Seven games into this Premier League season, it is fair to say that Louis Van Gaal has failed to live up to much of the hype (most of which self-created) surrounding his appointment.
It’s early days no doubt, but the early signs for United are worrying with lavish buys such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao doing nothing to help prevent the shipping of both goals and chances at a premium – a trait which has cost them dear against Swansea, MK Dons and Leicester, and threatened to do so against both Everton and West Ham – where United were lucky to escape with the points.
Despite coming out the blocks well to establish early leads in both games, United were in the end incredibly fortunate and somewhat indebted to both linesmen and David De Gea’s heroics to come away with six points from their last two matches.
At this stage of the season, having experienced what can hardly be described as a ‘baptism of fire’ against Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, QPR, Leicester, West Ham and Everton, many expected United to be there or there abouts at the top of the league table – with any tailing off likely to occur later on when they came to face Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City etc. – but instead they find themselves in fourth place, with the worst of the fixtures yet to come. Louis Van Gaal is well in need of a half decent run of results if he is to firmly cement himself as a long term Manchester United manager.
This, incidentally, is something David Moyes never really did. Whilst he was certainly brought in to be a long term successor to Sir Alex he never properly established himself with the fans and within the club, and in the end that was one factor which made him so eminently ‘sackable’. No one was really going to miss him.
This is not to say that Moyes’ sacking was justified, personally I thought it was incredibly premature from the board and they were living a fantasy if they thought there would be anything close to a continuation of Fergie’s level of domination in the first couple of seasons, but this doesn’t change the fact that Moyes did very, very little to endear himself to the supporters or even the players – making the termination of his contract ten times easier. This is why, when the fixtures were first released, the initial impression I got was that someone was looking down on Van Gaal incredibly kindly indeed.
The easy (or as easy as the Premier League gets) start he was afforded should’ve been a perfect opportunity to amass a bit of momentum, and a bit of respect amongst the fan base and within the club, meaning that when the eventual comedown arrived there was some level of affection and patience afforded to Van Gaal as a virtue of having had a good, positive start. Instead he is already in a slightly precarious situation.
No United fans that I know of are anywhere near calling for his head, but neither are they singing his praises such as most fans would be over a manager who has brought in Falcao, Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Daley Blind.
His failure to address the pressing defensive issues in exchange for luxury, ego-boosting attackers has frustrated many fans and his overconfident press exchanges, almost ignoring the reality of his early results as manager, have already become irritating for most non-United fans – and it may not be long before they become an annoyance for the Old Trafford faithful.
So, where has Van Gaal gone wrong? There are many possible answers to this, and everybody has an opinion. Some will tell you the players aren’t performing to the level they’re capable and most of the brunt lies with them – but I fear this excuse can’t really be rolled out any longer. At the end of the day, if the players haven’t lived up to their ability for a whole season and a half, it’s about time to question whether they still have the ability at all.
Teams can underperform in one or two games and bounce back stronger – but if they’ve been off the pace for longer than a year, it becomes a bit farfetched that they’re just going to play themselves out of this ‘phase’. Another more feasible explanation is that Van Gaal has forgotten the importance of a whole half of his team – the defence. Evidence for this is not just in his defensive signings, or lack thereof, but in the formations adopted.
There’s a reason all the top teams opt for four at the back, and the teams experimenting three out and out defenders tend to be the likes of Wigan and West Brom, it might work if your aim is to win enough games to finish safely mid table and accept a few batterings on the way as part and parcel of the formation, but for United this is not an option – well, at least it shouldn’t be.
Even when winning games against West Ham and Everton, the defensive performances have left much to be desired – and this certainly can’t be allowed to continue when United come to face some of their more challenging fixtures.
That said, the attacking signings Van Gaal has made are nothing short of fantastic and if Angel Di Maria’s goals/assists are enough to fire United into the Champions League he will have paid back his widely questioned price tag within a season. Falcao leaves me a little bit more puzzled, as it seems to me the last thing United were in need of was another 29-30 odd striker on ridiculous wages – two is enough.
Combine that with the sales of Welbeck and Hernandez and it looks increasingly bizarre, but again – if he fires United into the Champions League that’s the £20 million loan fee paid off and then some.
The thing is with United, is it’s not just the TV revenues they will be losing if they are out of the Champions League, it’s also a significant amount of their Adidas contract (the £70m a year paid out is dependent on United being in the Champions League) and more importantly their market share. Think about this in purely economic terms, United’s brand currently has a practical monopoly on the UK football market. However, for as long as they are not in the Champions League this is being fast closed by Arsenal, City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Arsenal and City especially are currently making huge gains in emerging football markets such as Asia and North America – and as long as they continue to be more successful than United on the pitch, United’s grasp on the global market is squeezed further and further, making them less lucrative to investors and sponsors. So, in spending astronomical amounts on these players – when it might not seem to make sense at first, United are actually in desperate need of Champions League football just to retain their market share, otherwise their debt will proceed to become more than an inconvenience. Thus – there is some, albeit limited, sense in the Falcao and Di Maria buys.
The main problem I have with it is I’m not sure it was anywhere near the best use of money to ensure Champions League football next year, ‘you score three we score four’ just doesn’t work and United’s attacking options were never the problem and if this comes back to haunt United at the end of the season Van Gaal should rightly be in real trouble with his superiors. From a purely financial point of view – that £150m odd spent on all these players will have been worth it if United get back into Europe’s elite and stay there, but will be a lot more serious if not.
Basically, Van Gaal needs to turn it around pretty soon. There may have been some signs of this recently (picking up three wins in the last four games and Di Maria slotting straight in) but I remain thoroughly unconvinced by United’s performances – especially defensively, and they will be made to pay for this against the big teams. I suppose the one saving grace for them is they could just try and replicate Arsenal of last year, who got pretty sorely beaten by all the big teams – but managed to win enough of their other games to sneak into fourth.
That said, Arsenal were actually incredibly defensively solid in all of their other games – with Wojcech Szczesny picking up the Golden Glove at the end of the season, a feat which already seems unlikely at United whatever you think of David De Gea’s ability as a keeper. Personally, I can’t see Van Gaal and United working out in the long term, United need to rebuild and start looking at winning the league again in three or four years’ time whilst correcting a lot of their structural problems in the meantime.
In fact, there are hugely striking similarities between United’s current predicament and that of Arsenal around 2006 where the stadium move (amounting to £500m worth of debt) and the abrupt clear out of 75% of the Invincibles (comparable to the loss of United’s greatest ever manager) led the club to enact a ten year plan of rebuilding for the future.
Arsene Wenger put aside his reputation for the good of the club, accepting the flak for many of Arsenal’s short fallings despite operating on the sixth highest budget in the league. That is what United really need. A boss ready to come in and set out a new long term vision, whilst putting aside short term personal success.
But in all honesty, Van Gaal is the last person on the planet you’d choose to sacrifice a bit of glory for the good of the club based on his recent managerial history and unless this changes, Manchester United could continue to fall much, much further – making David Moyes an almost fond memory.