After a two-week break, the show this week catches up on Manchester United’s three defeats over the past fortnight. Those losses – to Wolfsburg, Bournemouth and Norwich City – leave Louis van Gaal close to dismissal, with supporters, players and perhaps the board having finally turned. Ed & Paul discuss a calamitous period for United and Van Gaal, with José Mourinho’s sacking at Chelsea opening the door to the Portuguese manager at Old Trafford. Read More
To bastardise the late, great, Brian Clough, all managers end in failure. The two-times European Cup winner with Nottingham Forrest eventually took the Midlands club to relegation, before retiring in comparative ignominy. Those who do not fall into that trap rank among the very best in the history of the game. No manager, it seems, is too big, too celebrated, or too laden with silverware to fall. Louis van Gaal take note.
José Mourinho’s brutal dismissal, on Thursday, by long-time sponsor Roman Abramovich should send a resounding signal the Dutchman’s way. Seven months on from claiming the Premier League title, Mourinho’s first managerial failure is complete, with Chelsea left a single point above the relegation zone. Despite three Premier League titles, Mourinho’s bank of credit at Chelsea was not significant enough for the London club to wait on the 52-year-old to fix a litany of problems that were mostly of his own making.
Van Gaal, having made only modest progress in 18 months at Old Trafford, should be under no illusions as to the security of his own position. After all, United risks another season without silverware – the club is out of the Capital One Cup, dumped into the second tier of European football, and falling behind Manchester City in the Premier League. The Dutchman’s reputation is hanging by a thread.
While the veteran’s impact on United’s dressing room is not yet as divisive as Mourinho’s broken relationship with his now former players, the signs are growing. The rumours sweeping Manchester are of players frustrated, a squad not universally bought into the Dutchman’s philosophy, and the toll of results heading south now felt. Van Gaal, it seems, is not master of all at Old Trafford.
And as much as Ed Woodward is inclined to brief that his manager is a “genius,” the former Ajax coach’s failure to drive home significant progression at United is a strong counter. Not least because supporters can throw a season and a half of prosaic football into the argument. Fans do not ‘get’ the manager, nor the Dutchman the terrace angst. It is rarely a winning combination.
Van Gaal’s job is not under immediate threat, but in a campaign where United is far from guaranteed Champions League football next season, nor is his future secure. Increasingly supporters appear to be on the side of the Dutchman’s exit, albeit with no scientific rigour in the analysis.
At Chelsea, Mourinho’s downfall comes amid a series of increasingly controversial incidents this season. In August, Mourinho publicly ostracised Eva Carneiro after the club doctor ran on the field to treat Eden Hazard, much to the manager’s chagrin. In October, Mourinho embarked on a seven-minute-long televised rant following Chelsea’s 3-1 home defeat to Southampton. His players are said to believe Mourinho had cracked under the pressure.
More recently Mourinho conducted a bizarre post match press conference and interview in the wake of defeat at home to Liverpool. The dénouement came after the manager claimed to feel “betrayed” by his players in defeat at Leicester City. The bond of manager and players was fatally broken.
“There obviously seemed to be a palpable discord between manager and players,” said Chelsea’s technical director Michael Emenalo. “It was a decision taken to protect the interests of the club. The results have not been good. The owner is forced to make what was a very tough decision for the good of the club. We are one point above relegation.”
Back in Manchester Van Gaal’s standing with his board remains comparatively strong; not yet is Woodward or the Glazer family prepared to swing the same axe that did for David Moyes. Not, at least, until United’s participation in next season’s Champions league is confirmed, or otherwise. That, of course, is no longer guaranteed with a team that, although shorn of too many players through injury, has spent a season struggling to assert itself.
But nor is Van Gaal on course to earn the same level of affection at Old Trafford with which Mourinho is still held by Chelsea’s supporters. The narrative that wraps the Portuguese manager’s time in London over the past decade is complex, but his legacy as one of the world’s great coaches remains safe. Van Gaal’s is not.
Yet, they were once partners. The master and his apprentice; translator and the great Dutchman.
