So there it is. Manchester United’s long search for a major trophy after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement finally came to a positive end. The Reds’ 2-1 FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace at Wembley brought glory and silverware to the club – and Louis van Gaal the sack. It was the Van Gaal’s first taste of success in England, but was swiftly followed by an end to a period in which the Dutchman has increasingly alienated supporters and, critically, failed to deliver on his promises. Retirement beckons, José Mourinho beckons. Louis goes, but it is with a modicum of dignity restored. The same cannot be said for Ed Woodward.
Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, wasted little time briefing media outlets on the new manager’s impending arrival. It came moments after Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick jointly lifted the old trophy. Van Gaal knew the inevitability of departure, of course, and brought the FA Cup to his post-match press conference as if to make one final pertinent statement.
If Van Gaal is yet to recognise any fault in two disappointing seasons at Old Trafford, then victory at the last is unlikely to bring enlightenment. He is a proud and stubborn man, although the 64-year-old slips off into the night with a last laugh of sorts, even if he is said to be “said and disappointed” about his dismissal.
Yet, even in the denouement of the Van Gaal era it was a final that could so easily have slipped away from United. In a pattern that has become too familiar over the past 24 months, the Reds dominated possession and chances created, but achieved just three shots on target in 120 minutes of football.
United achieved victory on the back of two superb moments: Wayne Rooney’s mazy run and cross to find Juan Mata via Marouane Fellaini, and Jesse Lingard’s stunning cup-winning volley in extra time. The Scouser rolled back the years, while Lingard mocked those, including Rant, that have questioned the youngster’s quality.
The moment of glory didn’t last long though. The headlines on Saturday night were dominated not by United’s return to collecting trophies, but Mourinho’s impending arrival in M16. For all the former Chelsea manager’s many faults – there are many – it is hoped that he will lift the club from cup winners to title preeminence inside the three-year contract that he has reportedly been offered. He can hardly do worse than Van Gaal.
Van Gaal’s time ends with silverware, but his dismissal cannot be divorced from a lack of progress. The Dutchman’s £250 million outlay on new signings – some recovered via sales – was the biggest single two-year transfer splurge in the club’s history and seemingly made little difference to the Dutchman’s ability to generate positive results.
United lost 10 times in the Premier League this season to finish fifth in a campaign where lowly Leicester City captured the title. If anything fifth might flatter the most prosaic United side in a generation. The team’s group stage exit from the Champions League was equally hard to stomach for a club used to dining at the finest restaurants. There can be little surprise that Woodward finally ended Van Gaal’s tenure a year early, if some five months too late to actually save a season.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Cup was Van Gaal’s first taste of success in England, swiftly followed by an end to a period in which the Dutchman has alienated supporters and failed to deliver on promises. Retirement beckons, José Mourinho beckons. [/blockquote]
Van Gaal’s failure to match minimum expectations – third in the Premier League and Champions League knock-out football – is compounded by a sense that the he never truly fell in simpatico with the club. Van Gaal failed to adjust a bland playing style, nor was he able to differentiate Old Trafford’s polite reception from supporters’ genuine sentiment of frustration. Whatever the clichéd ‘United Way’ has become over the years it is not Van Gaal’s way and the newly retired Dutchman was not about to change habits established during four decades in the game.
Van Gaal’s second season ended with the club scoring just 49 goals in the Premier League; the same total as fourth-from-bottom Sunderland. It has proven to be two years of gut-gnawing inhibition, far from the exciting promise of a manager that once captured the European Cup with a team full of teenagers. On the few occasions to counter the observation, Van Gaal’s team appeared liberated not by the manager, but a sense that young players simply did not follow his instruction. They were soon pulled in line, or dropped altogether.
In fact Van Gaal’s faith in young players remained far from steadfast despite increasing focus from United’s marketing department on the number of kids drafted into the first team squad. During his two years in Manchester some 14 players from the academy appeared in the first team, although only Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard truly became established. The latter’s future is far from guaranteed, with Lingard having benefited more from his ability off-the-ball than his talent on it.
The Dutchman has dropped more youngsters than he has proffered long-term opportunities, as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah will attest. Neither made the FA Cup final team, while others, including Tyler Blackett, Reese James, Saido Janko, Donald Love, James Weir, Adnan Januzaj, and Andreas Pereira have been sold or frozen out. Borthwick-Jackson’s omission in favour of the perennially disappointing Marcos Rojo confused many, while Fosu-Mensah has not started a game since giving away a penalty in the semi-final.
Far from a scholarly professor to up-and-coming talent, Van Gaal has proven to be a tough schoolmaster for whom one mistake is reserved the cane. In the end the Dutchman’s inherent pragmatism won out over fans’ romanticism.
