Van Gaal lucked out on youth – fortune that may be lost amid a summer reshuffle

February 29, 2016 Tags: , , Reads 16 comments
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It was a moment of purest theatre. The sharp crack of a bulging net; the roar of an otherwise subdued crowd; the birth of a new star. Marcus Rashford’s neatly taken goal against Danish side Midtjylland in the Europa League last week was a moment that epitomised so much of Manchester United’s 138 years. The club of the Babes, Fledglings and Class of ’92, now perhaps on the cusp of a fresh, youthfully inspired regeneration. Amid increasing frustration, an early goal for the visiting team, and a missed penalty, Rashford’s side-footed finish meant more than most.

Perhaps to Louis van Gaal too. After all, the criticism has been stiff, and the Dutchman’s response often, and frustratingly, robust. Yet, amid faltering results and a failing campaign there has been a modicum of brighter light in the past week – Van Gaal’s willingness to throw younger players into the mix, whatever the personal cost. Whether due to a hand forced by injuries, or as part of the now less-discussed philosophy, Van Gaal has offered game time to 15 players aged 21 or under this season. The Dutchman has handed debuts to 14 academy graduates during his Old Trafford tenure.

It is a policy popular with fans and Glazers alike – a rare moment of synergy between long-time enemies. Yet, youngsters such as James Weir, Tim Fosu-Mensah, and four-time goalscorer Rashford may get fewer opportunities if, as expected, José Mourinho takes over in the summer. The former Chelsea manager is, after all, the arch pragmatist – one not schooled in an Old Trafford fan-culture that prizes the development of its own.

And despite United’s three victories over the past week, which have proffered a boost in confidence at a vital time, the campaign is likely to end in failure. With it Van Gaal’s career will conclude on a bitter note too. After two years of rapid evolution in personnel, and huge sums spent in the transfer market, Van Gaal has served up mostly stultifying tactics and mixed results. Even if the Dutchman pulls off a small miracle and brings qualification for the Champions League few supporters will shed a team if, and when, he is replaced in June.

Those youngsters might watch developments with a note of caution though. Anthony Martial has played more than 30 games for United this season, Lingard – who at 22 is not one of the aforementioned 15 – more than 20. Even Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, a relatively new addition to United’s first team, has clocked up over 10. Van Gaal’s decision to work with a small squad, obviously weak in key areas, has sharply backfired when it comes to delivering results. Few of the younger players offered a chance in United’s first team have caused for complaint though.

"For Van Gaal is about more than the here and now. Whenever the end comes to his time at United, the manager believes that young players will form the keystone of his legacy."

The injection of younger players this season, especially in recent weeks, has energised the club, if not always brought an upside in results. Yet, while injuries may have forced Van Gaal’s hand, he can point to a long record of trusting in talent; of dismissing the oft-held notion that youngsters cannot last the distance.

“It has always been part of my own philosophy,” Van Gaal noted last year, ” and that of the club to give opportunities to youth players. If a young player can do it, then I select him. If it’s an older player, it doesn’t bother me; it’s not the most important factor. Age is not important.”

He is outwardly proud of the young players whose careers have been catalysed by time under the veteran coach: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and David Alaba at Bayern Munich; Thiago Motta, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona. Further backPatrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids were teenagers when Ajax claimed the 1995 Champions League.

Ajax Champions League 1995

“We had a small squad at the beginning of the season because you can then give chances to the young players,” he told MUTV. “I’m always really convinced of youth players and how they can stimulate the other players and raise the atmosphere in the dressing room. Those kinds of things are happening now.”

It is, for Van Gaal, more than just the here and now though. Whenever the end comes to his time at United, the manager believes that young players will form the keystone in his legacy at the club, but only if it is protected by his successor.

“I hope people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy,” he added. “The next manager would also have to show the confidence in the younger players. If United, after I retire, hire a manager who does not give the benefit of the doubt to youngsters, it shall be very difficult.”

It is a warning with the spectre of Mourinho looming over Van Gaal’s time at the club. Unless, of course, the veteran is able to deliver real momentum from the past week – a challenge that has rarely been met, with his side sustaining a winning run too infrequently over the past two years.

For all Mourinho’s stock of silverware he, perhaps, represents the antithesis of Van Gaal’s youthful outlook. In five years over two spells at Chelsea Mourinho handed debuts to just nine academy players – just five of them starting a game for the club. In 15 years at the sharp end of European football, Mourinho has used just 23 academy players in total. Too few have gone on to enjoy stellar careers.

It is not just this contrast between Mourinho and Van Gaal that offers cause for concern. Indeed, the lurch from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes; Van Gaal to Mourinho reflects the chronic lack of long-term planning at United – each new manager representing a shift in outlook, style and philosophy. Continuity be dammed in everything except for the warm glow of sponsors’ dollars.

And despite the positivity that Rashford has helped to deliver this week, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is likely to lead another binge in the next transfer market. It is one that Mourinho will surely demand as part of his summer entrance and one that the club also needs – a fresh injection of talent in a failing squad is required whatever the merits of integrating academy graduates.