“I have to say that van Gaal is a beautiful person,” Mourinho once said. “He’s somebody who is a little bit like me in the sense only the people who know him well know who he is. Louis loves to analyse and gives you complete control of training sessions. With him you become a coach on the pitch. I got something that is very important in my methodology: communication. I created with Louis a very, very strong relationship.”
In the years that followed the pair’s stint in Barcelona Van Gaal tasted more failure than silverware, where Mourinho generated almost universal success – at Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale, Real Madrid and then back in London. The Dutchman was twice sacked at Barcelona, alienated his players and management at Bayern Munich, and was forced into a period of redemption at lowly AZ Alkmaar.
Mourinho too will be redeemed for his Chelsea sacking. There will be no shortage of potential suitors both in England and on the continent. Had it not been for City’s long-standing pursuit of Pep Guardiola, the Etihad might have been a natural step in Mourinho’s career come summer 2016.
So too will some point towards a potential future at Old Trafford, despite United’s board having once rejected the Portuguese in favour of a disastrous 10 month spell with Moyes at the helm. Sir Alex Ferguson, betraying a friendship that Mourinho believed he had built, instead chose Moyes. The rest is a blight on United’s history.
They were different circumstances then, of course, although little in Mourinho’s increasingly deconstructed behaviour points to the safe pair of hands United’s board seemingly favours. Nor, save for a campaign at Real Madrid, is Mourinho’s football of the ilk that United’s supporters seemingly crave.
Yet, for all Van Gaal’s brusque personality, the odds marginally favour United qualifying for European competition and the riches it brings. It is the only standard to which he is held by the Board. Supporters may view the world differently of course. Van Gaal’s time at United, all things being equal, is more failure than success. With it the shadow, or promise, of Mourinho and Pep looms.
After all, all managers end in failure. José knows it. Unless results change Van Gaal may come to know it too.
It wasn’t boring at least. Manchester United’s defeat at Wolfsburg on Tuesday featured five goals and the kind of drama that is supposed to happen on pivotal European nights. For better or worse, there has been little of this kind of entertainment at United this season. Yet, with the Reds out of Europe’s premier competition after defeat, Louis van Gaal is under pressure as never before. Two competitions down, two to go, plus an unwelcome spell in the Europa League lies ahead; the season could yet turn into a calamity. Read More
*This week’s show was recorded before United’s defeat at Wolfsburg in the Champions League.*
In this week’s show Ed & Paul look back on United’s draw with West Ham United at Old Trafford, asking why the team failed to score despite recording 21 shots on goal. While United’s draw with the east London side offered more positive signs than the previous week’s stalemate against Leicester City, the pod asks whether Louis van Gaal is truly making progress at Old Trafford? Read More
Pressure. If Louis van Gaal hasn’t been feeling the heat of late, Liverpool’s resurgence under new manager Jurgen Klopp has certainly put the Dutchman’s progress in perspective. Just eight weeks into the job and Liverpool is a club transformed under the German’s direction; a team on the up, with legitimate talk of a title challenge now in the air on Merseyside. By contrast Manchester United’s season has been a slow burn. Van Gaal’s team is just one point off Premier League leaders Manchester City, but in deploying a prosaic playing style, the Dutchman’s team has impressed few and frustrated many. Read More
It couldn’t last – the entertainment that is. And so it passed, with Manchester United completing two bore-draws inside a week. Plus ça change. First, against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League, with the Reds’ scoreless draw leaving United’s ongoing participation in the competition hanging in the balance. Then, at the weekend, where Louis van Gaal’s team drew at Leiester City in another thoroughly uninspiring performance. Read More
It has become the pattern this season. There were more than 20 minutes remaining at the King Power Stadium when Louis van Gaal’s side slowed the game to walking pace; point seemingly gained, control established, ambition withered away. The limp final quarter, in what was supposed to be a top-of-the-table clash, was symptomatic of far too many United games this season. The intensity of attacking aspiration was almost entirely absent. The visitors failed to register a single shot on target in the second period, despite enjoying almost 70 per cent possession. Van Gaal called it a “dominant” performance. It was nothing of the sort – and 18 months into the Dutchman’s reign the vision for the club is far from clear.
