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