At the exact mid-point of Louis Van Gaal’s famed “process” and it is hard to decipher exactly what the equally mysterious “philosophy” is that he keeps espousing. A low point seemed to follow the back-to-back defeats by Bournemouth, Norwich, and Stoke when rumours of Van Gaal’s sacking, along with the supposed imminent arrival of recently sacked Jose Mourinho, were rife. Panic was also abound as Pep Guardiola announced his decision to depart from the Allianz Arena at the end of the season, with the rumour mill suggesting he will be rocking up across town at the Etihad. The initial furore seems to have died down, as the passage of time and a spirited, if not uninspiring, draw versus Chelsea has bought more time for the Dutchman. Yet it is safe to say the mood on the red side of Manchester is not particularly friendly at the moment. It appears to be a matter of when, not if, Van Gaal will depart. Saying that, he has his backers. You’d imagine that Ed Woodward won’t want to throw him under the bus and be responsible for two failed appointments in a short space of time, especially from a “special” club that supposedly backs their managers. Rumours also have Sir Alex Ferguson meddling behind the scenes, backing Van Gaal to keep Mourinho out of the hot seat.
Politics aside, United fans expect better. Van Gaal completed phase one of his project, by restoring the club to the Champions League following David Moyes’ seventh place finish in his one and only season. This was the minimum requirement and it was achieved. It was now expected that the experienced Dutch manager would take the team to the next level, improving the league position whilst simultaneously having a go in cup competitions. United currently sit sixth in the league, five points from 4th position. The club has been eliminated from the Champions League in the League Cup. All that remains for a possible route to glory is the FA Cup and the much-maligned Europa League. As the club desperately tries to appease the money men and finish in the top 4, don’t expect either of the remaining cup competitions to be given the respect they deserve.
On a positive note Van Gaal has successfully culled the dead wood during his tenure. Anderson, Nani, Lindegaard, Van Persie, Javier Hernandez and several others were all shown the exit door. This ruthless exodus has left the squad looking a little light, but it is hard to put a compelling argument ahead for any of the players put out to pasture. Revisionists will tell you he should have kept the likes of Nani, Van Persie and Hernandez, citing their current form with their new employees, yet the form of the aforementioned trio lurched from inconsistent to downright awful. Nani had years to make an impact, yet went backwards in the last few seasons. Van Persie was instrumental in Ferguson’s last year, yet his form, attitude and injury history have left a lot to be desired during the reigns of Moyes and later Van Gaal. Hernandez always was a great impact player and a fans favourite, yet he too seemed to have dipped, and at the time few bemoaned his exit.
His recent signings have yet to convince. Schweinsteiger, captain of World Cup champions Germany, is an extremely influential figure and despite his mobility not being what it once was is still a prominent player at the top level. Darmian and Schneiderlin started the season fairly well yet have spent a considerable amount of recent time watching from the sidelines, as if the manager has lost faith with the same players he brought in. Memphis Depay has quite rightly been taken out of the limelight following a poor start and a questionable attitude. He has the potential to be a decent player, but needs to be managed right and playing in a free-flowing team, neither of which seem to be happening at the moment.
So as we reach the “business end” of the season, what represents success for Manchester United? Up until a few weeks ago United were still in touching distance of a wide-open title race in which “traditional” heavyweights flattered to deceive. However, December form has rendered United out of the running, and now another fourth place would probably represent some modicum of success as far as the league is concerned. Away match-going fans will be salivating at trips to obscure outposts in the Europa League, but the Thursday-Sunday format won’t suit either attendees of Old Trafford nor the players they pay to watch. The thin squad will surely struggle to cope, yet lifting that trophy come May would go some way to endearing Van Gaal to the fans, and proving to himself and others that he can still pull the trigger when it comes to the business end of a competition. An FA Cup run is surely a must, but again, if there is even the sniff of finishing fourth then you can guarantee that this will be prioritised
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