Yet, that very same didactic tendency also served to alienate players throughout his squad. Van Gaal’s refusal to adjust his tactics even in the face of senior players’ disillusionment is stark. The Dutchman knew best, always. Monday-morning video analysis sessions became a much-hated chore, while Van Gaal’s tendency towards big brotherism created an increasing amount of tension in the squad. There will be few players sorry to see the back of him.
Van Gaal’s tactics alienated both players and fans. The focus became increasingly restrictive, with possession used not as a way of overwhelming opponents, but ensuring defensive security. The common pattern of United failing to score in the first half of games, especially at home, was matched by a dreadful record on the road – few shots hit the target let alone led to goals scored.
Not since Dave Sexton patrolled the Old Trafford sidelines has the football been quite this dull. Van Gaal’s process-driven approach sucked the creativity out of the team. Long gone are the days when Ferguson would send his team out with little more tactical instruction than “enjoy it” and “lads, it’s Spurs.” Classroom lectures resulted in football that sold all the benefits of watching paint dry.
The tendency towards conservatism, the insistence on over-analysis, the fury when instructions are ignored or forgotten; Van Gaal showed little interest in individual talent beyond the team ethic. Talented players were reigned in, their joy limited. His inability to draw the best from Angel di Maria, Memphis Depay, Adnan Januzaj and Andreas Pereira is telling. Juan Mata featured in most games, but was often restricted to a more limited role on the right.
Then there is the manager’s tendency to use square pegs in round holes – sometimes as many as seven players out of position. And while flexibility is one thing, almost all of Van Gaal’s games featured players in roles that were sometimes not comfortable, and often not ideal. Di Maria played in five different positions during his 27 games for the club.
Supporters craved entertainment, but Van Gaal brooked at any suggestion he wasn’t delivering. Fans’ politeness in the face of United’s dour fare rarely broke ranks at Old Trafford. Fans jeered Anthony Martial’s substitution for Marouane Fellaini in United’s narrow win over CSKA Moscow last winter. Eventually they booed Van Gaal’s end-of-season speech. By then it was too late, of course. Yet, in general, Van Gaal left with the impression that ‘a win is a win’ – and United finished the season with the best home record of all.
In the end there is little doubt supporters are happy at Van Gaal’s demise. Drunken chants of “Jose Mourinho” on the journey back from Wembley confirmed as much. The club had little choice but to make the change. It’s the results, stupid.
But neither could Woodward trust Van Gaal to get the best out of whatever fresh spending is planned this summer. The executive takes some blame for that, but Van Gaal’s voice remained the loudest voice at Old Trafford. The successes are so few. The hits were accidental or not of Van Gaal’s design: Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, for example. Elsewhere, players on which he signed off have hardly been major successes: Ander Herrera, Victor Valdes, Daley Blind, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Van Gaal can point to an injury record that was at times lengthy. United’s small squad, he said, was a decision made to promote opportunities for younger players. That excuse is a busted flush. Van Gaal’s rush to youth turned out to be desperation, not strategy. Instead, the small squad and an intensive training regimen that never relented despite the brutal Premier League pace, subjected United’s youngsters to exposure in the worst possible circumstances.
The poor squad balance is entirely the Dutchman’s fault. After all, it was his decision to sell both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández leaving, at times, the team desperately short of attacking options. Van Gaal was also insistent on not bringing in an experience centre-back, leaving Daley Blind exposed and the manager too fearful to open up his tactics.
Mourinho will bring a cocksure history only slightly tempered by the events at Chelsea this past season. His critics point to the Portguese’s instinctive caution and the “anti-football” in the face of superior opposition. Yet, at both Chelsea and Real Madrid his teams exceeded or came close to a 100 goals in a single league season. Mourinho can be amusing, inspiring and yet provoke cringeworthy embarrassment too. He may well arrive as the “humble one,” having chased the United job for eight years. Yet, he will also remain entirely uncontrollable. It is the essential dichotomy United has now signed up for.
Mourinho also brings trophies, of course. Lots of them. While more exciting, younger, and perhaps politically safer choices were available on the continent, after two failed experiments Woodward could hardly afford to take another chance. Whatever his faults Mourinho’s results fit a pattern, and he is always box-office.
Van Gaal proved to be neither; results poor, entertainment limited. He leaves the club effectively sacked by Mendes’ press briefing at around 8pm on Saturday night. Woodward should have controlled the narrative. Yet again a United manager leaves the club humiliated by those who appointed him.
Fans will move on quickly though. For the Dutchman, there will always be Wembley.