It was, one supporter departing Old Trafford claimed, the worst Manchester United performance in more than 30 years. Perhaps not, there have been some truly devastating defeats in that time, but few supporters can remember less entertainment on a night where United’s passivity in the face of a supposedly inferior opposition reached a fresh nadir. Indeed, the Reds’ narrow FA Cup victory over League One Sheffield United, despite a rash of defeats in December, may yet come to be seen as peak Louis van Gaal – a day when the tide finally turned in the endgame of the Dutchman’s Old Trafford departure.
Van Gaal’s was already under pressure of course, despite back-room briefings by Ed Woodward to the effect that the veteran coach is a “genius” and his job is under no threat. Neither is true of course. Van Gaal has demonstrably failed at United and his dismissal would surely come but for Woodward’s self-interest in protecting the second coach to have failed under his charge as United’s executive vice-chairman.
Yet, rarely can a last-minute FA Cup winner, the script of choice for Roy Race and Melchester Rovers, have felt so flat. The jeers that echoed around Old Trafford as the 96th minute final whistle came were not from the vanquished and vocal 8,000 travelling Sheffield supporters, but from the Stretford End and beyond. Whatever the claims to the contrary, United’s supporters have turned and Van Gaal is the primary target.
The Dutchman was moved once again to defend his team in the aftermath, laying the blame for his side’s anaemic performance on the visitors. This time Van Gaal’s defence came in the wake of victory and not defeat, but still from a position of decreasing tenability as manager of one of the world’s élite clubs. Van Gaal is a man who has lost supporters, his players, old pros and possibly even sponsors on the altar of a philosophy that, after 18 months in the job, amounts to little of worth.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]”We knew in advance that it would be very difficult because they defend with 10 and sometimes 11 players,” said Van Gaal, of the visitors, who started the fixture some 47 places below United in the football pyramid. “Why is nobody talking about the lack of chances Sheff United created also?” he added without, it seems, hint of irony. It was a statement that rightly brought derision from United supporters in social media.[/blockquote]
On the surface of supporters ire is the campaign’s mediocre progress. December 2015 is now recorded as the worst in the club’s history, with defeats to Wolfsburg, Bournemouth, Norwich City and Stoke City adding to the sense of building anger and frustration with Van Gaal’s methods. That the manager should, quite bizarrely, claim 2015 a “success” only served to stoke the fires – flames hardly doused by a spirited draw with Chelsea and narrow victory over Swansea City.
Deeper-rooted is frustration with United’s playing style – with its focus on one-paced possession that so often manifests itself in long passages of movement from side-to-side and little real penetration. It is a style anathema to most supporters and one all-too-predictable for opposition managers to counter. It was always a strange style to bring to United, but one that now speaks of Van Gaal’s ongoing inability to get to grips with United’s historical and cultural raison d’etre.
Fergie’s final years
Despite the disingenuous historical retrenchment that sometimes paints Sir Alex Ferguson’s final years as being on par with Van Gaal’s prosaic outfit, the Dutchman’s side is the least flamboyant United team is more than 30 years. It is one with only two operating modalities: a focus on arresting the opposition’s ability to play by hogging possession, or utter defensive chaos. The former presents itself in a level of passivity that does not change with the opposition at hand – Van Gaal’s use of two defensive midfielders in Saturday’s cup tie surprised nobody. The latter contributed much to United’s dreadful December.
This is a team that ranks 14th for shots taken in the Premier League, 12th for goals scored and, criminally, 16th for those scored at home. United hasn’t scored in the first half of a game at Old Trafford in 10 matches. There is so little flair and creativity allowed that, despite being a team that includes Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Memphis Depay, and Ashley Young, United ranks 11th for dribbles and 12th for key passes. It is, however, first in the Premier League for number of passes-per-game and passes-per-goal.
[lead centered=”yes”]”There just seems to be an acceptance of bad performances,” former Red Paul Scholes told BT Sport on Saturday night.[/lead]
“Every time you come to Old Trafford you see negative football. The players looked bored themselves. There’s no spirit, there’s nobody having a go at each other, there’s no smiling, there’s no entertainment. I think even Van Gaal on the bench looks bored, but he’ll come out and say he’s happy.
“We haven’t seen anything different now for the last six months, that’s the way this team plays football and he’ll be happy with the 1-0 win. But they didn’t create a chance, had to win a game against a League One side with a penalty in the 94th minute. In my eyes it’s not good enough.”
Scholes is right too. Not nearly good enough.
Beyond poor results and the lack of entertainment Van Gaal has created divisions within his own squad that will be difficult to heal. Much of it is based on a plutocratic approach that seeks to alienate those who do not fit within the manager’s poorly defined philosophy. Victor Valdes’ ostracism, for example, did much to create disaffection among the Spanish clique at United. Meanwhile, Van Gaal’s inability to get the best out of his more enigmatic talents – Mata, Memphis and Angel di Maria come to mind – says much about the Dutchman’s rigidity of approach.
