Louis Van Gaal has been a dead man walking since before Christmas, and now it appears his appeals have run out and his execution date is set in stone. According to most sources, the worst kept secret in football will soon be out of the bag and the Dutchman will be replaced in the Old Trafford dug out José Mourinho. Even with things at their worst, speculation still mounted that Van Gaal would keep his job and see out the final year of his three-year contract. It now appears that won’t happen.
To look at the positives, at least Van Gaal can bow out having brought the club its first post-Ferguson trophy following yesterday’s FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace. He was seen as the antithesis of Moyes upon his arrival. Confident, with a bulging CV comparable with most of the games managers, he completed his first task of getting United back into the Champions League at the first attempt. This season, a trophy and a title challenge was expected. He delivered on the former, but failed miserably on the latter.
What has angered fans most, and fans of other clubs can debate the apparent self-entitlement of United, is the style of play. He’s won a trophy, yes, and that is what football is all about. But United was built on attacking football, as an antidote to the grim industrial surroundings of the early 1900s. The weather isn’t too great either! Van Gaal’s United, however, constantly flattered to deceive, with flair players seemingly hamstrung by his tactics, urged not to shoot and pass sideways and backwards. Goalless draws, defeats, and the occasional 1-0 victory weren’t ever going to satisfy the match-going fan or paying “customers”. De Gea has been one of the outstanding players at the club in the last few years, and whilst he is one of the world’s best, your goalkeeper should not be winning player of the year awards every season.
The Dutchman should at least credited with continuing the club’s tradition of giving a chance to local, home-grown players. You could argue that it was both his fault, and a complete fluke, that led to the huge involvement of young, local players. In the first place, Van Gaal cut a lot of dead wood from the squad, which while necessary and welcomed by most, did leave the playing staff a little light. His signings also flattered to deceive. Depay looks like the archetypal modern footballer, all flicks and tricks and daft photographs off the field; Schweinsteiger has predictably spent most of the season injured despite allegedly being the highest paid player at the club; Schneiderlin and Darmian have alternated between competent and downright useless.
Marcus Rashford made his debut following a pre-match warm-up injury to Martial. The young striker took his chance and has never looked back, and his emergence must be seen as one of the highlights of the season. His chemistry with Warrington-born Lingard, and Martial, has been a breath of fresh air and a nice contrast with the fear and lethargy shown by some of the older, experienced players. Mourinho doesn’t have the greatest track record with youngsters, often preferring battle-hardened men which suit his usual two-three year stint at clubs, but hopefully the club’s board will, without interfering in team selection, insist that the tradition is continued.
One of Van Gaal’s most spectacular achievements was to be eliminated from two European competitions in one season. The limp Champions League exit at the hands of continental giants Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven was bettered by the pathetic exit in the Europa League by the club’s fiercest rivals from the other end of the M62. The league campaign was poor, with United never really looking to finish in the top four, despite the “poor” seasons had by Arsenal and Manchester City, and the collapse in form of Tottenham Hotspur in the last few games. The FA Cup at least provided some sort of consolation, giving the fans something to smile about in what has been a bleak campaign.
Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League may not please the money men, but last time United failed to qualify for Europe’s premier competition, they were still able to attract Ángel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao. Okay, with hindsight neither of those players worked out, but few could argue that they weren’t seen as marquee signings upon their arrival.
Off the pitch the club has continued to embarrass. The shameless promotion of the X Men and Revenant movies was topped by the “bomb scare” at Old Trafford on the final day of the season. Is there another company of a similar size anywhere else in the corporate world that is so tin pot? Answers on a postcard please. Heads would roll in any other industry, but at United this kind of thing seems par for the course. Being late for two recent games in London should have been avoided (United lost both) but hey, United now have a new Ecuadorian banking partner and other daft link ups in the Far East so who cares, right?
If, or when, Mourinho arrives, he should be able to attract the best players, despite the lack of involvement in the Champions League. The Portuguese isn’t known for his free-flowing, attacking football, but his caustic personality should at least assure that his team plays with a little more passion and fight than that of Van Gaal’s. He will be tasked, in the first instance, of mounting a serious title challenge and making the club feared once again. Given his track record that seems like a real possibility, although given his history of trouble and controversy it remains to be seen at what cost it will come to United’s reputation.