Another match, another game without a win, another non-performance. Mediocrity is now the new normal at Manchester United. In truth, defeat to Norwich City at the weekend should not have come as a surprise. Nothing in recent displays suggested that Louis van Gaal’s team is on the cusp of ending an uninspiring run. And true to form, bereft of guile and confidence, the team went down to an opponent whose solid, if predictable, game plan worked.
The visitors made limited possession count at Old Trafford; United once again looked blunt up front despite hogging 70 per cent of the ball. It is no surprise that the home side enjoyed only two shots on target, and its perhaps fitting that the under-performing Red Devils should be led out by a sub-par captain who marked his 500th game for the club with a loss.
Yet, with another defeat comes a new set of questions. Some with no obvious answers.
Keeping the faith
“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you the dawn is coming” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight.
Van Gaal’s United tenure is now in its darkest hour. No wins in six, three defeats in succession, back-to-back defeats in the league to promoted clubs, and a first loss at Old Trafford to a promoted team since 2001. Yet, the greatest concern is not just poor results, but also the manner in which defeats are coming. United’s lack of cutting edge is astonishing and Van Gaal’s football ‘philosophy’ has clipped the team’s wings. So much so that the club’s style of play now resembles one famously epic encounter between Portugal and Mexico in … The Simpsons.
Van Gaal knows more than anyone that this iteration of United will struggle to challenge for a Champions League spot, let alone make a charge at the title. The Dutchman admitted on Saturday to being “worried” about his future as manager and so he should be.
Optimists can point to the nadir of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, which culminated in the infamous banner declaring that it had been “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie.” The Scot turned it around, of course, leaving some evidence that a coach of Van Gaal’s stature is not yet finished at Old Trafford.
Then there’s the January transfer window and the opportunity it brings to strengthen a squad in need of high quality attacking and defensive reinforcements. That said, given supporters’ frustrations and rumours of discord among the players, it will take an investment of faith from the board to back Van Gaal in January. And to push the analysis to its cynical extreme, perhaps the only positive in keeping the Dutchman – for Ed Woodward and the Glazers at least – is that the focus of supporters’ ire remains on the 64-year-old and not the board.
Van Gaal may hope that the dawn is coming, but as Harvey Dent once noted “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Van Gaal has become more a villain with every passing game.
“Jorge, get me Jose!”
“Mourinho,” wrote journalist Diego Torres in Prepare to Lose: The Mourinho Era, “thought that Ferguson was, besides his ally, also his friend and godfather. He was convinced that they were tied by a relationship of genuine trust.
“He thought that his fabulous collection of titles constituted an ‘endorsement’ unreachable to any other contenders. When he knew that Ferguson had chosen Moyes, the Everton coach, he was struck by a terrible disbelief. Moyes hadn’t won absolutely anything!”
It is the story of a man who feels that it is his destiny to manage United. It is also the story of United’s board who, despite all reassurances to the contrary, completely botched the post-Ferguson transition.
Mourinho’s character and style of football is not to everyone’s liking, but to overlook the Portuguese in favour of a manager who had no experience winning trophies, let alone managing a super-club, smacks of negligence. To miss out on Mourinho once is sloppy; to let him slip by again would be incompetence. Mourinho may be tarnished after a turbulent third season in his second stint at Stamford Bridge, but he is still a winner.
Given United’s relationship with Jorge Mendes getting a hold of the two-time Champions League winner should not be difficult. It’s a question of how much United’s hierarchy wants Mourinho at the club. After all, with the success comes the baggage. Mourinho’s ‘scorched earth’ approach brings trophies, but at the expense of long-term development.
Moreover, the former Real Madrid manager’s innate desire for conflict does not sit well at United. The 52-year-old should be under no illusions that a higher standard of behaviour is required at Old Trafford. Could Mourinho could keep his cool if Pep Guardiola turns up at Manchester City? He would certainly relish the battle.
There are potential gains for the manager too. If he takes over from Van Gaal and contrives to win the title this season he will become the “genius” of Woodward’s folklore. Whether he could deliver the Premier League with panache is another question.
