Let’s face it: it’s easy to take shots at Louis Van Gaal. The man came into Manchester United with the promise of correcting Moyes’s mistakes, but he’s amassed less points this season than the oft-berated Moyes did in his year’s tenure. The Dutchman was only able to guide a club with a long history of league titles to a scrappy fourth place last season, and they could well miss out this time around with Manchester City a few points ahead and West Ham and Liverpool hot on their heels. Manchester United fans are a mixture of seasoned veterans who have seen the past title wins being secured by Giggs, Beckham and company and glory hunters who have heard about those wins, so a club with such high aspirations is bound to get on Van Gaal’s back.
This season, the most common accusation thrown at Van Gaal has been the style of play that he has brought to the club: slow, slow, bore, bore. Their grinding game of attrition has consigned them to a snore-inducing five 0-0 draws this season, and goodness knows how many times they’ve had the affair goalless at half-time: just look at their last two matches away at Tottenham and away at West Ham United. Players like Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind do not suit a high-tempo style of play, and even the immensely talented Juan Mata is better utilised in slow build-ups. Frustratingly for the fans, the pace and power of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford has often remained under wraps, horses dragged back at the starting gate.
This is not a criticism of uninspiring football, because it does get teams plenty of beneficial 1-0 wins (and how many of them have United seen out this season?). However, it hardly endears the fans towards the manager when those same fans have got used to watching the likes of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Ruud Van Nistelrooy tearing teams asunder. United rarely catch fire when they play, almost giving in when they go a goal down. When they faced Tottenham last Sunday, an 18 year old by the name of Timothy Fosu-Mensah was the dam that held back the flood; as soon as he limped off, Spurs simply surged through them in a wave. The much flashier and more effective midfield of Lamela, Alli and Eriksen overwhelmed them and they never looked like fighting for a way back into the contest.
United rarely catch fire when they play, almost giving in when they go a goal down.
The last few years have revealed a growing trend in elite football that has been enforced by the money windfall which is only rising in the game: managerial impatience. Economics and profit margins put extraordinary pressure on managers to deliver results from the first day at the office. This was the doom that Moyes was taking on, and the struggle that Van Gaal was tasked with. Poor Moyes was told to take on an ageing squad after a man had managed at the club for 27 years. There is no manager in the world that would have made a success out of such a situation. Van Gaal was fortunate enough that his effort would be compared more to Moyes’s than to Ferguson’s, and hopefully the beneficiary of the wider understanding amongst the United fanbase that to unpick all of the countless impressions that Ferguson made on the club is something that takes five years at least. Arsenal will face the same problem when Wenger goes: a slump, aggravated fans and increased pressure to remove the man that has been dealt this hardship. It’s a vicious circle.
It is for that reason that I used to be in favour of keeping Van Gaal at least for a couple of years longer. If he gets them the FA Cup and fourth, it would be hard to be argue that he is not making progress with that mission either. However, it is in decision-making that Van Gaal has made me wonder if he will indeed be shown the door.
The Dutchman has developed a habit of producing a big result just when the pressure on him has been getting too heated, the most recent example of which is the 1-2 victory over West Ham in the FA Cup after the 3-0 loss in the league at White Hart Lane. I would argue, though, that it is the realisation of the pressure that shocks Van Gaal out of his temptation to trundle along with a so-and-so starting XI; against Spurs, he made the utterly bizarre decision to replace his starlet Rashford with the insipid Ashley Young at half-time, hence nullifying United’s attacking threat. They managed just one shot on target on that day, through Martial, and lost. At this point, Van Gaal woke up, smelled the coffee and realised that it would be canny to utilise Fellaini against West Ham, pitting physicality against Carroll’s physicality (Wenger will never learn how to do this). Fellaini was one of the best and most effective players over the 90 minutes, doing exactly that. This is simply no consolation for the manager refusing to be so intelligent in the daily grind when the fans aren’t raging for his dismissal.
The next manager of United would still face a task to turn them back into a Premier League-winning side (I would get Mourinho and give him three years). As for Van Gaal, maybe we should ask the man himself (or maybe not quite himself).