It shouldn’t be this hard to establish a pattern of play in keeping with the club’s stature. Whisper it quietly, but Jurgen Klopp’s immediate impact some 45 miles to the west shines an uncomfortable light on United’s elder statesman. Not only has Klopp enjoyed six wins from 10 games in charge at Anfield, but established a distinct – and attacking – pattern to the club’s play. More pointed still, Klopp’s team is now just five points behind United in the Premier League. The momentum is with the Anfield side.
By contrast Van Gaal’s team may be third in the table, just one point off the summit, but the quality of football remains dire. Entertainment is almost non-existent and week-to-week, as at Leicester City on Saturday evening, Van Gaal changes personnel and formation with reason, but very little rhyme. On Saturday the Dutchman switched United back to an historically ineffective three-man defence, although he was not willing to abandon the use of two defensive midfielders.
The impact, whatever United’s shape, is now depressingly familiar – so few chances created, but with a possession obsession pushed to ever more unfathomable levels. Such is the team’s unwillingness to seek a creative or progressive option that it took until the 38th minute of United’s game at Leicester City for one of the visitors to take on a risky forward ball. Daley Blind’s long pass found Antony Martial in the channel and the visitors earned a corner for their efforts
In the East Midlands United garnered just six shots on goal, with two on target, one of which was Bastian Schweinsteiger’s 45th minute header. It was so little to show for such significant focus on ball retention, with Van Gaal’s team completing 478 passes during the 90 minutes. It was some 300 more than the hosts, but Leicester enjoyed more shots on target. That stat should surprise nobody.
For all United’s possession it was also Leicester, not the Reds, who often carried the greater threat. Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and Ryiad Mahrez combined effectively on the counter-attack to stretch United’s awkward back-three. The Foxes were happy to soak up United’s passive ball retention and then break at speed. There was no better example than for Vardy’s opening goal, which followed United’s corner, and was set up by Christian Fuch’s sublime left-footed through ball from the right side of midfield. It was Leicester, not the visitors, that created the best chances on the night.
After two prosaic performances during the past week criticism of the Dutchman’s side is reaching a fresh apex. Rightly so. It should surprise few, with so much of United’s passing unpenetrative and Van Gaal’s understanding of supporters’ frustration wholly inadequate.
Yet, Van Gaal is having none of the criticism aimed in his direction. Once again the 64-year-old blamed the opposition’s tactics for United’s lack of penetration – as if it is not clear to all that a deep and narrow set-up is the most effective way of neutralising what threat the Reds’ possess. That United also started the game in a particularly narrow formation simply played into Leicester’s hands.
“In the third and fourth phase we have to create more, but it is more difficult because you have seen where Leicester City stand on the pitch,” claimed Van Gaal in the aftermath.
“That is a lot of bodies in front of you, but we have created the chances to beat them. We could have scored in the second half. We have to wait for the moment that we do that. I have the feeling that we could have won this game. I’ve said to my players – this kind of match you have to win if you want to be champions at the end of the season.”
Van Gaal singled out Schweinstiger’s headed effort after the break and Memphis Depay’s loose control followed by a shot over the bar as the chances that United had “waited for” to win the game.
It may be romanticism, but there was a time when United did not have to wait for a single clear-cut chance per game; when a dominant team could turn possession into chances created, and chances into goals scored. It is an era long gone, although Van Gaal’s crass misreading of United’s history has improved very little since the veteran coach joined the club in summer 2014.
Van Gaal’s is a strange mode of football to bring to England, let alone a club with a history built on vibrant attack. It is a mistake that Sir Alex Ferguson never made, no matter the restraint put on the Scot’s tactical outlook in his latter years.
