“I once dropped my pants in front of the entire squad. Because I wanted to make clear: when I make a substitution, I don’t do so for my own ego, but for the sake of the team. I do everything for the team and I use everything I can to illustrate that. My voice, my mind, and everything else I’ve got. This shows the strength of our team spirit.” Louis Van Gaal
When it comes to putting his balls on the line, Man Utd couldn’t have picked a more apt manager to lead them into the post David Moyes era. For Van Gaal it’s a plum gig (last one I promise) with the chance to manage of the world’s biggest teams with the shadow of Alex Ferguson looming a little less large. With the team enduring a tortuously grim campaign expectations will be somewhat dampened with his remit surely to restore Champions League football with a Liverpool like rise from seventh place without the burden of European competition and with a stronger squad. He can’t fail can he? Also does the decision to appoint him represent an acceptance a quick fix is needed to stem the decline or a genuine means of building a new long term foundation?
It had appeared obvious to many early on in the 13/14 season that David Moyes just didn’t seem the right fit. He is a plucky & earnest mid-table manager with mid-table tendencies, his conservative approach and tactical limitations rubbing off on his squad, great players looking mediocre; Danny Welbeck looking imperious… It may not be too absurd to suggest that the club engineered a situation; knowingly or not; that has allowed some sweeping personnel change through an aging defence and allowed a litany of top coaches to dodge the after-Fergie bullet so many would’ve been fearing last summer. Moyes was Fergie approved; British and willing to take on an impossible task where others surely would have baulked. Short term pain has been felt, but right now financially they have enough clout to shop at the top table so long as they get it right next year.
That task falls on Van Gaal, a manager with a fantastic career behind him but no recent success to compare to his Ajax team of the mid-nineties, very much a once in a generation group of home-grown talent existing in parallel with Ferguson’s team of a similar ilk. His spells with Barcelona and Bayern Munich brought trophies but plenty of unrest. His consecutive La Liga titles with Barca between 1997 and 1999 first time round were followed by a growing disconnect with his squad and upon his second spell at the club in 2002 again he failed to translate his methods and was sacked after a few months. Between this was an underwhelming time managing his homeland The Netherlands. They failed to reach the 2002 World Cup thanks to the unlikely heroics of Jason McAteer and The Republic of Mick McCarthy. Second time around Van Gaal has fared better with the national side and his stock is still relatively high on the back of solid results and getting Bayern Munich to the Champions League final in 2010.
With no question marks over his pedigree and big club experience the biggest concern is can he take his stubbornly patented philosophies and have the United players buy into it? You could argue Robin Van Persie will be a loyal cheerleader but what of other big names like Rooney and Cleverley? You would think the idea of a more progressive attacking style will appeal to most and garner better results, but can this progress succeed for them over more than a couple of years? Van Gaal’s history suggests at some point there will be an inevitable fall out & a looming tipping point where the intensity will wane and have less affect. It could be that in two to three years they are no closer to the feeling of a long term track they rode with Ferguson for so long and maybe they have become shrewd enough to accept the modern day revolving door culture that is commonplace. Van Gaal is no Alex Ferguson, at least not to Manchester Utd. He will come and he will go. What he achieves in that pocket of time though is crucial to the club. Failure to secure Champions League football will cost financially as the new BT Sport deal kicks in and they have to strengthen amidst the growing financial strength of others and with the quietly sobering fact that of all their revenue is just a foamy head on a bitter pint of Glazer debt.
Whether an optimist or pessimist, there can be no definitive opinion as to whether the 13/14 slump has been a means to an end or whether a rot is setting in that may linger for much longer. United need to show their balls (sorry) and hope they don’t balls up (and again.)