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.
7 thoughts on “The Wilted Tulip – Louis van Gaal’s United Legacy”
I kind of feel sorry for LVG, the guy put himself in a difficult position. The second manager Utd has had in succession that shot himself in the foot by getting rid of personnel to early, too many and too quickly. Moyes got rid of all the backroom staff I mean he could have kept mulesteen and Phelan at least. LVG came n his first clear out was ok. The second was ok too had he stoped at Di Maria. Ok RVP or Hernandez but not both. Then he gets rid of both flechter and Evans both very experienced he could have kept Evans at least. Otamendi was available n we didn’t snap him up as cover when we know we have Jones who plays four games a season. I guess LVG thought this was a league where his mind tactis would work. But the epl us different every team has a decent manager I mean Leicester have ranieri ffs and watword have quiqe Flores who use to coach Valencia, alladyce has experience, Pottchettino is good, Roberto Martinez another good one n so on so you cant really fool anyone in this league you have to cone with the mind of literally dominating from the go which is what Jose does very well as did Fergie. LvG failure had a lot to do with him been too reliant on his past accolades I mean he came third in the world cup which is ok but not like he won the thing he was very close to getting the final n was close to wining champions league with Bayern so he is a good coach I just don’t know why he couldn’t pull it off in Man Utd.
Man United will never have a good ending with LVG…its better they part way on time…only the board can give the fan a relieving tablet,the pain is fucking much…
It didn’t take a genius to see that it would end badly with LVG as it has everywhere he has been. The gamble (and one that appeared worth taking) was that he would deliver some success before the club imploded. That seems a very, very long shot now but we will still look back with a degree of fondness for Van Gaal. Few would of gambled with youth as he has and some of those gambles will come good in the future.
LVG hasn’t “gambled with youth”. The man has left himself with few options because of his arrogant and misguided approach.
He has run out out of fit senior players because his policy of wanting to operate with a small tight-knit squad in the demanding environment that is the Premier League. United is under strength after the transferring out of several decent players with minimal replacements.
Chucking kids in because you have by design an under-strength squad is not planning for the future, it’s just contributing to the shambles. Another example of the phoolosophy of van Gaal.
I am happy that the structure of the club is being addressed (it seems to be). Hoping that one man can come in and solve all of United’s problems – which seems to have been the approach so far – is ridiculous. From that perspective, the identity of the next manager wouldn’t even matter too much if the club is broken; even the right appointment would struggle with the recent slapdash transfer policy and a lack of proper organisation. It’s like trying to fight with one arm tied behind your back.
A director of football and/or another link between the board and the coaching staff sound like very sensible ideas. Don’t know much about Berta but if he has had any hand in Atletico’s punching way above their weight in recent seasons and possessing arguably the best recruitment strategy of any major European club then I am sure he would bring some sensible ideas to United. Woodward is clearly very good at the commercial side of things, he should probably go back to focusing on that.
One last thing: I might actually prefer another season of Van Gaal over Mourinho. I know that sounds incredible given how depressing the last few months have been, but I will be quite upset if Mourinho gets hired. We need a manager on the way up (the last 18 months should have taught us that!) and Mourinho would only be getting the job by default. United can do better. May not right now, but with a bit of patience they can.
LVG bemoaning injuries and gambling on youth doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He has insisted on a small squad and left the striking options to a fading Rooney, a 19 year old, or Fellaini. The best two youth prospects- Wilson & Januzaj, have both been loaned and not trusted in the first team, and a host of experienced forward players transferred. Did he not once look at the team and wonder where the goals were coming from ? The best squads have some resilience to a level of injury, and completion for places. Woodward is out of his depth in the transfer market and this combined with a flawed tactical and squad building approach by LVG means more misery, until Ed grows a pair and puts the supporters and LVG out of their misery .