Defiant Louis goes with dignity – the same cannot be said for Woodward

May 24, 2016 Tags: , , Reads 26 comments
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So there it is. Manchester United’s long search for a major trophy after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement finally came to a positive end. The Reds’ 2-1 FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace at Wembley brought glory and silverware to the club – and Louis van Gaal the sack. It was the Van Gaal’s first taste of success in England, but was swiftly followed by an end to a period in which the Dutchman has increasingly alienated supporters and, critically, failed to deliver on his promises. Retirement beckons, José Mourinho beckons. Louis goes, but it is with a modicum of dignity restored. The same cannot be said for Ed Woodward.

Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, wasted little time briefing media outlets on the new manager’s impending arrival. It came moments after Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick jointly lifted the old trophy. Van Gaal knew the inevitability of departure, of course, and brought the FA Cup to his post-match press conference as if to make one final pertinent statement.

If Van Gaal is yet to recognise any fault in two disappointing seasons at Old Trafford, then victory at the last is unlikely to bring enlightenment. He is a proud and stubborn man, although the 64-year-old slips off into the night with a last laugh of sorts, even if he is said to be “said and disappointed” about his dismissal.

Yet, even in the denouement of the Van Gaal era it was a final that could so easily have slipped away from United. In a pattern that has become too familiar over the past 24 months, the Reds dominated possession and chances created, but achieved just three shots on target in 120 minutes of football.

United achieved victory on the back of two superb moments: Wayne Rooney’s mazy run and cross to find Juan Mata via Marouane Fellaini, and Jesse Lingard’s stunning cup-winning volley in extra time. The Scouser rolled back the years, while Lingard mocked those, including Rant, that have questioned the youngster’s quality.

The moment of glory didn’t last long though. The headlines on Saturday night were dominated not by United’s return to collecting trophies, but Mourinho’s impending arrival in M16. For all the former Chelsea manager’s many faults – there are many – it is hoped that he will lift the club from cup winners to title preeminence inside the three-year contract that he has reportedly been offered. He can hardly do worse than Van Gaal.

Van Gaal’s time ends with silverware, but his dismissal cannot be divorced from a lack of progress. The Dutchman’s £250 million outlay on new signings – some recovered via sales – was the biggest single two-year transfer splurge in the club’s history and seemingly made little difference to the Dutchman’s ability to generate positive results.

United lost 10 times in the Premier League this season to finish fifth in a campaign where lowly Leicester City captured the title. If anything fifth might flatter the most prosaic United side in a generation. The team’s group stage exit from the Champions League was equally hard to stomach for a club used to dining at the finest restaurants. There can be little surprise that Woodward finally ended Van Gaal’s tenure a year early, if some five months too late to actually save a season.

"The Cup was Van Gaal’s first taste of success in England, swiftly followed by an end to a period in which the Dutchman has alienated supporters and failed to deliver on promises. Retirement beckons, José Mourinho beckons. "

Van Gaal’s failure to match minimum expectations – third in the Premier League and Champions League knock-out football – is compounded by a sense that the he never truly fell in simpatico with the club. Van Gaal failed to adjust a bland playing style, nor was he able to differentiate Old Trafford’s polite reception from supporters’ genuine sentiment of frustration. Whatever the clichéd ‘United Way’ has become over the years it is not Van Gaal’s way and the newly retired Dutchman was not about to change habits established during four decades in the game.

Van Gaal’s second season ended with the club scoring just 49 goals in the Premier League; the same total as fourth-from-bottom Sunderland. It has proven to be two years of gut-gnawing inhibition, far from the exciting promise of a manager that once captured the European Cup with a team full of teenagers. On the few occasions to counter the observation, Van Gaal’s team appeared liberated not by the manager, but a sense that young players simply did not follow his instruction. They were soon pulled in line, or dropped altogether.

In fact Van Gaal’s faith in young players remained far from steadfast despite increasing focus from United’s marketing department on the number of kids drafted into the first team squad. During his two years in Manchester some 14 players from the academy appeared in the first team, although only Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard truly became established. The latter’s future is far from guaranteed, with Lingard having benefited more from his ability off-the-ball than his talent on it.