Yet, it is no secret that Mourinho want the United job. Maybe the stars have aligned. United has an opportunity to recruit the manager the club once rejected. This time Woodward may just take it.
Guardiola to pep up United
The number of ‘big name’ coaches on the move this summer is significant. Guardiola is expected to leave Bayern Munich, with Carlo Ancelotti succeeding the Spaniard from the start of next season. United has already missed on Ancelotti; the club cannot afford to do the same with Pep.
After all, Guardiola has already admitted to liking the Old Trafford “atmosphere” in Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. “I could see myself coaching here one day,” he is said to add. If true, United should test that sentiment by attempting to steal the Spaniard from under City’s nose.
Guardiola may not have experience managing in the Premier League, but that is unlikely to be a barrier to success. Mourinho, Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini won the Premier League in their first season in the country. It’s no stretch to think that Pep could do the same.
The Spaniard inherited a mess at Barcelona, although had Lionel Messi’s genius to call on. The real credit is in fashioning the Catalan club’s midfield into one of the most efficient, ruthless and creative forces in football’s history.
Guardiola can also deliver the style of football United fans crave. Pep’s Barcelona, at the club’s peak, was one of the most spellbinding teams of the last 50 years. And Bayern comes close. Both clubs demand European success – and Guardiola’s remit at United would be to reestablish domestic dominance and return the Old Trafford club to the European élite.
Would Guardiola commit to a ‘long-term’ project or move on after three or four years? With the club having lost out on Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp it is surely irrelevant.
Give it to Giggs
The alternative, of course, is to appoint the man Van Gaal believes is his successor. Ryan Giggs would be a romantic choice if a risky one, although there is no doubt that he wants the post. Giggs’ march to the technical area, with United struggling to break down Norwich had, to use another movie metaphor, the sense of Darth Vader turning against the Emperor.
Giggs’ appointment would not come without precedent either. Barcelona took a risk with Guardiola and Juventus did the same with Antonio Conte. Yet, for every Guardiola and Conte there’s also Ciro Ferrera and Filippo Inzaghi. Club legends do not always make the grade as head coach.
Still, Giggs is being groomed for the hot seat and his appointment would offer a boost to the collective morale. The Welshman requires no guide to the Premier League and – forgive the cliché – is United to the core, including understanding the requirement for fast attacking football. Giggs would also command the respect of players and fans – commodities that Van Gaal has seemingly lost.
Super-coaches may bring back winning football but, as pretentious as it sounds, can they bring back United’s style? Giggs at least knows what that is.
Appoint a sporting director
United might well hire one of Europe’s super-coaches; the chances that they stay on for 26 trophy laden years is non-existent. If the club is set on a course of appointing a head coach every few years then the emphasis will remain on Woodward to secure the right players and coaches. It is a goal for which the club’s executive vice chairman appears ill-equipped, with his focus on marquee signings made for marketing purposes.
Appointing a sporting director will not solve all ills, but it is a move that promises expertise lacking in the current set up. Indeed, the role of manager is probably now too big for one person, especially if Woodward continues to act as the de facto director of football.
That the club is now looking to appoint full-time scouts and revamp the youth set-up is a sign that the hierarchy recognises some faults. Should the club also appoint a sporting director he will fill a gap on the administrative and recruitment side of the club.
Plan of attack
Whatever United’s move, Van Gaal knows that he is on borrowed time. The Dutchman recently told United fans not to live in the past. If he knows his history Van Gaal will understand that the roots of mediocrity were sown when the Glazers acquired the club in 2005. The family enjoyed the good fortune of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management – and maximized growth with minimal expenditure. Now they’re feeling the pinch after years of under-investment forced a splurge over the last two seasons in an attempt to rebuild the team.
Yet, the Glazers can no longer rely on genius. If only to protect the bottom line the next move is critical if the club is to remain challengers.
Will the force awaken or will the empire fall flat? At this stage the latter appears to be more likely.