“Sir Alex was very clear on this one,” former United assistant manager Rene Meulensteen told the BBC recently. “We want to be successful, we want to win games, we want to win trophies, but we have an obligation to entertain the fans. The word is maybe rigid at times. There’s a lack of freedom now.”
Van Gaal’s team has taken just 143 shots on goal this season, compared to 198 at the same point last year, and 229 in the first 14 games of Ferguson’s last campaign as manager. It is a symptom of the Dutchman’s apparent determination to structure his team’s attacking play.
On Saturday Van Gaal changed the shape of United’s front-three, with Juan Mata deployed at 10, behind Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial. It had little impact, with Martial running into the channels to create space, Rooney dropping deep into Mata’s zone, and the Spaniard struggling to pick up the ball in attacking areas. With no width of note, Leicester’s defensive shape was rarely breached and it was no surprise that United’s only goal came from a set-piece.
Former Livepool defender Jamie Carragher defines United’s attacking impotence as “over organisation” leaving no room for “off-the-cuff” creativity. Peter Schmeichel, whose son appeared in goal for Leicester at the weekend, accuses Van Gaal’s team of “irrelevant passing,” with the ball distributed from side-to-side, but at such ponderous pace that it has little impact on the opposition’s shape. “This is Manchester United and United don’t wait for one chance,” quipped the former goalkeeper.
“I keep saying it’s boring, I know,” added Paul Scholes after United’s goalless draw with PSV Eindhoven last week. “Attacking-wise they don’t look a threat, they don’t look good enough, they don’t look like they’re going to go and score goals.”
He’s not wrong and after 18 months in which Van Gaal has acquired so many new players it shouldn’t be this way. More to the point, with talent that includes Depay, Martial, and Mata, to mention little of the fading force that is Rooney, Van Gaal has more tools than most with which to fashion a more effective attacking unit. Little wonder supporters and, it seems, players are now looking to the coach for a change.
“I spoke to one player at United who told me he is half the player he can be here at the moment because of the way they are playing,” said The Telegraph’s Jason Burt this week.
Some might interpret the off-the-record memo as a turning point. There are few excuses left. This is, after all, very much Van Gaal’s squad – a team living in fear of a mistake and a prisoner of its own fashion. After 531 days in charge, with just 549 to go before Van Gaal’s contract ends at United, the Dutchman’s time is slowly running down.
Slow, like his team and the pace of change, being the appropriate word.
It says something for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United evolution that, while the club is one victory away from clear blue water at the summit of the Premier League, murmurs of discontent remain audible on the Stratford End. The Dutchman’s side is indisputably in with a shot at wining the league next May, but has become so soporific that it is, for want of a better description, alien to many supporters. Read More
The campaign’s start could not have been more inauspicious. Defeat at PSV Eindhoven on Champions League matchday one proved painful in more ways than one. It was Louis van Gaal’s first return to his homeland since taking over at Manchester United; and the night on which Luke Shaw’s right leg was snapped crudely in two by Hector Moreno’s reckless challenge. Read More
It is an inescapable observation. Louis van Gaal is no gambler. Not in the fashion Sir Alex Ferguson once professed to be. Faced with the necessity to tinker, Van Gaal’s DNA screams conservatism. Every time. It was never this way under the Scot whatever the changing nature of his tactical outlook during the end-game of 27-years at Old Trafford. When it came to the crunch Fergie always bet on red, even when the house looked certain to win on black.
Yet, Van Gaal has little compunction in bringing a swathe of youngsters into his first team squad. The latest, Marcus Rashford, is one of the most exciting attacking talents to come through United’s Academy in the past decade. Supporters can add Sean Goss, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe, Patrick McNair, Andrea Pereira, and Jesse Lingard to an ever lengthening list of kids in the picture. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis Depay represent youthful, if expensive, recruits.
It is a bifurcation without easy explanation. Faith in those who have little history on which to base it; and an adherence to a philosophy that, at times, sucks the fun out of a club built on attacking flair. And an observation that begs the question of how Van Gaal’s legacy is likely to shape up. One blessed with long-term health based on youthful vigour. Or on a culture of tactical fear?