Square pegs, rounds holes
More than once have senior players approached their veteran manager this season to request a change-up in tactics and training. And there are too many players crowbarred into positions that are not natural and do not bring the best out of a otherwise multi-talented squad. Too many “square pegs in round holes” as Scholes puts it. On Saturday Marouane Fellaini, Anthony Martial and Mata started the game in roles that are far from ideal, perhaps even actively damaging the team in the case of the Belgian. Flexibility is one thing, Van Gaal’s intransigence quite another.
Van Gaal’s inflexibility, seen so often in his strategic approach to games – note the continuing use of two defensive midfielders whether required or not – stretches to a pattern of substitutions that has become all-too-predictable. Some, especially those made around the hour mark, owe much to sports science and pre-game planning, not in-game management. It had led the Dutchman to be outsmarted by opponents more than once. Others are even more difficult to understand – Mata’s substitution for Nick Powell at Bournemouth, for example.
Increasingly Van Gaal, who was once seen as charmingly idiosyncratic, infuriates supporters off the pitch as well. In the aftermath of United’s cup victory Van Gaal was moved to blame the visitors’ defensive instincts for United “not moving the ball quickly enough” – as if it was the first time an opponent has sought to contain and United the first to face that particular challenge. Van Gaal’s excuse is, patently, total nonsense.
Not that the manager is solely to blame for limp performances. Players must take responsibility too, especially the more senior members of the dressing room, many of whom have underperformed this season. Captain Wayne Rooney has scored two in the past two games, but has just nine for the season in all competitions – three in the Premier League. Mata, Fellaini, Michael Carrick and, increasingly, Bastian Schweinsteiger have struggled to make an impact this season too. The latter, while the most composed of United’s midfield resources, is also its least dynamic.
“As players sometimes you have to lift the crowd, whether it’s a tackle, whether it’s a shot on goal,” adds Scholes. “You need to make something happen as a footballer at this club. To just to go through the motions like they did, people need digging out sometimes, it just seems to be accepted.
“It would take me two or three days to get over that performance. I’ve tried to defend this team, it’s getting more difficult to do it because every time you come to Old Trafford you see negative football.”
The pressure of failing results, supporter ire and dressing room unease has created a manager who is no longer his full confident self. The brash sense of self-worth that is Van Gaal’s trademark, and desperately needed in the post-David Moyes era, has now metamorphosed into curt arrogance. It is, perhaps, actively inhibiting United’s progress.
Increasingly, Van Gaal’s media conferences are tetchy affairs too, with the Dutchman in denial when it comes to supporters’ frustrations. “We are always the dominating side,” he said last week – as if possession, as passive as it has become under Van Gaal, is the equal of the attacking flair fans, viewers and sponsors seek. On Saturday United enjoyed more than 70 per cent of the ball, which was a season high, but managed just two shots on target. Plus ça change.
[lead centered=”yes”]But change must come, if not to please the fans – of whom the Glazer family and to a lesser extent Woodward care little – then the sponsors who pay United millions for reflected glory and global reach. The glory is nearly three seasons out of date, and reach can only be impacted negatively by the sinkhole of anaemic football.[/lead]
Yet, the bigger picture also stretches beyond Van Gaal’s failings as a manager and his players’ limitations on the pitch. After all, before the transfer market splurge of the last 24 months, the Glazer family’s parsimony had inevitably degraded the quality of United’s squad. Van Gaal may have spent around £250 million on new players, recouping north of £100 million in sales, but many observers point to the need to catch up with rivals at home and abroad that had outspent United over the past decade.
And when United did spend the club did so seemingly without rhyme, let alone reason. Woodward’s scattergun and, frankly, desperately naïve approach to the market has been exposed repeatedly since Ferguson and David Gill stepped down in 2013. Woodward’s role as United’s de facto CEO and its director of football has failed and, potentially, created a conflict of interest in which the Essex-born executive cannot fire Van Gaal for the negative blowback on his own role. Executive management and the ‘football side’ are split at most élite clubs across the continent for this very reason.
More widely the lack of ‘football nous’ on the Board, for want of a better term, has inevitably affected United’s decision-making. Aside from Woodward and six Glazer children there are three former bankers on the Board. Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton retain no executive power and precious little real influence inside Old Trafford’s boardroom. There is no longer the expertise at the club to fire Van Gaal let alone successfully appoint a successor. It is a terrifying observation, but one that manifests itself in United’s apparent rejection of Pep Guardiola’s love-letter to the club – an open invitation to appoint the world’s pre-eminent coach.
Indeed, the focus on commercial not football requirements is at the very heart of United’s challenges – they are unlikely to be solved under the current regime. Should United dismiss Van Gaal then the structure will continue to negatively impact the next man too.
Van Gaal’s failure
Yet, the inevitable conclusion, despite so many factors being outside the Dutchman’s control, is that Van Gaal has failed and is now on borrowed time. Few supporters will shed a tear for the abrasive Dutchman when he finally goes. That the club is not yet out of the race for Champions League qualification is surely the preeminent reason behind a decision to keep the manager on the payroll. For now.
United’s substantial income means that full-scale decline – the Liverpoolisation of the club – is not inevitable, although there is scant evidence the regime truly knows how to spend as well as its makes money.
But choices made now and over the next few months will surely impact United for the next decade or more. One of those choices will, inevitably, be Van Gaal’s downfall.