Manuel Pellegrini is headed for the unemployment line. The ink isn’t dry on the Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City deal and the Chilean is out of a job when the Catalan begins work in June. With Manchester City’s last two performances it seems Pellegrini’s players have already checked out on him. It begs the question, with a fine managerial record behind him, where next for the affable Pellegrini; and could an unlikely move across the other side of Manchester benefit all? Read More
Louis van Gaal. For the moment it seems more like Louis van Gone. There’s a certain sense of inevitability that the Dutchman’s time in Manchester is coming to a close. If not for Ed Woodward’s foolish pride, Van Gaal might have been given his marching orders already. Following last weekend’s home defeat to Southampton Van Gaal could be at the point of no return. Lose at Derby County in the FA Cup and Woodward’s hand may be forced. Read More
The modern football bubble lives week-to-week. More often than not opinion changes week-to-week as well. Take Wayne Rooney, who ended 2015 in dire form, and has begun 2016 on a scoring streak. The striker has five goals in four games, including two penalties, but some seem to have forgotten the player’s struggle throughout the previous year. Burst of form aside, the larger sample size of yesteryear has a greater bearing on our assessment of the player than four games ever could. Read More
January 25th, 2014. Ex-Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata makes his grand entrance at Manchester United, arriving aboard a helicopter at Carrington to meet Ed Woodward and David Moyes, as the Spaniard moves in a then club-record £37.1 million transfer from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford. Almost two years to that day Mata could be heading for the exit, with the rest of this season potentially determining his future. Read More
Just when you thought the crisis has hit its lowest point, Louis van Gaal’s side found a way to burrow further into the abyss. Following another comprehensive defeat at the hands of Stoke City the club has now lost four games in a row, something the Red Devils have not suffered since 1961. The side is also now winless in seven games. Can the situation get any worse?
The answer might be yes – a home clash to finish the year awaits, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Monday. Optimism hasn’t been at a lower ebb at any point during the Van Gaal era, and most fans are hoping he is either given his marching orders or falls on his own sword before the end of the year.
Criticism of the Dutchman is almost certainly justified, with defence of his methods now as flimsy as the efforts of his back-four. Despite Van Gaal’s successes in rebuilding the club from the ground up, for which he deserves credit, on-field performances have at best stalled and are arguably going backwards. Patience with the process has reached a pivotal moment.
Comparison’s with David Moyes grow by the day – the two managers records are comparable, with Van Gaal’s number no longer that favourable. Yet the common thread between the two men is less the results, but the man who hired them: Edward Gareth Woodward.
Woodward was promoted to the role of executive vice-chairman when David Gill stepped aside in 2013, following Sir Alex Ferguson out the door. Whilst Woodward is clearly a marketing guru, the former banker has essentially acted as the Chief Executive Officer, Commercial Director and Director of Football for United in the past two years. It isn’t working.
The reality, of course, is that Woodward is succeeding in running United as a business, but not as a football club. The question remains as to why Woodward appears to be immune to media criticism given that he now has two managerial failures behind him. If Van Gaal is in the firing line, then Woodward should join him.
Woodward has not been clear of blame from the club’s fans since he was promoted to the top job. He is, after all, a figurehead for the Glazer’s ownership of the club – a controversial topic within itself – whilst appearing to place financial success far above on-field performance. Woodward, it appears, fails to grasp that on the pitch success also means that the dollars will follow.
Woodward’s first window in charge was underwhelming – he hired Moyes, then failed in pursuit of a string of star players, leading to a very public display of panic on transfer deadline day. Marouane Fellaini joined for £27.5 million in August 2013 when the Belgian could have been signed for four million less had he a move been completed in July.
This followed a tortuous summer, with fruitless pursuits of players that, in some cases, were never likely to join the club. It has become an unfortunate routine, with supporters teased on an almost daily basis once transfer windows open – an embarrassing turn of events for a club of United’s stature.
Woodward chased Leighton Baines through summer 2013, although the defender was never close to a move, with the vice chair leading a naïve series of low bids for both the left-back and his teammate Fellaini. The pursuit indicated a gross lack of experience in transfer negotiation and a lack of respect for the selling club, with Everton already hesitant to join negotiations.
Then, for all of United’s spending power and willing show of financial muscle, the club could not tempt Gareth Bale to stay in England and make the move from Tottenham Hotspur. Despite reportedly offering north of £100 million for the Welshman, Bale joined Real Madrid that summer for a world record transfer fee.
