Boring but better: why the Van Gaal experiment is not an unqualified failure

February 3, 2016 Tags: , Reads 18 comments
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Although it may be obscured by a veneer of short-term relief, Louis van Gaal’s inevitable departure from Manchester United, in such unfavourable circumstances, will make for unfortunate viewing.  It is regrettable that one of the most decorated managers, charismatic personalities, and cutting-edge tactical minds of his generation will sign off from a glittering career with his tail so firmly between his legs. 

Assessments of the Van Gaal experiment need not, and should not, be as inevitable as its termination in the foreseeable future.  The impeding prospect of managerial change at United, and the forthcoming third anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement from the game, calls for a more objective examination of Van Gaal’s time at United. If the collective removes itself from the recent run of admittedly poor results, closes newspapers and turns off sports news bulletins, there is a challenge to the dualistic, populist school of thought that the Van Gaal administration has dismally and embarrassingly failed. Accepting nuance as a reality of objective analysis, it is arguable that Van Gaal’s side is boring, but certainly better, and that the Dutchman’s tenure as United boss is a case of unfulfilled potential, rather than unconditional catastrophe.

Upon arriving at United Van Gaal declared that he had inherited a “broken” squad.  He was certainly correct.  Although, with the exception of Marouane Fellaini, Van Gaal’s squad was a group of players that Ferguson had led to Premier League glory in 2012/13, David Moyes’ tenure as manager devastated the team’s cohesion, confidence and conviction.  The players remained nominally identical to those who had romped to the title 12 months earlier, but the squad under Moyes had been brutally exposed for its malfunctioning parts.  United’s title-winning, free-flowing side in 2012/13 was revealed as a product of both its parts and one integral feature: the ‘Ferguson factor’.

One of the most compelling indictments of Moyes’ unsuitability for the United job was his inability to attract top talent to renovate an ailing, under-invested-in squad.  What world-class player would be tempted to move to United to play under a manager whose only silverware was a third division title?  Van Gaal’s appointment drastically enhanced United’s prospects of attracting players of the requisite quality at a time when the ubiquitous deficiencies in the squad were most glaringly apparent.  In contrast to his predecessor, Van Gaal’s prestige and star-power matched that of the club, facilitating the arrival of world-class players and capable Van Gaalian disciples.  Equally as important, Van Gaal brought a self-confident and dispassionately pragmatic approach, discarding much of the Red Devils’ manifestly incompetent, unsuited or under-achieving dead wood.

Van Gaal’s legacy as United manager is the best squad, on paper, since the 2008 Champions League triumph, and perhaps some years before that.  Midfielders Tom Cleverley, Anderson and an unfortunately declining Darren Fletcher have been replaced with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera.  Underwhelming wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia have been cast aside for starlets Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay.  United’s full-back dilemma – a crack consistently papered over by late-stage Ferguson and Moyes – appears to have been solved for the long-term with the arrival of Darmian and Shaw.

Although the squad, given the heavy investment, has underachieved under Van Gaal, the Dutchman has laid a foundation for subsequent managers to return United to the top table.  With an appropriate and adapted tactical set-up, something that an obdurate Van Gaal has hitherto failed to establish, it is incontrovertible that the Dutchman’s squad has enormous potential.  The fact that United has failed to secure an appropriate successor is hardly Van Gaal’s fault.

Under Moyes United seemed destined for terminal decline.  The characterless style of football, in conjunction with Moyes’ inexperience at a top club, indicated that United was at serious risk of undergoing a rapid ‘Liverpoolisation’.  The Scot’s lack aura or ability to attract world-class drew, together with his team’s poor performances, offered terrifying parallels with the Merseysiders’ deterioration in the 1990s.  Van Gaal returned United to the Champions League in his first season, redressing the Red Devils’ short-term commercial prospects, while appealing to the upper echelons of footballing talent.  It is very unlikely that Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Memphis or Martial would have moved to United had the club not been a Champions League side in 2015-16.  A second season out of Europe’s top tier would have had significant reputational, financial and personnel consequences.

United’s fourth-place finish in 2014-15 is arguably unflattering for a team that breathed so menacingly down the neck of second place in the final weeks of the season.  It is plausible that, without an unfortunate epidemic of injuries to in-form players during the 4-2 victory over Manchester City, United would have finished second-best in the league to a Chelsea side which, for all its faults, was one of the outstanding teams of the Premier League era.

