The sacking of Louis van Gaal was the decision which buried the club. Experience, knowledge and quality – the club shunned it all because of its own arrogance and set itself on a path of toxicity and confusion.
Upon Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013, Manchester United tried to repeat what had worked for them for the past 27 years. Bring in an experienced Scot who has more to offer than at his current post.
It wasn’t unsurprising when David Moyes signed, and his tenure with Everton had seemed to show he was a good manager. In hindsight not good enough for that post, but good, nonetheless.
Following the troublesome tenure of Moyes, and a watchdog role for player-manager Ryan Giggs, ‘United’ turned to the experienced mind of Louis van Gaal.
It was under the Dutchman that United’s transfer policy could last be considered sensible. It was under him that Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial, Daley Blind, and Sergio Romero arrived. Granted, so too did the sad tales of Radamel Falcao and Memphis Depay; but nobody remembers Ferguson’s tenure for Bebé or Eric Djemba-Djemba.
Van Gaal’s first season saw United finish three places and six points higher than the previous. His second saw fifth and the FA Cup trophy. He was then unceremoniously given the boot and his former Barcelona coach, Mourinho, brought in.
Mourinho’s first season was United’s most successful since Ferguson’s departure, winning the EFL Cup and the Europa League, although soured by a measly sixth-placed spot. The rest is, unfortunately, both history and present.
Nothing was going to be easy when Ferguson left, for obvious reasons. David Moyes was always out of his depth and could never match the unrealistic expectations of the club’s hierarchy and its fans. He was never going to continue Ferguson’s strategy, the club needed to recognise a change was coming. Rivals Manchester City did with Pep Guardiola, so to Liverpool with Jürgen Klopp.
The club’s stubbornness to adhere to Ferguson’s ideals meant it was always against Moyes, and at his arrival, the fans and the club were too expectant of success. What the club needed to do was sign somebody who was a proven winner and allow them to both establish their own style and build off what Ferguson has left, ultimately transitioning to a new era.
Moyes was a steppingstone to van Gaal, who said it would take him three years to properly build the United team he wanted. But the club only gave him two, sacking him unduly.
United’s handling of van Gaal’s departure is something which the club is fortunate has mostly faded from memory but is still a scathing indictment of how senior management at the club views the footballing aspect – a means to a financial end.
But it went wrong when the club didn’t give van Gaal more time. The Dutchman’s calibre as a manager simply cannot be argued by any fan. He’s found consistent success at some of Europe’s biggest clubs and has argued that the reason for his failure was the lack of players.
He’s wrong to scapegoat, but he has a point. His tactics were criticised for being boring, but come to the end of his tenure, United began to play the best they have since Ferguson left. From February to May in his last season, the club lost only two games in the league – away to Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United.
With the benefit of hindsight it is clear the Dutchman was trying to build a mentality of possession, of creating space and of utilising a press when necessary. He didn’t want to park the bus, but was aware United weren’t capable of a 4-4-2. He played a 3-5-2, now ahead of its time in the Premier League. Solskjaer played three at the back on Sunday, and we saw what happened.
It was different to what Ferguson had done and there was nothing wrong with that – the only thing wrong was the unrealistic demands placed upon him and the required immediacy of his leadership, in the form of success.
He won the FA Cup that year and was level on points with City, just four behind Spurs in third – hardly a damning indictment of his ability. Remarkably, the tactics that saw van Gaal ousted from Old Trafford aren’t dissimilar from those which have seen Klopp achieve success at Anfield.
The type of play van Gaal was pushing United towards was starting to show signs of life, of an ability. He was a character unafraid to implement his philosophy, purely because he believed in it. And it had worked, and it was working.
Perhaps had there been fewer key defeats, a further stage in the Champions League, one position higher, who knows. But kicking out someone with the quality of van Gaal was the biggest error United have made since Ferguson left.
When van Gaal left, United were back at square one. Appointing Mourinho looked promising but it soon devolved into the tepid play and toxic atmosphere which has since clouded the club. It was the departure of van Gaal that truly signified the beginning of this awful period in United’s history.
Now, the problem is more insidious than it was supposedly before. Solskjaer has done well to remove toxicity from the club and is transitioning the club by gradually changing the squad. He’s out of his depth, but he’s only not had a full season. Sacking him only takes the club back to square one for the third time.
The performance of on Sunday was a glimmer of what may be possible if he’s given time, time to at least heal the club if not restore it.