Cesc Fabregas also turned his back on interest from United and a year later led the Premier League in assists as Chelsea reclaimed the Premier League. Fabregas is struggling this season, but at the time the Reds Devils were in desperate need of creativity in midfield.
Fabregas’ compatriot Thiago Alcantara also seemed to be on his way from Spain before Bayern Munich’s late interest, and Moyes’ dithering, scuppered a move. The opportunity to sign Munich’s Toni Kroos was turned down a year later, which makes even less sense now than it did then as the German flourishes in Madrid.
The list goes on. Woodward’s apparent interest in Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal approach farcical proportions, leading to accusations of amateurism in the transfer market. It was and is unacceptable given United’s stature and does not appear to happen to other European giants. The longer the club holds am interest in Cristiano Ronaldo the more it mirrors that of the ex who cannot accept their former partner has moved on.
Worse than amateur behaviour, United’s transfer policy seems to prioritise commercial interests ahead of playing needs. It led directly to United’s acquisition of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, neither of whom lasted 12 months in Manchester before bolting for greener pastures. The Argentine’s departure may prove to be a mistake, but Di Maria’s signature, despite his lack of fit within Van Gaal’s system, must also be questioned.
Then there is United’s chase for a central defender over the last two summers. It is, frankly, ridiculous that someone of a suitable calibre has not yet arrived at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos used United’s interest to secure a new contract and the captaincy at Real Madrid, whilst Nicolas Otamendi now plies his trade on the other side of Manchester – and was signed at a relatively reasonable price.
Woodward might be a lifelong United fan, whose father attended the 1968 European Cup Final, but the executive apparently does not have the nous to lead United’s transfer policy. That is not to understate his genius in globalising United’s commercial operation, but what happens on the field is more important to the club’s future.
Woodward’s failings through five transfer windows and two managerial appointments is threatening to drive United into a sustained period of failure. Meanwhile, rivals at home and abroad have progressed far beyond United on the pitch, perhaps to the point that it will be hard to attract players from elite clubs, even if they are being forced out the door, as Di Maria was at Real.
The harsh reality is that even United’s English rivals are outpacing the Reds on and off the field. Pep Guardiola seems closer to the blue side of Manchester than the red, whilst United slips further down the league table with each defeat. United risks ‘doing a Liverpool’ and being left far behind. Perhaps for years to come.
And much of this regression can be traced back to decisions Woodward has personally made. It’s surely now time to start holding United’s vice chair to account if the club wants to move forward. The best scenario might that United’s future is one without its executive chairman.
Louis van Gaal has undertaken ‘projects’ at some of the biggest clubs in the world. His popularity is certainly not universal at any of them, but there’s no doubt that the Dutchman left his mark at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester United. There’s no denying Van Gaal has provided the foundations on which some of those clubs stand today.
Pep Guardiola has followed in Van Gaal’s footsteps, and indeed improved on them, in Catalunya and Bavaria. Could lightning strike a third time in Manchester? It certainly should.
With Guardiola set to announce his plans for 2016 and beyond next week, rumours abound as to where the Spaniard will set sail next. England is the consensus, with the Manchester clubs seemingly favourites despite Jose Mourinho’s dismissal at Chelsea this week.
Questions remain, of course. Would Pep’s style adapt to English football; could he revolutionise the game in the Premier League as he has in Spain and Germany?
Yet, there’s the common misconception that Guardiola shares Van Gaal’s love of possession and, frankly, possession for the sake of it. Certainly, passing teams to death is the perception that supporters and analysts have gained when watching United this season. Leading the league in sideways pass percentage, backwards pass percentage and, of course, possession itself, United dominates the ball, but not the league table. In truth, the man who is leading Munich to another Bundesliga title shares little of that ideal.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he said last year. “All that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.
“It’s not about passing for the sake of it. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!”
Guardiola’s Catalan side was a ruthless attacking outfit whose effortless possession of the ball cut up almost every opponent. Rather than Van Gaal’s sometimes pedestrian passing, the Spaniard’s version of the Blaugrana was arguably the best side of the modern era. Barça moved the ball quickly – United the victim in two breathtaking displays in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Pep explained. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.