Marcus Rashford

The Dutchman has dropped more youngsters than he has proffered long-term opportunities, as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah will attest. Neither made the FA Cup final team, while others, including Tyler Blackett, Reese James, Saido Janko, Donald Love, James Weir, Adnan Januzaj, and Andreas Pereira have been sold or frozen out. Borthwick-Jackson’s omission in favour of the perennially disappointing Marcos Rojo confused many, while Fosu-Mensah has not started a game since giving away a penalty in the semi-final.

Far from a scholarly professor to up-and-coming talent, Van Gaal has proven to be a tough schoolmaster for whom one mistake is reserved the cane. In the end the Dutchman’s inherent pragmatism won out over fans’ romanticism.

Yet, that very same didactic tendency also served to alienate players throughout his squad. Van Gaal’s refusal to adjust his tactics even in the face of senior players’ disillusionment is stark. The Dutchman knew best, always. Monday-morning video analysis sessions became a much-hated chore, while Van Gaal’s tendency towards big brotherism created an increasing amount of tension in the squad. There will be few players sorry to see the back of him.

Van Gaal’s tactics alienated both players and fans. The focus became increasingly restrictive, with possession used not as a way of overwhelming opponents, but ensuring defensive security. The common pattern of United failing to score in the first half of games, especially at home, was matched by a dreadful record on the road – few shots hit the target let alone led to goals scored.

Not since Dave Sexton patrolled the Old Trafford sidelines has the football been quite this dull. Van Gaal’s process-driven approach sucked the creativity out of the team. Long gone are the days when Ferguson would send his team out with little more tactical instruction than “enjoy it” and “lads, it’s Spurs.” Classroom lectures resulted in football that sold all the benefits of watching paint dry.

The tendency towards conservatism, the insistence on over-analysis, the fury when instructions are ignored or forgotten; Van Gaal showed little interest in individual talent beyond the team ethic. Talented players were reigned in, their joy limited. His inability to draw the best from Angel di Maria, Memphis Depay, Adnan Januzaj and Andreas Pereira is telling. Juan Mata featured in most games, but was often restricted to a more limited role on the right.

Then there is the manager’s tendency to use square pegs in round holes – sometimes as many as seven players out of position. And while flexibility is one thing, almost all of Van Gaal’s games featured players in roles that were sometimes not comfortable, and often not ideal. Di Maria played in five different positions during his 27 games for the club.

Supporters craved entertainment, but Van Gaal brooked at any suggestion he wasn’t delivering. Fans’ politeness in the face of United’s dour fare rarely broke ranks at Old Trafford. Fans jeered Anthony Martial’s substitution for Marouane Fellaini in United’s narrow win over CSKA Moscow last winter. Eventually they booed Van Gaal’s end-of-season speech. By then it was too late, of course. Yet, in general, Van Gaal left with the impression that ‘a win is a win’ – and United finished the season with the best home record of all.

In the end there is little doubt supporters are happy at Van Gaal’s demise. Drunken chants of “Jose Mourinho” on the journey back from Wembley confirmed as much. The club had little choice but to make the change. It’s the results, stupid.

But neither could Woodward trust Van Gaal to get the best out of whatever fresh spending is planned this summer. The executive takes some blame for that, but Van Gaal’s voice remained the loudest voice at Old Trafford. The successes are so few. The hits were accidental or not of Van Gaal’s design: Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, for example. Elsewhere, players on which he signed off have hardly been major successes: Ander Herrera, Victor Valdes, Daley Blind, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Van Gaal can point to an injury record that was at times lengthy. United’s small squad, he said, was a decision made to promote opportunities for younger players. That excuse is a busted flush. Van Gaal’s rush to youth turned out to be desperation, not strategy. Instead, the small squad and an intensive training regimen that never relented despite the brutal Premier League pace, subjected United’s youngsters to exposure in the worst possible circumstances.

The poor squad balance is entirely the Dutchman’s fault. After all, it was his decision to sell both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández leaving, at times, the team desperately short of attacking options. Van Gaal was also insistent on not bringing in an experience centre-back, leaving Daley Blind exposed and the manager too fearful to open up his tactics.