Not only did Van Gaal significantly improve United’s league position on that achieved under Moyes, but he has a solid record against top six teams.  The Dutchman has delivered four wins from four games against Liverpool, United’s first victory and best performance in a Manchester derby for years and, in 2014-15, a greater number of points against the top six clubs than any other team. At least United’s football appears to be several steps ahead.

Van Gaal has suffered a bitterly underwhelming 2015-16 season, a campaign in which his most unfortunate traits as a manager – particularly his irrepressible tactical obduracy – have been exposed.  Poor performances and unprecedented results in the past two months, in conjunction with a decline in fans’ confidence, indicates that the horizon is grim for the former Barcelona and Bayern boss.  In fact, a reasonable school of thought acknowledges that Van Gaal – an egotistic manager backed into a corner by uninspiring performances, fan pressure and media speculation – might undo much of what he has achieved at United if the club does not act to terminate his contract.

Yet, amongst the despairing style of football and justifiable implorations for managerial change, an objective assessment of Van Gaal’s tenure may still be found.  He might be on his way out;  his time at United may be an unfortunate case of unfulfilled potential, but recalling the state of United in July 2014, his legacy should not be dead and buried.


giggyjon - February 3, 2016 Reply

Undoubtedly their is some merit in what you say here, but never the less it is disappointing that if the squad is potentially the strongest since 2008 (which is highly debatable) then the manager should have shown more trust in his staff and encouraged them to play more aggressive higher tempo football. Without question Martial is a diamond and so in time may be Memphis as well. But huge mistakes have been made and perhaps it is the Dutchman’s uncompromising man management style that has so disappointed, even if it has not been a complete surprise having read stories of his time at Bayern and Barca. You simply cannot isolate members of your squad as Van Gaal has elected to do whenever he has a disagreement with them. The treatment of popular dressing room characters like Chicharito and Welbeck (who surely could both have contributed this year) will not have gone unnoticed by their colleagues, and you cannot tell me that the other Spanish players have not been dismayed and upset by the treatment of their fellow countryman Victor Valdes. As an employee you simply don’t want to run through a brick wall for any manager that treats your colleagues as Van Gaal has with Valdes, Chicharito and to an extent Herrera. This for me is Van Gaal’s greatest failure. He rules by fear and all but the 100% committed disciples are sent packing or isolated. Being a man manager is about getting the best out of people, educating them to support their development and certainly not about hanging them out to dry in public. I sincerely hope that we all look back fondly on his time with us, if only from the perspective that we see that solid foundations were built. I just expected much more and I don’t think that I am alone.

Denton Davey - February 3, 2016 Reply

You make a series of useful points – especially concerning LvG’s notoriously-quick “eject button” although, arguably, he’s really only been seriously-wrong about Chicharito. He’s a brutalist man-manager but so, too, was SAF – what else explains the ejection of Ince, Hughes, Keane-o, Ruud, Becks, Veron, and a number of other really, really terrific players ?

I, for one, am still on the fence about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. The pessimist-in-me cannot see past playing Fellaini; the optimist sees the wholesale promotion of youth in a situation of cascading injuries. The half-full glass looks to be filled with promise for better times when/if players like Shaw return and others like Memphis grow-up.

Overall, then, having a veteran spine of Rooney (he’s just guaranteed a place no matter what “we” think), Mata, Smalling, Carrick/Schweini, and Daley Blind) provides both continuity and a platform for the kids to grow into starting roles.

Obviously, Anthony Martial has been an absolute and complete revelation. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson looks promising and perhaps he might return to left-sided central defence when/if Luke Shaw returns which would mean that Daley Blind could be “groomed” to replace MC16.

From the glass half-full perspective, this summer’s transfer-window needs to be focussed on addressing a couple of very specific needs – a box-to-box player like Paul Pogba (ouch !) and a right-sided attacking player that is an up-grade on Jesse Lingard. From my perspective, these are the two most urgent areas in need of significant improvement. Adding another central defender is also worth noting since MrJones and RockyRojo can’t seem to stay fit and their almost-constant injuries play havoc with squad-depth.