“That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”
In May of 2011 Guardiola sat in the stands watching United in the Champions League Semi-Finals. Weeks later his side would destroy the Red Devils in the final.
“I like this atmosphere. I could see myself coaching here one day,” he told friend Manuel Estiarte as he watched United sweep aside Schalke. The sentiment was echoed by journalist Graham Hunter this week, one of the more credible sources of news in Spain. Hunter is adamant that Guardiola wants to try his hand managing United after a transfer to Old Trafford fell through late in his playing career.
“If the cards fall his way, his wish is to sample life at Manchester United for a variety of reasons,” said Hunter. “The move didn’t happen but when he’s come back to Manchester subsequently he’s looked at the Old Trafford atmosphere, the legends and he has felt ‘this is right for me’.”
This chips, it seems, could fall United’s way. Unfortunately for those who would like to see Guardiola arrive at United there are many more factors at play, and football is rarely that simple, especially when it comes to the Reds.
The Citizens’ move for Pep has been the “worst kept secret in football” for some time now. That said, with admirers from the rest of England’s giants also in play, perhaps Guardiola’s move to the Etihad is no longer so certain. City has always felt the presence of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in the management hierarchy gives the club an inside track in the pursuit of their man. The Blues’ unlimited chequebook and star-studded squad has to appeal, and the club has proven in recent times that it has a little more patience with managerial appointments. There’s certainly a strong chance that a deal may already be in place.
Mourinho’s departure from the Blues, with Guardiola’s future set to be announced, could be coincidental or perfectly timed. Chelsea’s admiration is long-standing, with Roman Abramovich rumoured to have dreamt that his side might one day resemble the footballing beauty of Barcelona in Pep’s pomp.
However, the Chelsea job does not offer the stability of others – since 2004 no manager has lasted at the club more than three years, while nine coaches in eight seasons is something of an embarrassing track record.
The north Londoners represent a dark horse in this race. Guardiola’s attractive football, sense of style, and knowledge of culture and history fits well with Arsenal’s proposition. Arsene Wenger’s time at the club is surely winding down, and the Gunners would certainly consider making his retirement date official if it meant landing the Spaniard. Arsenal doesn’t possess the financial clout of other contenders, but it’s a club with a money-making new stadium, while the new Premier League TV deal offers incredible spending power. Guardiola’s probable departure from Munich could have come at the perfect time.
Despite the debate about United’s incumbent manager and playing squad, almost anyone with an opinion on the situation agrees that the club has its share of problems. Rumours about the Dutchman’s future are rife, and there is no doubt that Van Gaal is under serious pressure to deliver results. Goals have dried up and the team is now without a win in the past five games.
Still, the club seems to be standing by the manager and is prepared to back him in the market in January. Yet, a growing section of the fanbase has already turned on Van Gaal and, if rumours are true, so have some in his playing squad.
Players are physically exhausted by the training regime, whilst some feel their talents are stifled by Van Gaal’s tactics. Ed Woodward has briefed that the club is prepared to back him with continued spending, but with every passing result the value of the investment in such bland performances comes into question.
Woodward has also briefed that he believes Guardiola’s future is already determined – one factor, perhaps, why the club is backing Van Gaal so strongly. Yet, with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and potentially Guardiola on the market this summer, the club has some forward thinking to undertake if it is serious about progressing back into the élite.
Guardiola would certainly improve on the foundations the Dutchman has created. The Spaniard’s football would be a vast improvement, while Pep offers the promise of attracting high-calibre players.
Van Gaal’s progress has been slower than expected, albeit through a significant rebuild. But the club would surely be remiss not to consider the future. The right decision isn’t always clear, but to many Guardiola’s capture represents a no brainer.
Van Gaal has been a terrific manager over the past quarter-century; Guardiola is an upgrade.United cannot afford to miss out on his services for a second time.
There was still hope, although few supporters truly believed it could be done. That Manchester United would find a way to win in Germany and sneak into the knockout stages of the Champions League. It wasn’t to be.
Instead, the Red Devils find themselves “advancing” to the Europa League and the spectre of Thursday night European football. It’s a depressing thought for a club of United’s stature. Fans are not happy. For some it’s the final straw; they do not share Louis Van Gaal’s love for patient football, let alone show tolerance for his process.