Jose Mourinho

Mourinho will bring a cocksure history only slightly tempered by the events at Chelsea this past season. His critics point to the Portguese’s instinctive caution and the “anti-football” in the face of superior opposition. Yet, at both Chelsea and Real Madrid his teams exceeded or came close to a 100 goals in a single league season. Mourinho can be amusing, inspiring and yet provoke cringeworthy embarrassment too. He may well arrive as the “humble one,” having chased the United job for eight years. Yet, he will also remain entirely uncontrollable. It is the essential dichotomy United has now signed up for.

Mourinho also brings trophies, of course. Lots of them. While more exciting, younger, and perhaps politically safer choices were available on the continent, after two failed experiments Woodward could hardly afford to take another chance. Whatever his faults Mourinho’s results fit a pattern, and he is always box-office.

Van Gaal proved to be neither; results poor, entertainment limited. He leaves the club effectively sacked by Mendes’ press briefing at around 8pm on Saturday night. Woodward should have controlled the narrative. Yet again a United manager leaves the club humiliated by those who appointed him.

Fans will move on quickly though. For the Dutchman, there will always be Wembley.


NazManUnited - May 24, 2016 Reply

Louis Van Dignitas!

Terry Miller - May 24, 2016 Reply

Mourinio, as many have said will ruin Man United. He never invests in youth and will leave United in a worse state when he leaves as he has done with all his other clubs. How did he leave Chelsea? He’s a muppet who demotivates his players and deserves to be with a championship side at best.

Ed - May 24, 2016 Reply

Hmmm, it would only be fair to point out he’s won 8 league titles and 2 european cups as well!

Spenny - May 24, 2016 Reply

How precisely did he leave Porto, Inter or Real (or, indeed Chelsea first time around) in worse positions when he left? And even this time round Chelsea, player-wise, were no worse than last season even if results were poor.

Oye - May 24, 2016 Reply

Great article as usual but I’m not sure why you mentioned Woodward in the title. I think your article is mostly about Louis van Gaal.

I’m disappointed that Ed Woodward hasn’t brought in a Director of Football but I’m glad that he kept LVG until the end of the season. If he had sacked LVG in December, it would have been a very unhappy end to his successful career in management.

As for the leaking of Jose’s arrival – that cannot be blamed on Ed Woodward or Manchester United. I’m sure that’s the LAST thing they wanted on a day of celebration for Louis, the club and all the fans.

Whoever leaked that news doesn’t care about our club. Whatever you can say about Woodward, I’m sure he cares about the club he works for.

Matt Bibby - May 24, 2016 Reply

To be fair to Mourinho, he won the champions league at Porto, then moved to Chelsea. He had lots of success there & the football was hardly dull. Yes he was sacked by Chelsea, but so was the manager who a few months earlier won them the champions league. He went to Inter & again had plenty of success playing an attacking style of football, but defensively sound. He moved on not because he was sacked or fell out with the board, but because Real came calling. Who would turn them down? In each of his three seasons there his team scored 100+ goals. He was sacked, but again which manager has lasted longer than him at the bernabau in recent memory? Back to Chelsea & a team of players that had managed to get the previous half a dozen managers sacked before briefly performing for the next. He won another league title before the players again stopped performing for the manager. Yes he can be controversial, fall out with players, managers and the press. But remember Ferguson with Beckham, Stam, Keane, Rooney? The rivalry with Wenger, Benitez? Banning journalists from press conferences?
Get off mourinho’s back, support him & the team and lets enjoy the future!

Anon - May 24, 2016 Reply

Article is biased. Van Gaal has created the foundations for United to succeed and compete with Barca, Real for the next 10-15 years. He has spent money – but he spent it on potential, not ready made players. it was a mistake to fire him. He deserved one more season. He was building a truly great team. His FA cup win was a testament to that. When these players do flourish and win more and more trophies it will be because Van Gaal has given the club a firm strong foundation. The new manager will be living off his hard work.

People forget – trophies can be bought. But champions are made. At Barca, Bayern he has laid those same foundations and look at them now. Those clubs ability to attract the best players and managers was because he gave them that. He needed one more year to complete the project. Very unfair on him and the players.

Ed - May 24, 2016 Reply

So confident in the opinion that it is given under the name “Anon” using a fake email address. There’s an empty catchphrases – “trophies can be bought. But champions are made.” – without any evidence. Set up United for the next 10-15 years how? Building a truly great team how? Honestly, is this a City fan on a WUM or perhaps one of Louis’ close family members.

