“¡Siempre negativo, nunca positivo!,” posited Louis van Gaal in the face of critical Spanish press during his first spell at Barcelona. Always negative, never positive. It was a fantastic rant. Yet, they were words that would come to haunt Van Gaal, with critics using the phrase to sum up the Barcelona’s style under the Dutchman’s watch. Sound familiar?
Van Gaal’s Manchester United side isn’t adventurous either and, if truth be told, rather dull to watch. At the same time there appears to be an efficiency and steel that makes United, more often than not, difficult to beat. The contemporary United model, as Paul Scholes noted, isn’t one opponents like to face, but neither is it a team that the former midfielder would like to play in either.
There’s a disconnect. Despite the side lying two points off the top and well placed to advance in the Champions League there’s an uncertain feeling at the club. Is this side about to take off or one that is bound to sputter out and fall away? Given the inconsistent way United has performed during Van Gaal’s tenure it’s a question with an uncertain answer.
On the surface, United is a team of contradictions. The team averages just 10.25 shots-per-game, with only Stoke City, Sunderland, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion making fewer attempts. Yet, Van Gaal’s team also possesses the best conversion rate in the Premier League at 20 per cent.
The side has not set the league alight, yet is placed fourth just two points off the Premier League summit. The team has not conceded a goal in 555 minutes, and though there is a defensive solidity, it is prone to heart-in-the-mouth moments.
The club is willing to spend big, but despite fears that it is ignoring youth development and “losing its soul,” Van Gaal found space to include Axel Tuanzebe in the match-day squad against Crystal Palace, gave Cameron Borthwick-Jackson a début at Old Trafford, while establishing Jesse Lingard in the first team. Throw Paddy McNair, Andreas Pereira and Tyler Blackett into the mix, and it seems that the notion of the Dutchman ripping out the club’s heart is fanciful.
But what is Van Gaal’s end game? After all, unless there’s a change of heart, the Dutchman will leave for his holiday-home “paradise” in Portugal once his contract expires at the end of next season. The three-year contract doesn’t appear to suggest a grand vision and, if anything, Van Gaal’s playing model suggests a focus is on the short-term – Champions League qualification and, with luck, a trophy.
Whether by accident or design the real fruits of Van Gaal’s influence may only be felt years after he has left the club. It’s already a bizarre set of circumstances – one that could potentially see two United managers retire, with a sacking sandwiched between for good measure. And given the Dutchman’s ego, it is doubtful that he wants to be known as the man who did little more at Old Trafford than stop the rot. It’s no kind of legacy.
Yet, history also suggests that the former Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AZ Alkmaar boss would revel in the glory of setting the club on the path to another trophy-laden era. After all, Van Gaal managed to credit himself for the Netherland’s shoot-out defeat to Argentina in last year’s World Cup semi-final by claiming that he taught the United number two, Sergio Romero, how to save penalties.
The Iron Tulip has not been a shrinking violet when it’s come to reshaping the team either. After two summers worth of transfer activity he has fashioned a squad in his own image and brought down the average age of United’s playing staff to about 25-years-old.
A title challenge isn’t beyond the current squad, but the remodelling has one eye on the future. Indeed, Van Gaal admitted that the purchase of Anthony Martial was effectively one made for Ryan Giggs, with the Welshman tipped by the Dutchman to take over the Old Trafford hot seat in 2017.
In a sense van Gaal has done much of the dirty work by removing big name players like Robin van Persie, selling high earners such as Nani, and finding new homes for Anderson and Bebé. There is still the issue of a certain under-performing Scouser, but perhaps Van Gaal can’t have all the fun.
Then there’s the player legacy. Van Gaal claims that he laid the foundation for Barcelona and Bayern Munich to develop, among others, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller. It is a reputation for development built on the 1995 Champions League winning Ajax side, which boasted the talents of Edwin van der Sar, Danny Blind, the de Boer twins, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Jari Litmanen.
At United Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw – before his unfortunate injury – are turning into high-quality players, while the emergence of Lingard and Martial’s excellence, point to a bright future.
Van Gaal’s successor is in an intriguing proposition. Giggs is the man he believes will take over the Old Trafford hot seat and, if van Gaal’s words mean anything, preparation for the next chapter is well under way. Van Gaal is said to be impressed by Giggs’ attention to detail. The former winger prepares presentations about United’s forthcoming opponents, for example, and then discusses it with the playing staff after the Dutch boss vets it.
Giggs is in the unique situation of having played most of his career under Sir Alex Ferguson, experienced first hand the failure of David Moyes, and now is learning his trade under Van Gaal’s tutelage. Success, turmoil, and the painful task of rebuilding, may turn out more valuable than any turn at a lower league club.
Again van Gaal is doing the dirty work, combatting a critical press, and bearing the brunt of supporters’ ire – deservedly on many occasions – for United’s less than impressive performances. The handbrake is on and it may be his successor’s role to release it.
If Ed Woodward and the Glazer family follows the script and appoints Giggs the hope is that he turns out to be as successful as some of van Gaal’s other protégés, including Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho.
So is this the end game? Van Gaal knows that he’s coming to the end of his coaching career. The Dutchman’s final challenge may not only be to bring trophies back to United, but to set the club up for a brighter future, with Giggs at the helm reaping the fruits of the Dutchman’s labour.
In this there is a whiff of long-term planning. If it comes off then maybe, in a few years time, Van Gaal will be relaxing in ‘paradise’ enjoying a glass of port, as United go marching on, safe in the knowledge that he was the architect of the post-Fergie rebirth.
Sources: Footstats, Opta