There was still hope, although few supporters truly believed it could be done. That Manchester United would find a way to win in Germany and sneak into the knockout stages of the Champions League. It wasn’t to be.
Instead, the Red Devils find themselves “advancing” to the Europa League and the spectre of Thursday night European football. It’s a depressing thought for a club of United’s stature. Fans are not happy. For some it’s the final straw; they do not share Louis Van Gaal’s love for patient football, let alone show tolerance for his process.
Whether supporters are overreacting is ultimately irrelevant. Fans on both sides of the argument – in support of United’s Dutch manager, or otherwise – can present a fair case. In truth, the club’s problems are not only on the pitch, but are a systemic issue that reaches far beyond the dressing room: a flawed transfer policy and a commercial vision that has not prioritised team-building.
There were years of under-investment by the club, whatever Sir Alex Ferguson’s claims that money was “always” made available by the Glazer family. There was a decade of negligence that left the team in a sorry state post the David Moyes disaster.
Van Gaal was brought in on a wave of World Cup fever, with fans excited by the new era. More than 18 months later, and many are as angry now as they were excited then. After all, the football is methodical, bland and not as fruitful as many would like.
Last season’s trio of victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City in the Spring now seem like the exception and not the rule, whilst United’s domination of Everton in October is an anomaly.
Van Gaal’s squad has issues of balance, although this was always likely to be a concern in a rebuilding process. With the wholesale squad turnover that has occurred in the Gaalactico era it is impossible to expect Van Gaal to integrate so many new players without some growing pains.
That said, the club’s transfer policy is still in question. Van Gaal has cut significant dead wood from his squad, but the wisdom of not adequately replacing some players must now be questioned.
Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Rafael da Silva and Javier Hernández could all play some part considering the injury crisis that has struck. United’s list of absentees is too long given the lack of cover available, and while an injury crisis can always strike, the busy treatment room last season should have offered a warning and perhaps even a lesson. The club should strive to promote youth, it but Van Gaal shouldn’t be fielding a team of inexperience in the most important game of his era.
United’s success in the market under Ed Woodward is mixed. Morgan Schneiderlin is the defensive midfielder the club has long needed; Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have immense talent that will pay dividends in time; Bastian Schweinsteiger’s class speaks for itself. Elsewhere, Matteo Darmian will get past this rough patch, much in the fashion that Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind have slowly adjusted to English football.
But the picture isn’t universally rosy. It is now clear that Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were Woodward’s signings, driven by a policy that prioritises commercial requirements. Neither truly fit well into the squad Van Gaal was trying to build; both proved to be luxury purchases, made without foresight of squad building.
Van Gaal isn’t absolved of all blame. Di Maria is a world-class footballer whose fragility could have been handled better. Players of Di Maria’s quality sometimes need to be incorporated into a team’s system, even if it requires tinkering with a dogmatic philosophy.
The Dutchman’s rigidity has brought results this season to Van Gaal’s credit, but the club’s failures in the transfer market are a significant factor in the team’s malaise. The summer ‘transfer sagas’ involving Sergio Ramos and Arturo Vidal were thrilling at times, but also masked an inability to acquire players of the highest quality.
Whilst a tough stance paid off with David De Gea, it did not apply to many players Woodward has sought to acquire. Adoring from afar has led to little gain, leaving the squad threadbare. Meanwhile, analysts, pundits and fans now have the ammunition for a seemingly non-stop critique. Van Gaal has little defence left.
In fact, the squad is now so unbalanced that Van Gaal’s team can only be set up in modes that are either too defensive – most of this season – or too attacking, as was the case in Germany this week. United’s defeat at Wolfsburg was entertaining, but the lack of protection offered to the back-four meant the home side sliced through the United’s defence far too easily.
If anything, Wednesday’s defeat demonstrates why Van Gaal has chosen to set up the team defensively. Yet, there is also a question to be asked about why the Dutchman hasn’t found a system that emphasizes his team’s strengths. Indeed, it is curious that Van Gaal hasn’t used the Dutch 4-3-3 system more often, given the balance it might bring.
In De Gea, Darmian, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw there is the basis of a sound defence. Ahead of them Schneiderlin offers a genuine shield, where a combination of Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Carrick, and Ander Herrera, could provide both experience and a badly needed sense of dynamism. Herrera’s injury has done much to emphasise the need for more of the Spaniard’s energy in the squad.
The system would also allow a more balanced front-three: a combination of Memphis, Martial and a speedy right-winger that the club does not yet own. This was no more obvious than in the Reds’ recent match against West Ham United, with Juan Mata often drifting inside, forcing United down the left and eventually into poor crossing positions.
Still, the hypothetical set-up also emphasizes the need to spend in January. Reinforcements of the right quality are essential if Van Gaal is to take anything from this season. And while many of the Dutchman’s problems are of his own making, the club’s challenges run deeper than the manager alone.