Anon - May 24, 2016 Reply

Van Gaal understood – there’s no point buying the best players and winning 1 or 2 titles – that was not the plan from the start. The plan was to give the club a new direction, a new identity and he was doing exactly that. Yes he did not qualify for the CL but like he said 4th spot is not a trophy. what’s the point of taking a young team to the CL to get hammered by the big guns. It was a blessing that we did not qualify for the CL. The facts are there for all to see. Before the injuries – we were top of the log. We suffered in CL because the team is far too young, they cannot deal with the pace of European football. We did win the FA cup which showed his ideas were bearing fruit. One more season and he would have been fighting on all fronts.

Rich - May 25, 2016 Reply

So as a part of Van Gaal’s redundancy, Ed agreed to hire publicists to spread the Van Gaal foundation myth.

Anon - May 24, 2016 Reply

Unfair to say his spell at the club was a failure – actually is was a huge success. for the next 8 – 10 years we have world class players within the squad. Adding 1 or 2 here and there and we would have been a great team. He did what he was meant to – build the team from the bottom up. He has made some weird and wrong choices but he is a great manager and deserves better than what the media is giving him.

Opti - May 24, 2016 Reply

If Mourinho grows Martial and Marcus into world-beaters and brings us Top 3 in his first season, pressure comes off.

But please don’t bring Ibra… please!

Rich - May 24, 2016 Reply

Lovely send off article; great collection of thoughts to remind us all why he is going.. Though I think a big big reason is the language barrier. Van Gaal proved in the World Cup with Holland that he could still create strong, dynamic, attacking teams. I think he was just a bit awkward and eccentric in the English language undermining much of what he was trying to do. Very funny at parties but kind of unnerving before a big game.

Fusilli Jerry - May 24, 2016 Reply

Absolutely nothing dynamic or attacking about his Holland team that bored out 120 goalless minutes against Costa Rica in the 2014 quarter finals, or 120 goalless minutes against Argentina in the semis. And I don’t think his complete inability to motivate, man-manage and nuture Depay this last year had anything to do with English language skills somehow. Although when Van Gaal then complained about not having fast creative players to do better than 5th, a group exit from the Champions League, and rapid exit from Europa, yes, maybe we would have understood better in Dutch how no blame whatsoever for that £30m flop should attach to the manager.

However, for Mendes to deny Van Gaal even one evening to enjoy having won the FA Cup, was morally revolting.

bobby noble - May 24, 2016 Reply

You can add Paddy McNair to the list of United youngsters shabbily cast aside by this arrogant prick.

denton Davey - May 24, 2016 Reply

“United lost 10 times in the Premier League this season to finish fifth”

That’s one way to look at things; for me, the more significant statistic is overlooked in this statement – TheLads lost (threw away) a lot of points to the bottom feeders and relegated squads. LvG had a very good record against the top team but his dire, boring management was actually found out by the worst teams in the EPL – two of which were relegated yet took points away from UTD.

Say whatever you like about Jo$e, one thing is certain – his teams at CSKALondon trounced the DeadMenWalking and ran up large goal-differences on the back of those trouncings. So, let’s also note that it was not that LvG’s team was actually fifth – TheLads were tied for fourth but lost CL-qualification because they had not made-hay from the matches with the bottom-ten clubs. This was just scandalous and, in and of itself, was reason to sack him.

And the same argument can be made vis-a-vis the dismal CL campaign in which TheLads couldn’t qualify despite being slotted into one of the weakest groups ever seen.

It is to LvG’s credit that he kept himself largely (but not completely) above the turmoil/rumours/innuendo about his future; it has to be recognized that he was responsible for getting himself into that situation by his complete inability to create a team that could improve on last year’s lucky fourth-place finish.

subterranean steve - May 24, 2016 Reply

Two seasons at United and LVG never once admitted to making a mistake. When things didn’t work he would quickly deflect criticism away from himself and towards the players, the opposition, the media, the fans or Paul Scholes.

The guy was insufferable. Good riddance.