Whether supporters are overreacting is ultimately irrelevant. Fans on both sides of the argument – in support of United’s Dutch manager, or otherwise – can present a fair case. In truth, the club’s problems are not only on the pitch, but are a systemic issue that reaches far beyond the dressing room: a flawed transfer policy and a commercial vision that has not prioritised team-building.
There were years of under-investment by the club, whatever Sir Alex Ferguson’s claims that money was “always” made available by the Glazer family. There was a decade of negligence that left the team in a sorry state post the David Moyes disaster.
Van Gaal was brought in on a wave of World Cup fever, with fans excited by the new era. More than 18 months later, and many are as angry now as they were excited then. After all, the football is methodical, bland and not as fruitful as many would like.
Last season’s trio of victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City in the Spring now seem like the exception and not the rule, whilst United’s domination of Everton in October is an anomaly.
Van Gaal’s squad has issues of balance, although this was always likely to be a concern in a rebuilding process. With the wholesale squad turnover that has occurred in the Gaalactico era it is impossible to expect Van Gaal to integrate so many new players without some growing pains.
That said, the club’s transfer policy is still in question. Van Gaal has cut significant dead wood from his squad, but the wisdom of not adequately replacing some players must now be questioned.
Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Rafael da Silva and Javier Hernández could all play some part considering the injury crisis that has struck. United’s list of absentees is too long given the lack of cover available, and while an injury crisis can always strike, the busy treatment room last season should have offered a warning and perhaps even a lesson. The club should strive to promote youth, it but Van Gaal shouldn’t be fielding a team of inexperience in the most important game of his era.
United’s success in the market under Ed Woodward is mixed. Morgan Schneiderlin is the defensive midfielder the club has long needed; Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have immense talent that will pay dividends in time; Bastian Schweinsteiger’s class speaks for itself. Elsewhere, Matteo Darmian will get past this rough patch, much in the fashion that Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind have slowly adjusted to English football.
But the picture isn’t universally rosy. It is now clear that Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were Woodward’s signings, driven by a policy that prioritises commercial requirements. Neither truly fit well into the squad Van Gaal was trying to build; both proved to be luxury purchases, made without foresight of squad building.
Van Gaal isn’t absolved of all blame. Di Maria is a world-class footballer whose fragility could have been handled better. Players of Di Maria’s quality sometimes need to be incorporated into a team’s system, even if it requires tinkering with a dogmatic philosophy.
The Dutchman’s rigidity has brought results this season to Van Gaal’s credit, but the club’s failures in the transfer market are a significant factor in the team’s malaise. The summer ‘transfer sagas’ involving Sergio Ramos and Arturo Vidal were thrilling at times, but also masked an inability to acquire players of the highest quality.
Whilst a tough stance paid off with David De Gea, it did not apply to many players Woodward has sought to acquire. Adoring from afar has led to little gain, leaving the squad threadbare. Meanwhile, analysts, pundits and fans now have the ammunition for a seemingly non-stop critique. Van Gaal has little defence left.
In fact, the squad is now so unbalanced that Van Gaal’s team can only be set up in modes that are either too defensive – most of this season – or too attacking, as was the case in Germany this week. United’s defeat at Wolfsburg was entertaining, but the lack of protection offered to the back-four meant the home side sliced through the United’s defence far too easily.
If anything, Wednesday’s defeat demonstrates why Van Gaal has chosen to set up the team defensively. Yet, there is also a question to be asked about why the Dutchman hasn’t found a system that emphasizes his team’s strengths. Indeed, it is curious that Van Gaal hasn’t used the Dutch 4-3-3 system more often, given the balance it might bring.
In De Gea, Darmian, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw there is the basis of a sound defence. Ahead of them Schneiderlin offers a genuine shield, where a combination of Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Carrick, and Ander Herrera, could provide both experience and a badly needed sense of dynamism. Herrera’s injury has done much to emphasise the need for more of the Spaniard’s energy in the squad.
The system would also allow a more balanced front-three: a combination of Memphis, Martial and a speedy right-winger that the club does not yet own. This was no more obvious than in the Reds’ recent match against West Ham United, with Juan Mata often drifting inside, forcing United down the left and eventually into poor crossing positions.
Still, the hypothetical set-up also emphasizes the need to spend in January. Reinforcements of the right quality are essential if Van Gaal is to take anything from this season. And while many of the Dutchman’s problems are of his own making, the club’s challenges run deeper than the manager alone.