Cancer from the top: Van Gaal the symptom not the cause in United’s ruinous regime
Everybody hates Louis van Gaal, and rightly so. In the stands, in the press, probably even in his own house. After all, since the Dutchman’s appointment in May 2014 he has taken it upon himself to tear apart the Theatre of Dreams. Whether its analysis that insults the fans’ intelligence, or the insipid football on show, Van Gaal has successfully alienated the world’s biggest fanbase. Yet, it is not only mistaken to think that all Manchester United’s problems lie at the Dutchman’s feet, but naïve as well. The cancer comes from the top.
Make no mistake, Van Gaal’s regime has been a disaster. The majority of signings handed to the manager have proven to be hugely expensive or commercially driven to the point where on-the-field requirements were ignored. And the results secured with those players have been universally disappointing.
Anger and tension around the club is at an all time high, but it is not all directed at Van Gaal. While many believe that sacking the manager is a cure for the club’s ills, it is also clear that it is no panacea. José Mourinho’s probable appointment this summer brings a sense of renewed optimism to a club that is in free fall. Yet, the detritus of the men who hired Van Gaal, and the equally disastrous David Moyes, will continue to haunt the club into the future: Ed Woodward and the Glazer family.
Despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s support for the Glazers, the family’s ownership continues to poison England’s most successful club. The family has taken more money out of the club than they ever put into it – which, by the way, is zero – and has used United as a cash cow not a football club.
Blame can be placed on the manager for his failures on the field, but it is United’s structure, or lack thereof, that has set up both Van Gaal and Moyes for spectacular failure.
It is a structure so incompetent that, for example, it even allowed its youth system to go without a director for close to a year, before Nicky Butt was hired in February. It is a damning indictment of a club that is proud of its youthful traditions – and happy to promote its mystique. The carelessness with which these traditions were handled is disgraceful, but no surprise. After all, there is little immediate profit in a system whose outcomes are unknown – even if it remains the foundations on which the club was built. The money men who now run the club do not realise what is truly important.
Beyond the grassroots the club is in deep trouble. The cancer that the Glazers’ ownership creates is reflected in the role that Ed Woodward performs – as Chief Executive, Director of Football, and Commercial Director wrapped into one. While Woodward drives millions in sponsorship revenue, he is failing at the most important aspect of his role – footballing matters.
Directed from above, Woodward has focused on an approach that prioritises profits above all. While many clubs are run to make money, the balance at Old Trafford is now so off that is not hyperbole to suggest that United is a commercial giant that happens to run a football team.
"It is two years since Moyes’ dismissal, but the club has stood still while rivals have overtaken United in the table and humiliated the team on the field."
Woodward has chosen glamorous signings such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, shiny new toys that sell shirts, over pressing requirements such as a central defender or retaining home-grown talent. Local boy Danny Welbeck was sold off for something supposedly more profitable – global reach.
The Executive Vice-Chairman’s handling of two managerial dramas is also damning of his performance. Woodward sat quietly through Moyes’ shambolic 10 months, waiting until it was mathematically impossible to obtain Champions League qualification – all so the club could sack him at a cheaper price.
The incident speaks much to United’s focus – a club that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. After all, in the last reported financial year United generated £433.2 million in revenue. Penny pinching at the top saves little when failure on the field costs so much. Sacking Moyes sooner might have saved a season – and not forced, for example, Patrice Evra to take up a new challenge elsewhere. Restricting the transfer budget over many seasons ultimately handed Moyes and then Van Gaal a substandard squad.
It is two years since Moyes’ dismissal, but the club has stood still while rivals have overtaken United in the table and humiliated the team on the field. Tottenham were just the latest example – a young, exciting, attacking team that tore apart Van Gaal’s slow and ultimately low quality Red Devils side.
In this Van Gaal’s incompetence cannot be understated. His side averages one shot on target every 63 minutes in the Premier League this season, while scoring only 39 goals in 32 games. The team is unlikely to make top four, while an FA Cup win seems just as improbable. Van Gaal’s team has long been eliminated from the Champions League and Capitol One Cup. None of it is acceptable.
Yet, the club continues to embarrass itself on the field thanks to the incompetence of the men charged with making decisions off it. These are the same men that wade into battle behind the scenes, with factions of the club holding very different visions of the future. None of it is conducive to United’s return to the top.
While Woodward and the Glazers focus on cash, others are transfixed on power. Whether the intentions are good or not it cannot help that Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton drive their own agenda – to place Ryan Giggs in the managerial hot-seat. This decision would keep the pair involved at the club, and it offers the impression that Sirs Bobby and Alex are placing self-interest ahead of the club.
These issues: neglect of youth, focus on profit, chaos in the market, a lack of a sporting structure, and in-fighting in the Boardroom are not happening elsewhere in the Premier League. Leicester City, Manchester City, Arsenal, even Liverpool and the once laughable Tottenham, have now built stronger foundations than at United. With manager and executives on the same page the quintet is heading in the right direction, on and off the field.
It’s no coincidence that clubs such as Chelsea and United face such pressing questions this summer and beyond – it is a result of questionable on and off field decisions that date back years. The question now for United is whether those at the top can offer the cure to remedy the symptoms below. Not all that ails United can be fixed overnight, but the club is staring into an abyss from which it might not swiftly return.