Dayusdred - May 25, 2016 Reply

Its the night of long knife. But let have some perspectives here. Its is easy to reel out the name of players Lvg mismanaged.But what did Mourinho do with Mata, Lukaku, De Bruyne, Schurler, Salah, cuadrado @Chelsea, Coutinho @ inter, Morata in Madrid to mention but a few. Mourinho is coming with 8 league tittles, how many did lvg come with?. We have been told that his giving youth a chance was accidental rather than planned. Must have been accidental @ Ajax, Barca and Beryern too. By the way those young players have started thanking him(Mac,Nair, Lingard Fosu Mensah, Rashford). All said and done, people now have their wish. Lvg is gone. He has laid the foundation for the club to build on like he did @ Barca and Beryern. People can write what they want. One thing is certain. You can not rewrite or erase history. Lvg will go down as one of those rare breed of coaches who has left his foot in the sounds of time. 20 trophies spread across 4 different league is no mean feat. Even our reverred Fergie can’t boast of that spread. The difference between Lvg and Mourinho is that between six and half a dozen. Be carefull what you wish for.

Pete L - May 25, 2016 Reply

Spot on analysis for me. Mourinho could well ‘bring the circus to town’ and eventually implode but he is surely going to get us seriously challenging for the title again. He certainly won’t be saying that 5th is an acceptable finish (and I think 5th flattered us this season). Also I have only seen Mourinho set up ultra-defensive when playing against teams he thought were stronger than them, whereas LVG was clearly telling the midfield to not get ahead of the ball EVERY WEEK! Onwards and upwards (fingers crossed)!

Abba - May 25, 2016 Reply

I will never understand the wisdom in bringing young at half time to play as a striker when he has been injured for the past six months.
And young is not a striker.

denton Davey - May 25, 2016 Reply

The same applies to bringing on Powell in the key CL match when he had never played as a centre forward.

Duncan - May 28, 2016 Reply

I’m fairly sure that was Giggs’ influence. Giggsy loves Powell apparently, who started his career as a centre forward so he can definitely play there.

Subterranean Steve - May 26, 2016 Reply

If we start listing all the square pegs forced into round holes in the last two years, we’ll be here a while. It’s safe to say that you’re not the only one baffled by Louis’ logic.

Julian - May 26, 2016 Reply

I have to say that, despite all the criticism, Woodward has handled the LvG exit pretty well. Yes the timing when it all became public was unfortunate but that was not Woodward’s fault. Many of us felt that our CEO did not have the bottle to fire the man he was somewhat in awe of. Indeed he gave him every opportunity to get things right. We can only speculate whether LVG would still be in the job had he managed to scrape a top four finish. In fact some may say – thank god he didn’t!

The Mourinho era now beckons and whilst the promise that he will bring real success back to the club, it is not necessarily guaranteed as so many now think it will be. Above all else, one hopes Mourinho will take on the mantle with a little more humility than he has done at his other jobs. After all, if reports are to be believed and there is no reason not to, he has coveted this job for sometime now. Why? Because it is the greatest managerial position in world club football. It does require embracing the history, traditions and culture of club as Fergie did so well during his time. Despite his over-blown ego, Mourinho is sufficiently intelligent enough to realise that, as I expect his first pronouncements will confirm – once his appointment is confirmed.

denton Davey - May 26, 2016 Reply

Yeah. Keep in mind it’s now entertainment and business. No one fascinates the press – or manipulates it – quite like Jo$e. In that regard, he’s a great appointment. Whether he can spin-his-magic on the field of play is possibly another matter. Whether he can strengthen the team’s defensive spine is likewise another matter – he has had six months to think about this, to scout players (@ UTD and elsewhere), and to watch and learn what this team needed to take another step to regaining its lost glory.

Right, “glory” – not a word associated with UTD since SAF’s departure in 2013.

Duncan - May 28, 2016 Reply

You know I felt sorry for him at the end. Woodward has seemingly been comprehensively outmanouevred by Mendes at almost every turn and I wonder what a last van Gaal season would have been like after an FA cup win. Success can paper over a lot of cracks and magically resolve problems, but we’ll never know. Before his appointment I would rather have had Sam Allardyce as manager than Jose Mourinho, hand-on-heart, swear-to-God. Now I’ve been swept up a little and am cautiously optimistic about it. It could all go to sh** though after he doesn’t get any of the signings he wants this summer and he’s landed with a couple of last minute panic buys. He threw his toys out of the pram over Stones, no effing way Woodward gets that deal done….

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