It’s not yet clear who will be Louis van Gaal’s long-term successor as Manchester United manager, but for now, it appears that Jose Mourinho is the favourite. Many have reservations over Mourinho given his attitude and recent failure at Chelsea, but with the soon-to-be-ex Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola likely to choose Manchester City for his next job, United will probably have little choice. Whoever replaces Van Gaal, they will have their work cut out for them. Here are the three gravest errors Van Gaal made in his time at Old Trafford.
You can get away with a lot if you can convince people there will be jam tomorrow. The promise of better things to come has been enough to get people to vote for neoliberal political parties for almost every single election in the West for the past thirty years, despite its repeated failure to live up to its hollow claims of future prosperity for all. It’s similar in football. You can perpetuate the ugliest football in the world if fans and players believe you’re laying the groundwork for something spectacular.
Van Gaal’s United certainly put out some ugly stuff. In his first season, his team preferred to smash the ball into Marouane Fellaini’s face instead of giving Angel di Maria more chances on the left wing. He gave Wayne Rooney’s intellect room to breathe instead of encouraging Ander Herrera’s ability to link the midfield to the forwards. Even so, fans knew that Van Gaal had inherited a squad that needed pulling together, that wouldn’t lose too often, and would at the very least qualify for the Champions League. He managed that, eventually quite comfortably. When three successive opponents—Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City—gifted United acres of space to attack, it provided fans rafts of optimism in a sea of effluence.
Van Gaal got to the end of the season and attempted to clear out the deadwood to replace them with something special. Out went the broken Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, the unconvincing Javier Hernandez and Di Maria, and in came Memphis Depay and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial added numbers and potential. There was no actual central defender though, and Rooney wasn’t replaced, itself a huge error.
So even when the second season began with football that was less direct but far more boring, fans were patient. They gave him a chance to assimilate the new signings. They gave Rooney time to play into form. They waited for Memphis to convince them he was the new Ronaldo and not the new Nani. It soon became clear however that the boring football was here to stay. Even worse, it was rubbish.
It’s a general rule in business that if employees are indifferent to their leaders, they won’t die for the cause. In fact, they’ll try to go somewhere else as soon as possible, and they will do the bare minimum to avoid the sack.
Relatively early on in his tenure, it was sunshine and moonbeams between the United players and their new coach, they said. Of course it was. A change is as good as a rest, and David Moyes’ brief tenure had been a miserable time for everyone. With a forceful new manager arriving, the players could be forgiven for expecting life to improve. That optimism wouldn’t last.
Though he barely raised an eyebrow in training or on the pitch Di Maria was quickly cut out of the side, instead of being encouraged to commit to United and to at least make the most of his year in Manchester. Juan Mata and Herrera were sidelined to make way for Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini. Rafael, no worse than Antonio Valencia, was treated like the bastard of child of Ronald Koeman and Hristo Stoichkov. David de Gea was excommunicated from the first team after he was linked with Real Madrid, despite behaving professionally throughout the transfer window. Robin van Persie was essentually told to do one, and players endured rigid discipline in training, the night before matches, and throughout the games themselves.
Van Gaal criticised them in public and dropped them for minor mistakes, while Rooney managed to escape blame despite being the very worst player in the squad. The players gave up, they didn’t care, and while they might be paid to care, they ultimately acted the same way most us do at a job they no longer love.
If you can get players and fans to tolerate you, you then need to earn the respect of your executives. They, however, tend only to be preoccupied with the bottom line. In football, there are two bottom lines—money and points in the table. The money was taken care of with Man United’s qualification for the Champions League, which came as a result of the points. You would imagine if a manager guaranteed United qualification to the Champions League, the Glazers would give him the kind of contract they did Alex Ferguson. Yet Van Gaal’s mistake was to produce football so poor it looked to threaten both. To do so at a time when Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were theoretically available was fatal.
Whoever replaces Van Gaal will have to clear up three messes: Ferguson’s, Moyes’s and Van Gaal’s, but that won’t be enough to ensure success. Below are the things he (or she, in a better society) would have to put right:
Rooney’s decline was obvious. Among a certain group of United fans Rooney, whom they’ve referred to as the ‘Fat Scouse Bastard’ (now upgraded to something far less savoury), has been clearly holding the side back for years. They believe his continued presence in the first team comes only from an absence of competition. Ahead of his retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson had tried to buy Neymar before he moved to Barcelona and Lucas Moura before he decided PSG was the more sensible choice. He tried to get Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie to usurp Rooney, but his own conservatism, injury, and Kagawa’s lack of adaptability prevented a clean break. Nevertheless, Ferguson set Rooney up for a fall, only for Moyes and Woodward to drag him back from the brink.
In retrospect, it was an awful choice not to sell him to Chelsea when they had the chance. In all fairness however, to lose Ferguson, David Gill and Wayne Rooney in the same summer—the latter to a title rival—would have been too much swallow for United fans to swallow given the lack of summer signings. It was a defensive move to keep Rooney, but perhaps an understandable one.
Now, though, Rooney is so bad, and so old, that he needs to be moved on as soon as possible. Any manager who believes they can rejuvenate such a woeful player is will have ignored that his rampant uselessness, and the indulgence of it, went a long way to cost Van Gaal his full complement of retirement money. Mourinho, or whoever is next in line to manager United, must drop him, manage the fallout, identify a replacement, and make sure there are no reasons for him to be given any more chances. An undeniable requirement, and a perplexing task.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Gareth Bale and Thomas Muller would improve almost any side in the world. The presence of one of them in an English side would probably be enough to turn any of the top five into favourites for the league title. But, and this is something that Woodward fails to understand, there are other good players in the world.
And, as Woodward fails to grasp, there are a group of players who will be the next Ronaldo, Neymar, Bale and Muller. It may not be easy to find them, but there’s enough money at United to develop a scouting network as good as the best in the world, and to help build the next global superstar. They did it before with the class of 92, and more recently with Rooney and Ronaldo. Surely they can do it once more. It is up to the next manager to sit Woodward down, tie him to a chair, and take the credit cards away. He must be given no leeway on player selection. United need a central defender, a winger and a striker. Mourinho should know who he wants, having been frustrated in the market at Chelsea. With Jorge Mendes, there must be a few players who can be ushered into the side with little encouragement and plenty of commission.
Leicester City will not remain in first place. Manchester City and Arsenal are flawed sides, and Chelsea are nowhere near a threat. United are still in touching distance of the Premier League title, and they have the January transfer window, plus the chance to enjoy the relief of a new manager, to make a major challenge for first. Whoever arrives should, like Klopp, realise what a rare chance this is to take the Premier League with very little serious competition. Whoever takes over this winter shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing just enough, like Van Gaal did. Instead, the league is there to be won, and United fans will fall in love with the next man to win some games and score some goals. Easy! Sort of.