It’s refreshing to read a comment that is not “chicken little – the sky is falling in”. And, it might be a useful exercise for the take-no-prisoner-pessimists to consider what an injury-free season might have looked like. Sure, there are obvious problems with the current team but, overall, the optimist/glass half-full scenario is just as likely to point to the future as the “woe is UTD” pessimistic vision. AND, that uncertainty adds spice to following TheLads – we just don’t know what’s going on.

giggyjon - February 4, 2016 Reply

Point taken and also pleased to see so many positive posts below. The key difference with Ferguson (and the genius) was that when he sold these great players he kept winning trophies and that goes a long way to taking the spotlight off why he did it. I also don’t recall hearing in detail about the reasons that these players left, perhaps with the exception of Keane and Beckham. Van Gaal breaks the golden rule of keeping all disagreements in-house and that is bizarre for a man of such experience. Perhaps it is just the Dutch who aren’t renowned as a nation of diplomats!!

Juan Sebastian Veron what a player. If you read Fergie’s latest book he sold him because he said he simply couldn’t follow instructions, but what a player he could of been for United. Possibly my biggest disappointment because he was FABULOUS!

Not the best quality but check this out and remind yourself of what we had….

Denton Davey - February 4, 2016 Reply

When SAF sold players he did so in a “singular” fashion whereas LvG has – for all intents and purposes – stripped the squad and, with a couple of exceptions, started over again. Really, only TheWaynBoy, DDG, MC16 remain from the core of Fergy’s #20. Jones/Smalling/Young/Valencia are holdovers but none of them was a key component of the 2013 cake-walk to #20.

There’s a lot of disagreement about J-S Veron – rather like with Juan Roman Riquelme. In the kind of team that SAF had in the early noughties, Veron was something of a luxury and I think that it didn’t really improve the squad to replace Nicky Butt with Veron – and I’m even amazed that I wrote that ! In that sense, Veron was like Dimmy – not really suited to a fast, counter-attacking style. And, like Berbatov, his immense skills were simply under-utilized in Fergy’s team. Both guys had their moments but Veron couldn’t really replace Keane-o, whose powers were diminishing’ Berbatov wasn’t really a replacement for the speed/up-tempo that CR7 and Carlitos provided for the 2008 CL winners. Of course, nowadays both guys would walk into UTD’s first-team – even if they’re in their mid-forties !

Ralph C - February 3, 2016 Reply

I can agree with most of the sentiments in the article.

Idiots in the media who want to do nonsense like “compare Moyes after x games and Van Gaal after x games this season” conveniently forget how useless Moyes was against that season’s Europe-bound contingent with a Champion team. And of course, that Moyes failed to qualify for the Champions’ League – a reasonable standard I think Van Gaal should be held to as well.

This season’s performance has been unacceptable of course, but I keep saying — at least 5 (Darmian, Depay, Martial, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Lingard) of our potential outfield players are new, from another league, relatively young or all of the above. As much as some sections harp on 250 million pounds spent, and it being his second season, in reality it is by definition a bedding-in season, and what Van Gaal says that he needs time to get players to play the way he wants might as well apply all over again to these new guys in particular and to the new team balance overall.

Personally, I would not mind another season with Van Gaal, based on the above factors, provided he qualifies for the Champions’ League of course, which must be the minimum standard of any manager at Manchester United.

Simba - February 3, 2016 Reply

GiggyJohn, I couldn’t agree more.

Kevin - February 4, 2016 Reply

This reads like an epitaph. There’s a lot of football to be played yet. I think he’s done a more than reasonable job. Let the results and league table determine your verdict in May.

bobbynoble - February 4, 2016 Reply

“..but he has a solid record against top six teams. The Dutchman has delivered four wins from four games against Liverpool..”
Don’t see the scousers anywhere in the top six.

Agree that United has a decent League record against the other big name clubs, which makes it all the more galling that LVG consistently gets outdone by the likes of Swansea, Southampton, Bournemouth, Norwich etc.

Denton Davey - February 4, 2016 Reply

Right. The record against the middle-of-the-pack teams has been awful. Loads and loads of points down the drain.

karlo - February 4, 2016 Reply

Exactly what I think about him , if we get champions league which will be a struggle and Van Gaal sees out his final year imagine the players he`ll bring in if afforded the chance and the funds and gets who he wants , we would end up with an amazing squad and one far more superior than the one he inherited. I really feel this is his main objective at Utd to build a young squad capable of winning the title and if a young team can win one title they could dominate for a longer period than a squad of mercenaries that all reach the wrong age at the same time but there has been many occasions where I just wish he`d quit or be sacked because it has been dreadful for large parts of the season , I`m firmly in two minds about LvG

Opti - February 4, 2016 Reply

If we make Top 4, then I will be in split minds on LvG. If not, he has to get the sack. It has been underwhelming from him and the players this season: poor, slow, booooring performances all around.

