Ever heard of a short story called “Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne”? It’s the Danish title for Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale commonly known in English as “The Little Match Girl.” It’s the tale of a poor girl trying, unsuccessfully, to sell matches on the cold streets of Denmark. Eventually, as the temperature drops, she makes her way to a nook and keeps herself warm by lighting the matches she was supposed to sell. With each match struck the girl sees visions of happier places and times. It’s a story that ends in tragedy as the cold finally claims the little match girl.
In the recesses of the MCH Arena last Thursday it’s hard not to picture Louis van Gaal alone in a cold room striking matches to reminisce about past glories. Memories of when his Ajax side conquered Europe in the mid-90s; lifting the La Liga title twice with Barcelona; masterminding AZ Alkmaar’s unlikely Eredivisie triumph; and leading the mighty Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga.
The final few matches of Van Gaal’s reign as Manchester United manager are being struck. Regrets are plentiful as the Dutchman’s side burns out while his grip on the job fades away.
The Dutchman must shoulder much of the blame for United’s woes this season, but it would be remiss to overlook the part that Ed Woodward and ultimately the Glazers have played in United’s decline. In hindsight it demonstrates how much Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill papered over the cracks, allowing the owners to reap the financial dividends of their success.
But in the wreckage of the Wilted Tulip’s tenure there are some reasons for hope, some green shoots of recovery. Will anything bloom long after Van Gaal has departed? Perhaps…
The promise of youth
The average age of the starting team in United’s match against FC Midtjylland was 24.7-years-old and that was lowered further when Andreas Pereira came on for the disappointing Juan Mata.
Granted, Van Gaal’s squad is experiencing an injury crisis, though it’s hard to feel sympathy for the Dutchman given that he faced a similar problem last season and clearly didn’t heed the warnings.
Once again in Midtjylland young players were incorporated into the first team squad. Joe Riley, Regan Poole, James Weir and Will Keane were all on the bench in Denmark. Axel Tuanzebe was in the match-day squad away to Crystal Palace, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has worked his way into the first team picture as has, to a lesser extent, Guillermo Varela, while Jesse Lingard is now part of the starting eleven.
Even with a team approaching full strength, according to Van Gaal, the average age isn’t dramatically higher at 25.54-years-old.
No doubt there are holes in the squad. It is bereft of real leaders and short on experience. Whether United can address that in this summer’s transfer window remains to be seen, but if younger players can develop in times of hardship there is a nucleus of academy prospects who could grow to be useful squad members and quite possibly starters.
The transfer strategy
Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired United has spent a total of £316.8 million on permanent transfers and recouped £117.75 million, making the net spend of £199.05 million – at an average of £66.35 million per season.
The purse strings have been loosened, although it is questionable how many of the signings can be considered good value or successes. Anthony Martial has been the standout arrival this season though his fee of £35 million plus add-ons is a big investment. Luke Shaw was beginning to show his quality before his campaign was cruelly cut short by injury, while Daley Blind has been steady if not spectacular.
However, the club has also overpaid for too many players in recent seasons including Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Ángel Di María, while the jury is still out on Memphis Depay, who has suffered a disappointing début season in the Premier League, Morgan Schneiderlin and Matteo Darmian. Bastian Schweinsteiger was recruited at a reasonable fee, while Ander Herrera has yet win the trust of Van Gaal.
And what of the players United failed to attract? Cesc Fàbregas, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos to name a few. Ed Woodward has been led a merry dance on more than one occasion with his obsession with landing a marquee name.
Manchester Evening News recently claimed that Wayne Rooney could be sold to a club in the Chinese Super League provided a world-class (and marketable) replacement can be landed. If that’s the caveat don’t expect the Liverpudlian to up sticks to the Far East any time soon.
It has been rumoured that the Glazers want to review the way transfers are being conducted and implement a more efficient model, in line with that employed by neighbours Manchester City. It is an indictment that United now ‘aspires’ to reach City’s level, to use a Moyesism. If the club is to be cannier in the transfer market then a person with suitable expertise is a must hire.
Atlético Madrid’s director of football, Andrea Berta, has been touted as the man to become United’s new sporting director. If indeed he joins, along with José Mourinho, that would give Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes tremendous influence at the club. Given the vacuum of football knowledge at board level hiring Berta may be a gamble United’s hierarchy believes is worth risking.
The Italian’s track record at Atlético has caught the eyes of clubs across Europe and if he can forge a strong relationship with United’s next head coach then there’s potential to establish a sense of sporting stability at Old Trafford – one missing since Ferguson’s departure.
That said, it’s worth pondering what the new sporting director’s remit might be should United hire one in the summer. It could be a role focused purely on player recruitment, ensuring that the club lands its targets at a reasonable price. This might remove some of Ed Woodward’s responsibilities. It could also become a more holistic role, working with the new Academy director, Nicky Butt, to improve the youth set-up at United.
That remains to be seen, but two attempts at maintaining the old managerial style model during the Van Gaal and Moyes years may have finally convinced the powers-that-be that the sporting infrastructure at Old Trafford needs to be modernised.
A different kind of legacy?
When Van Gaal joined United on a three-year deal he must have thought his philosophy would leave a lasting impression on the Reds. Little did he realise that it would be as a result of a disastrous tenure and not a trophy-laden swansong.
It is a common thread in the Van Gaal story that his various chapters rarely have a happy ending. Yet, by hook or by crook, he has always left a mark at his old clubs.
The chances of Van Gaal staying beyond the summer look very slim indeed. Whether the Dutchman likes it or not his methods may have sparked United into a change of direction. When the final match of Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford is struck what visions will appear? It could be one reminiscing on United’s glory days under Sir Alex or another of an exciting new dawn. Right now United remains out in the cold.