To bastardise the late, great, Brian Clough, all managers end in failure. The two-times European Cup winner with Nottingham Forrest eventually took the Midlands club to relegation, before retiring in comparative ignominy. Those who do not fall into that trap rank among the very best in the history of the game. No manager, it seems, is too big, too celebrated, or too laden with silverware to fall. Louis van Gaal take note.
José Mourinho’s brutal dismissal, on Thursday, by long-time sponsor Roman Abramovich should send a resounding signal the Dutchman’s way. Seven months on from claiming the Premier League title, Mourinho’s first managerial failure is complete, with Chelsea left a single point above the relegation zone. Despite three Premier League titles, Mourinho’s bank of credit at Chelsea was not significant enough for the London club to wait on the 52-year-old to fix a litany of problems that were mostly of his own making.
Van Gaal, having made only modest progress in 18 months at Old Trafford, should be under no illusions as to the security of his own position. After all, United risks another season without silverware – the club is out of the Capital One Cup, dumped into the second tier of European football, and falling behind Manchester City in the Premier League. The Dutchman’s reputation is hanging by a thread.
While the veteran’s impact on United’s dressing room is not yet as divisive as Mourinho’s broken relationship with his now former players, the signs are growing. The rumours sweeping Manchester are of players frustrated, a squad not universally bought into the Dutchman’s philosophy, and the toll of results heading south now felt. Van Gaal, it seems, is not master of all at Old Trafford.
And as much as Ed Woodward is inclined to brief that his manager is a “genius,” the former Ajax coach’s failure to drive home significant progression at United is a strong counter. Not least because supporters can throw a season and a half of prosaic football into the argument. Fans do not ‘get’ the manager, nor the Dutchman the terrace angst. It is rarely a winning combination.
Van Gaal’s job is not under immediate threat, but in a campaign where United is far from guaranteed Champions League football next season, nor is his future secure. Increasingly supporters appear to be on the side of the Dutchman’s exit, albeit with no scientific rigour in the analysis.
At Chelsea, Mourinho’s downfall comes amid a series of increasingly controversial incidents this season. In August, Mourinho publicly ostracised Eva Carneiro after the club doctor ran on the field to treat Eden Hazard, much to the manager’s chagrin. In October, Mourinho embarked on a seven-minute-long televised rant following Chelsea’s 3-1 home defeat to Southampton. His players are said to believe Mourinho had cracked under the pressure.
More recently Mourinho conducted a bizarre post match press conference and interview in the wake of defeat at home to Liverpool. The dénouement came after the manager claimed to feel “betrayed” by his players in defeat at Leicester City. The bond of manager and players was fatally broken.
“There obviously seemed to be a palpable discord between manager and players,” said Chelsea’s technical director Michael Emenalo. “It was a decision taken to protect the interests of the club. The results have not been good. The owner is forced to make what was a very tough decision for the good of the club. We are one point above relegation.”
Back in Manchester Van Gaal’s standing with his board remains comparatively strong; not yet is Woodward or the Glazer family prepared to swing the same axe that did for David Moyes. Not, at least, until United’s participation in next season’s Champions league is confirmed, or otherwise. That, of course, is no longer guaranteed with a team that, although shorn of too many players through injury, has spent a season struggling to assert itself.
But nor is Van Gaal on course to earn the same level of affection at Old Trafford with which Mourinho is still held by Chelsea’s supporters. The narrative that wraps the Portuguese manager’s time in London over the past decade is complex, but his legacy as one of the world’s great coaches remains safe. Van Gaal’s is not.
Yet, they were once partners. The master and his apprentice; translator and the great Dutchman.
“I have to say that van Gaal is a beautiful person,” Mourinho once said. “He’s somebody who is a little bit like me in the sense only the people who know him well know who he is. Louis loves to analyse and gives you complete control of training sessions. With him you become a coach on the pitch. I got something that is very important in my methodology: communication. I created with Louis a very, very strong relationship.”
In the years that followed the pair’s stint in Barcelona Van Gaal tasted more failure than silverware, where Mourinho generated almost universal success – at Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale, Real Madrid and then back in London. The Dutchman was twice sacked at Barcelona, alienated his players and management at Bayern Munich, and was forced into a period of redemption at lowly AZ Alkmaar.
Mourinho too will be redeemed for his Chelsea sacking. There will be no shortage of potential suitors both in England and on the continent. Had it not been for City’s long-standing pursuit of Pep Guardiola, the Etihad might have been a natural step in Mourinho’s career come summer 2016.
So too will some point towards a potential future at Old Trafford, despite United’s board having once rejected the Portuguese in favour of a disastrous 10 month spell with Moyes at the helm. Sir Alex Ferguson, betraying a friendship that Mourinho believed he had built, instead chose Moyes. The rest is a blight on United’s history.
They were different circumstances then, of course, although little in Mourinho’s increasingly deconstructed behaviour points to the safe pair of hands United’s board seemingly favours. Nor, save for a campaign at Real Madrid, is Mourinho’s football of the ilk that United’s supporters seemingly crave.
Yet, for all Van Gaal’s brusque personality, the odds marginally favour United qualifying for European competition and the riches it brings. It is the only standard to which he is held by the Board. Supporters may view the world differently of course. Van Gaal’s time at United, all things being equal, is more failure than success. With it the shadow, or promise, of Mourinho and Pep looms.
After all, all managers end in failure. José knows it. Unless results change Van Gaal may come to know it too.