Yesterday’s game provided a shot up the arm and had me singing myself to sweet dreams. But I am well-aware of our brittle nature: one step forward and 0.9999 steps back —> progress they call it…

We need to turn on the the style against teams like Chelsea (cue comment on bottom-half teams) and Tottenham and Arsenal. Then I can sense the progress.

We can always hope Leicester beat Arsenal and City in the coming two weeks to put us in the Top 4 by March 1 😉

Andre - February 4, 2016 Reply

Agree with a lot that was said in the article. By the time Moyes was sacked he’d set the club back at least four years and in his first season Van Gaal halved that deficit. He isn’t helped by the injury situation or the fact that half the squad are new to the club and the league. It also doesn’t help that we lost Di Maria, who surely would have been pivotal this season, and had quite a bit of dead wood to get rid of. He’s rebuilding a squad of Young, hungry and talented players and if her can get the best out of Memphis and Januzaj while grooming Pereira then with Martial at the front I’d say we have a bright future. The only question then would be what do we call the new young bunch?

ssemambo Richard - February 4, 2016 Reply

Good article above there. I also appreciate all those who see some positives in LVGs tenure. If you take a close look at the squad he inherited after the great SAF, was really broken down into pieces right from down the defence of which each one had reached the retirement age. with Ferdinand, vidic,Evra, who where so pivotal in fergie famous 2008 squad. they had no more to offer rather than finding fresh challenge(ferdinand-Qpr, Evra-juve, vidic- inter) of which even after short term have hanged up their boots only evra still in.
So after all that defender like smalling,Jones,Mack Nair,varela,Jackson,etc had to pull up of which I credit LVG for those positives since everyone at Man utd loves to see youths coming up from their own backyard.
But still I think what brought him at OT has done a greater part of it like showing a direction for the team through building at youth level like he has always done at the former clubs like ajax(Davids,seedorf,etc)

So I believe he’s building a team with young talent eg lingard,martial,depay,perreira
smalling,januzaj,Valera and when you look at all these with enough chance given to them trust me the Stretford end will enjoy more of those fruits.

But what I think is most of us don’t knw what was on his agenda when he was hired by Woodward and the board. we are just hungry for today’s food but not considering being hungry tomorrow. This is the effect of the squad left behind after famous fergie era with a squad not hungry for more and more tired with most of the influential players at 30!!!

But on the other hand we can’t take away the bad results united has been leaning on. But I saw this with Barca in late 90s and early 2000s but now look they have go the formula and winning almost all things.

Finally, fegie era gone other systems have to come in, building is still in process, let’s hold on to the breath and whoever comes in trust me has to build this team up for the future. so whether LVG, Biggs, mourinho,pochetinho,Hughes etc have to build first. Because me and u believe this team is worthy building like Barca have done.

Sam Gamble - February 4, 2016 Reply

Great article yet again. I as have many united fans been very very frustrated over the last couple of months but this article is very level headed and refreshing in taking into account the bigger picture of LVGs tenure. I really hope the last two games (Derby and Stoke) are a sign of things to come over the next couple of months. The display against stoke came as a very positive surprise. I know there is some sticky fixtures coming up, especially this Sunday but if we continue in this vein and we get top four (and I dare to dream) a bit of silverware maybe it will be worth allowing the Van Gaal experiment to continue building upon.

Denton Davey - February 4, 2016 Reply

TheLads are only five points back of the two North London clubs – both have a history of choking in the clutch so I think that there’s something more than hope that could come into play. Also, both of them have played fairly consistently so far and, one might suggest, that might change for either/both. Five points and an inferior goal difference is not the biggest margin that UTD have overcome when the daffodils begin to flower.

bobbynoble - February 5, 2016 Reply

Okay, not an ‘unqualified failure’, but a failure just the same.

Subterranean Steve - February 5, 2016 Reply

Eleven successive home games without a first half goal and people still think LVG has been ‘successful’.

It beggars belief.

Goodness knows what the late Sir Matt Busby, Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, George Best etc. would think of such acceptance.

Tapiwa - February 5, 2016 Reply

I may be naive or wrong and stand to be corrected. Van Gaal has got two or three titles in him and he should deliver them to Manchester United during his tenure. If he gave Bayern, Barcelona, Ajax and AZ Alkamar titles, why not us? The boring thing is a means to an end and he should just add a ruthless scoring repetoire to it and we will be getting results.

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