Saturday’s victory over Watford brought consideration of both, but also hope that there is room to erode elements of the latter. After all, United’s average starting age, with Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Antonia Valencia on the sidelines, was just a touch over 25. The bench included two teenagers and two 20-year-olds.
And at times United attacked Watford without the fear so prevalent this season. Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay interchanged beautifully in a performance reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in the triumvirate’s 2008 pomp. If some way short of the same quality.
Yet, in recent weeks, Van Gaal has also come under fire for an approach that borders on negative, especially in the context of United’s rich history. In repeatedly deploying two defensive midfielders, opting for unambitious substitutions, with a mindset seemingly bent on marginalising some of his more creative players, Van Gaal has earned Old Trafford’s ire.
The observation is born out in the numbers. The Reds rank first for average possession, but 16th for shots-per-game. United’s total number of shots this season is 134 behind Arsenal’s and growing by the game. Inside the penalty area only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion have taken fewer shots than United.
It is a team that ranks 11th for assists, 16th for key passes and 14th for dribbles attempted. There is little flair to note. Van Gaal’s side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the league, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chance created than United.
Yet, if Van Gaal’s philosophy arcs towards the soporific, it also bends to the will of the club’s youth. It is an accommodation very much in the keeping with the traditions of the Babes and Fledglings. Far from breaking United’s record of calling up an Academy player for every first team match-day squad for more than 3,500 games, Van Gaal has baked in its existence for years to come. Rashford and Goss may not have made the pitch at the weekend, but their chance will surely come. And probably soon.
“It has always been part of my own philosophy and that of the club to give opportunities to youth players,” noted Van Gaal last month.
“With advice from Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, I regularly invite members of the development squad to train alongside the first team. It gives them a chance to step up their training and to improve their technical ability.
“A good example would be Paddy McNair. He trained with the first team, which helped him prepare so that it wasn’t such a big step when he was called upon to the first team.”
It is a balance of risk, in trusting those without experience, against long-term rewards that Van Gaal seeks. It also brings a choice: when to trust the young and, perhaps even more importantly, when to ditch the old.
The observation may be born of coincidence, yet Rooney’s absence was met not with the attacking impotence that may once have been expected, but with a brave and vibrant opening period. Terrace joy in the new order was dampened only by Ander Herrera’s injury. After all, it was the Spaniard’s weighted pass that set Memphis up for a neatly finished opening goal.
Saturday’s game was also one that offered a glimpse of a post-Rooney future. And it looked good. One in which Martial, Lingard, Memphis, Herrera and Mata could form the backbone of a flexible, creative, and – Mata aside – pacey attacking unit. In time Ashford and the brilliant youth team prospect Callum Gribbin may also join the group. The latter has already joined Van Gaal’s first-team training sessions.
“This club has always been famous for giving young players a chance and we have to continue with that policy,” notes Van Gaal. “When you see us in the Champions League with Shaw, at 19 years of age, Memphis, 21, and Anthony Martial, 19, it is clear we have the same aims.”
Indeed, the Dutchman’s career is littered with players blooded under his tutelage. At Barcelona Van Gaal offered a first team chance to Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta. The pair became “the backbone of the club and its culture.” At Bayern Munich there was “Thomas Müller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber.”
Rashford, Gribbins, Goss, Borthwick-Jackson, Tuanzebe, McNair, Pereira, Lingard, and the other youthful acquisitions will, in time, become Van Gaal’s “guardians of the culture here at Manchester United.” Far from destroying United’s culture of youth, through heavy spending on imported talent, Van Gaal is building for the future.
And yet United’s style matters too. Youth without flair, Champions League qualification, but a campaign short on silverware – it is a cocktail that will not mix in the Dutchman’s favour.
Van Gaal may not be a gambler, not in Ferguson’s mould, but it is a wager of sorts. The Dutchman’s bet is that his faith in the vibrancy of youth breaks free of his self-imposed tactical straight jacket.
The stakes: a lasting Old Trafford legacy.