Gone, but not forgotten. Louis van Gaal’s legacy at Manchester United is going to be a topic of debate for some time. With the Dutchman’s dismissal announced, his achievments are now open for discussion. Van Gaal is far from popular, and while even an FA Cup win couldn’t save him, maybe in the years to come fans may come to appreciate the young core the Dutchman has left for incoming manager José Mourinho to build upon.
In time Van Gaal may be able to claim that he has left a better squad for his Portuguese protege than he inherited from the bumbling David Moyes. Van Gaal’s transfer market purchases weren’t all disasters, but it is telling that of the 15 players Van Gaal signed for the first team only three started the FA Cup final.
It leaves a question: was the squad left by the Dutchman truly better than the one he took control of in 2014? Rant takes a look position by position.
David De Gea has improved every season since joining the club, but considering the Spaniard’s feud with Van Gaal’s goalkeeper coach Frans Hoek it is debatable how much the coaching staff had on De Gea’s performances. Anders Lindegaard is arguably better as a backup than Sergio Romero, but the difference is marginal.
Verdict: no improvement
Van Gaal’s fascination with full-backs was a bizarre storyline in the Dutchman’s second season in Manchester. The manager would routinely switch full-backs in game – a running joke among fans. He inherited players such as Rafael da Silva, who was sold to Lyon a year later, Patrice Evra, who moved to Juventus as Van Gaal joined, Alexander Buttner, who was immediately sold to Dynamo Moscow, and Antonio Valencia, who is now exclusively a full-back.
Rafael was replaced with Matteo Darmian, who is seemingly just as injury prone and no more consistent. Though Darmian can play at a higher level than Rafael, he must improve his attacking game to stay at the club. Marcos Rojo is naturally a centre back, but his performances at full-back are been so poor he doesn’t deserve to survive a cull. Rojo was the club’s worst full-back this season.
Meanwhile, Like Shaw is the left-back of the future and the 2016 version surpasses the Evra of 2014. The Frenchman is thriving in the slower paced Serie A, but struggled in his later days in Manchester. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela also provide a bright future on both flanks.
United has suffered an issue at centre back that has roots in Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. The Scot did not find long-term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. By the end of David Moyes tumultuous reign, Vidic was bound for Inter and Ferdinand began his final chapter of his career at Queens Park Rangers.
However, Chris Smalling has undergone a career revolution under Van Gaal. Phil Jones continues to spend more time in the treatment room than the pitch. Jonny Evans lasted a year before leaving for West Bromwich Albion amid few tears from fans. He became the Baggies‘ Player of the Year.
Smalling is now partnered by Daley Blind, who is not a natural centre half. Blind will likely not play in that role under Mourinho, and perhaps he may not use the Dutchman at all. Meanwhile, Timothy Fosu-Mensah is a star of the future, with the ability to play across the entire back four and in midfield. The future is bright at the back.
Oh for the days of Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher! Michael Carrick, often on his own, was United’s engine room, as Fletcher fought serious illness and others struggled around him. Ryan Giggs’ career drew to a close in Moyes’ lone campaign, as he became Van Gaal’s number two.
Van Gaal replaced that group of misfits. While Carrick remains on his last legs, he is joined by one of the best midfielders of the current generation, Bastian Schweinsteiger, although the German must retain some consistent fitness to continue justifying his sizeable wage packet. Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin have each suffered poor campaigns.
Shape is as important to Mourinho’s style in midfield as individual so there remains open questions about most of United’s midfielders. There’s lots of work to be done to provide balance to this group. Marouane Fellaini shapes up as Mourinho’s first exit – the Belgian embodies two failed eras and will not be missed around Manchester.
Juan Mata was Moyes’ record purchase and has often been underwhelming during his time up north. Mata is now a very different player from the one who Mourinho sold over two years ago. The Spaniard was joined by Adnan Januzaj, Nani, Ashley Young, Shinji Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha in Van Gaal’s first season. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira had not yet broken through.
Januzaj has not enjoyed his time under Van Gaal and may not survive a summer clearout. The Belgian has regressed since his breakthrough under Moyes, and there is evidence of an ‘attitude problem’. Nani, Kagawa and Zaha are gone. Lingard and Pereira are both part of the first team squad, and are joined by Memphis, whose United career can only get better after a substandard first campaign.
There is clearly promise in this group that can be unearthed by better balance – a right sided attacker would help – and a manager who is not so fearful of creativity. That’s a big part of this analysis; Van Gaal mismanaged many of these players, and a new manager should be able to extract more.
Verdict: marginal improvement.
Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck welcomed Van Gaal to Old Trafford. The group didn’t last long. Hernandez was loaned to Real Madrid and then sold permanently, Welbeck went to Arsenal on deadline day and Van Persie made it a year before it became obvious the Dutchman’s legs had gone.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford’s stunning breakthrough has been a revelation. United can’t sensibly continue to rely on two players so young, but each has been magnificent this season. The club requires reinforcements, and a senior striker is likely to be at the top of Mourinho’s agenda this summer. It’s a damning indictment of Rooney that he has been so clearly overtaken by two freshman strikers.
Youth wins here though. The forward line Van Gaal inherited needed to be refreshed. Although the manager didn’t replace those he sold proved to be a problem, but Martial and Rashford’s emerging talent outshines all.
Although Van Gaal’s results have regressed during two years as manager, the squad that he leaves has stronger roots. It’s damning that despite this improvement and the money invested it did not show on the pitch. The future should be bright on the red side of Manchester, but only if the new manager can extract more from a more talented squad than Van Gaal realised.