club backwards.
It was perplexing that Van Gaal retained his job in December when four defeats in succession threatened to drag United’s campaign into calamity. Now that the club has reached a new nadir, Woodward’s desperate hope that Van Gaal will turn things around is little more than an empty prayer for a miracle that is unlikely to come.
The damage has already been done. To many it is Van Gaal’s total inability to generate more than the sum of considerable parts that is most damning. To Ferdinand, Van Gaal’s failure is as much in the players he has sold as those he has bought and coached.
“The fairytale has gone,” said the former United defender. “The players he has let go: Ángel Di María, Nani, Patrice Evra, Javier Hernández, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, Rafael, Darren Fletcher, are they worse than the players out there? They are better than that team out there, that’s the problem.”
Van Gaal is in no mood to tolerate alternative opinions though. “Is it important what Rio Ferdinand is saying, is that important to you?” he responded, dismissing, not for the first time, the opinion held by successful former players. Van Gaal has never been one to fall on the sword of humility. Less so now that his time at Old Trafford is exposed for a busted flush.
Whatever merit in Ferdinand’s assessment, Van Gaal has achieved far too little with the resources he has. That, if nothing else, should prompt Ed Woodward to act.
But to blame the Dutchman alone misses the point. Woodward had failed too. After all, while the executive drives huge revenues off-the-pitch, they will inevitably be hit by the team’s failure on it. It is the result of chaotic executive management that devalues a sound sporting base in the face of global brand exposure.
That Woodward will remain in the post long after Van Gaal has departed says much for the club’s new priorities. It is indeed a new era.