Or, where it all went wrong for Louis van Gaal.
May 19th, 2014. The day Louis van Gaal was confirmed as the new manager of Manchester United. After David Moyes’ dark tenure players and fans were won over by a manager with a glittering CV. One who had guided a relatively weak Dutch team to third place at the 2014 World Cup. Van Gaal possessed the gravitas and the tactical acumen to rebuild a United side that was sliding into mediocrity. His bold words were a breath of fresh air, with claims that United could even win the Premier League in his first season.
Fans were filled with excitement about the Dutchman’s first game in charge. The former Ajax manager did not disappoint, with a dominant pre-season tour that included victories over Roma, Real Madrid and arch-rivals Liverpool on the way to the International Champions Cup. With triangles of possession and one-touch passing, fans drooled at the prospect of United playing in a similar fashion in competitive fixtures.
Fast forward to December 2015 and United seems, at times, to be in more of a crisis than when Van Gaal walked into Carrington. The Reds’ humiliating loss at Stoke City worsened a run of just three victories in 13 games, with four successive defeats in a row. Monday’s draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford was more positive only in so far as it arrested that series of defeats. Morale has reached a new low with every passing week and the pressure for the Dutchman to be sacked is at an all time high.
Yet, it all seemed so promising, with Van Gaal’s personality enamouring him to the media in his first press conference at Carrington. It was bitterly ironic to see the manager walk out of his pre-Chelsea media briefing. The Iron Tulip’s apparent fallout with players, fans and now the media has precipitated his probable downfall – and it has pushed United into a crisis once again. There have been too many failures over the past 18 months.
United’s transfer windows under Van Gaal have left supporters perplexed, with seemingly essential signings, such as a central defender and a striker, ignored despite glaring holes in the squad. Instead, star names such as Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria and Bastian Schweinsteiger were bought, along with promising talents such as Luke Shaw, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial. The plethora of acquisitions is yet to truly strengthen United’s hand. Falcao and Di Maria have both left the club, while Shaw and Martial aside, nearly all of Van Gaal’s signings have yet to prove themselves a success.
Elsewhere Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin have improved the team, but suffer for the manager’s apparent lack of faith. With Schneiderlin in the side United has lost just once in 15 games, but five from 11 without him. Yet, Van Gaal continues to overlook the Frenchman. Herrera, who is another popular figure with United’s supporters, has been in and out of the side ever since joining the club in July 2014. The Basque increases the tempo of a languid United team, but has been unable to nail down a starting place in Van Gaal’s team.
On a more positive note the Dutchman has trimmed the squad of its deadwood and initiated a much-needed rebuilding process post Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Players such as Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley, Bébé and Anderson were no longer needed at United and most supporters were glad to see that quartet exit. Yet, fans were also disappointed to see popular players such as Rafael da Silva, Javier Hernandez and academy graduate Danny Welbeck leave the club. Allowing the latter to join Arsenal did nothing to enamour Van Gaal to the fans.
Question marks have also been raised about Van Gaal’s inability to coax the best out of United’s more mercurial players, including Di Maria. After witnessing Di Maria’s rebirth at Paris St. Germain this season the questions only intensify. Similarly, Hernandez has been in tremendous form after departing Manchester and has scored more goals for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany than the entire United squad this season. Adding more fuel to the fire, Hernandez recently noted that Van Gaal told him he had “only one percent chance of playing” and that the Mexican should take the next offer available.
Player mismanagement aside, the Dutchman’s rigidity in tactics has been the chief cause of concern over the past 18 months. Van Gaal’s inability to adapt an ineffective team structure has shocked considering the manager’s experience and pedigree.
Deploying Ashley Young at full-back last season was a temporary fix that should have been rectified in the summer. Van Gaal got away with playing the converted winger in defence against weaker opponents, but it now borders on the inexcusable that the Englishman has continued to be deployed on the left of defence in crucial fixtures against Arsenal and Leicester. The former Aston Villa man was exploited by both teams.
Young’s role is symptomatic of Van Gaal’s decision to use a small squad, with the fall-back being an expectation that players will ‘do a job’ in several positions. In shipping out so many players Van Gaal has few excuses for not bringing in capable deputies. The Dutchman’s defence is tactical versatility – an argument shredded by recent performances.
On the pitch supporters frustrations have grown. The former Netherlands manager was praised for his unconventional substitutions during the World Cup, but the contrast with Van Gaal’s changes during United games is seismic. Throwing on the inexperienced Nick Powell for Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini in losses against Wolfsburg and Bournemouth made sense to few. In each game the substituted player was arguably the most likely to provide a breakthrough.
Then there is the style of play. United’s supporters were promised aesthetically pleasing football when Moyes was sacked, but the turgid possession game that Van Gaal favours is probably the furthest thing from entertainment. United’s lack of firepower was clear before the first ball of the season was kicked, but the Dutchman has persisted in his sole ‘plan B’ – launch it at Fellaini. After spending a quarter of a billion pounds refreshing the squad, resorting to using the Belgian as a giant battering ram is an inexcusable limitation.
Then came the nadir of Van Gaal’s tenure: home defeat to Norwich where his players looked as disenchanted as the supporters watching their club fall to a third successive defeat. Since then another disappointing loss to Stoke has led to talk of resignation and chants of “Jose Mourinho” echoing around Old Trafford.
A spirited performance against Chelsea will take Van Gaal only so far – if performances and results remain poor it will take something akin to a miracle for the Iron Tulip to still be in the Old Trafford dugout come May.