Class of 2016: Louis van Gaal’s only silver lining
It has been a disastrous second season at Manchester United – one that has seen support for the Iron Tulip evaporate at an alarming rate. After spending millions in the transfer market, coupled with some exuberant predictions of success, fans have been incensed by humiliating in defeats to Norwich City, Bournemouth and more recently Sunderland. It is a run that threatens to a ruin a third season in a row.
Mediocre football aside, United’s lengthy injury list has seen medical staff at Carrington working overtime to salvage the season. Yet, somehow, in a similar vein to last season’s run from March to April, Van Gaal seems to have stumbled across a way to make his team click. Injuries to key players, such as Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw, among others, have galvanised the side and not crippled it. Fourteen youth-team players thrown into the senior side by the former Ajax manager have not sunk the side but strengthened it – and far from sinking Van Gaal has the kids to thank if he manages to see out the remainder of this season.
After Luke Shaw suffered a horrific double fracture against PSV Eindhoven last September, further calamity struck when his deputies, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo, were ruled out for large parts of the season. Van Gaal had no other option but to throw a relatively unknown Cameron Borthwick-Jackson into the first team picture. Surprisingly, the Mancunian has blossomed at left-back and displayed the maturity of an established senior player. Borthwick-Jackson’s calmness on the ball, along with his steely displays on the left, has been one of United’s bright spots this season.
In similar fashion, Guillermo Varela has been deputising for Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia on the opposite side of the defence. Despite his lack of experience, Varela has performed admirably despite being thrown in against Wolfsburg and other stiff competition. The Uruguayan’s attacking verve and runs down the right have drawing comparisons to fellow South American and former United fan favourite, Rafael da Silva.
Senior players in his position might not take the same risks as the Uruguayan, but the fearlessness of youth plays a prominent role in Varela’s outlook. After all, in common with Joe Riley and Donald Love, who’ve been afforded some game time on the right, academy players know that their chances of playing the next game depend on their current performance. There are no special privileges for younger players. It is this level of determination to nail down a place in the senior squad that has led to displays reminiscent to swashbuckling United sides of old.
"It comes as no surprise that United’s most aesthetically pleasing football under Van Gaal has come in the past week. The display against the Gunners was probably the youngsters’ litmus test, which they passed with flying colours."
Further forward, Jesse Lingard provides evidence that Van Gaal should have stuck to a philosophy that has given him glittering success in his career – giving youth a chance. The Warrington-born youngster, who’s enjoying a breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford, has flirted with the first team for a few seasons but finally, with the backing of his manager, the youngster has performed well for the first-team. Lingard has gone some way into repaying the Dutchman’s faith with five goals this season, including crucial strikes against West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea. The strike at Stamford Bridge, in particular, was a beautifully placed volley that highlights Lingard’s potential.
It comes as no surprise that United’s most aesthetically pleasing football under Van Gaal has come in the past week. United’s dominant performance against Midtjylland was followed up with a strong showing against Arsenal. The display against the Gunners was probably the youngsters’ litmus test, which they passed with flying colours. The wonderfully executed first two goals against the North London side were created and finished by players who primarily ply their trade at Leigh Sports Village for the under-21 side.
Marcus Rashford’s meteoric rise in the past week, with a brace against Midtjylland and Arsenal, has sent him on the path to stardom. It took injuries to Rooney and Martial for the Fletcher Moss Rangers product to get his chance, but Rashford’s movement and potency in front of goal – he scored four from five shots taken – has been more positive than the Scouser’s performances for large parts of the season.
Rashford’s ascent will delight Warren Joyce, above all, after the under-21 manager promoted him to the club’s senior development side this season. The Englishman deserves huge credit for nurturing the player, and the remaining academy products, in order to prepare them for the step-up to the first team. Varela’s header to Lingard who’s cross led to Rashford’s second against title challengers Arsenal will certainly have put a smile on Joyce’s face.
Over the past week, Van Gaal seems to have found his bravado again, insisting that his promotion of youth to the first team is “why they took me as manager.” The question is whether the Dutchman will stick to those principles when senior players return from injury? Recent history says Van Gaal is likely to select those experienced players and tinker with a team that is clearly working.
The Class of ’92 defined Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at United. Today, the idea of the group’s leader, Ryan Giggs, taking charge at Old Trafford pulls at the heartstrings. In the same vein, this year’s group of youngsters could be the bright spark in Van Gaal’s otherwise moribund time as manager. The Dutchman’s tenure is marred by mediocre football but his ‘Class of 16’ could be the legacy he aspires to leave.