"It is not just the contrast between Mourinho and Van Gaal that offers cause for concern. The lurch from Ferguson to Moyes; Van Gaal to Mourinho reflects the chronic lack of long-term planning at United."

Then there is questionable belief among the club’s hierarchy of the long-term value provided by young players as a resource. This doubt is reflected in the near year-long search for an academy head, in the wake of former director Brian McClair’s departure last year, only for the club to appoint Nicky Butt. The former midfielder was seemingly far from first choice for the job – and will oversee a facility facing financial cuts.

It is also now a well-worn truism that Manchester City’s academy is attracting the best local players, including those of United’s players, driven by impressive investment in facilities and coaching staff. The Glazers, meanwhile, are said to consider United’s school ‘a poor return on investment.’ If Rashford fires Van Gaal’s side into the Champions League reckoning the Tampa-based family may have cause to reassess.

Yet, there are no guarantees for the 18-year-old Manchester-born striker. Nor for the 14 other youngsters Van Gaal has used this season. Talent in youth does not always mean success in experience. This is especially true under Mourinho’s leadership. Youth be warned.



Martin - February 29, 2016 Reply

Seeing youth prosper is a beautiful thing and absolutely nothing beats watching home grown players take their opportunities. But would United fans wait a few years for the current crop to possibly achieve their potential or settle for quicker success with Jose? Just asking and I know the answer is not binary but events of past week have really made me think hard about what we may be sacrificing if Mourinho comes.

Paul-quinn - February 29, 2016 Reply

Well written & making me doubt some of my missgivings on Giggs taking over too soon. He would certainly look to youth! Just can’t see clubs like Real, Bayern & Barca putting up with a slide like Utd have had without going for a man who is almost guarenteed to deliver. Jose would be a willing employee & if his employer wants youth alongside proven quality, then that is what he would have to deliver. Utd has to remain/return to the top table in Europe & this slump cannot be aloud to turn us into another Liverpool! I would love to see a squad full of kids born in Salford but Utd must remain at the top table. That’s the priority for me.

giggyjon - February 29, 2016 Reply

This weeks youth inspired improvement is probably too late to impact plans for next season with Mourinho which are more than likely already in place. Ed’s analysis is as we all know correct, and should the ‘Special One’ arrive then the current focus on youth (albeit enforced by injury) will undoubtedly be reversed.

However let us just enjoy this moment and hope that in Varela, Borthwick-Jackson, Rashford, +, +, we may just have found a couple of solid first team squad members for the future and perhaps even the odd star.

So let’s not get too excited, but it was truly fantastic to jump out of my seat yesterday at the pure excitement of our play. It has been too long since that has been the case and that is why I support Manchester United.

Marc Hazelton - March 1, 2016 Reply

He did not ‘luck out’ check his record. SAF may well have lucked out, however.

Ed - March 1, 2016 Reply

As noted elsewhere. The ‘luck’ I’m referring to in this case is with injuries. Had it not been for injuries to Shaw, Darmian, Valencia, Rooney and Martial its unlikely CBJ, Varela, Lingard, and Rashford would have enjoyed much game time at all. In fact when Van Gaal was forced by another injury crisis to mix things up last season and United won a few games he went straight back to playing the old guard when he could – with predictable results.

Neil - March 1, 2016 Reply

Spot on Ed –
Van Gaal’s spell in charge has been even more disappointing than Moyes (relative to their respective potential achievements in charge) but a small silver lining has been his willingness to throw young players into the team.

If we know Ed Woodward like we think we do then Mourinho is a near-certainty to come in. Woodward will think he is a safe pair of hands, as well as a big name to satisfy the corporate cheerleaders. Sadly we will be resorting to an egotistical asshole who is a million miles away from representing the core values a United manager ought to represent. Rare are the occasions in which Mourinho has shown much inclination to support young players or play an exciting brand of attacking football.

I fear a mixed few seasons ahead as he imposes his brand of insipid “stay compact and counter attack” brand of football. Chelsea and Inter had endured barren spells, the fans there were desperate for success, even with dour, shit football. His Real Madrid team were watchable but then they had Ronaldo and Ozil at the peak of their powers. More recently he has failed to inspire the likes of Diego Costa, Hazard, Fabregas to anything above 50% of their usual level.

I would rather we bring in a more attack minded coach who is given the chance to rebuild and develop young players, like Klopp did at Dortmund several years ago. It is not a recipe for immediate success within one season but with 3 or 4 good signings over the next two years, added to the likes of Shaw, Smalling, Schneiderlin, Depay, Januzaj and Martial, we have a potential title winning team that is waiting to be developed. Pochettino has completely revamped Tottenham within 2 seasons, so it is not impossible.

Gordon - March 1, 2016 Reply

Well,done.,great post.

JoseM can be the next Sir Alex. In 25! Years he will retire…..and JoseM will hand over title winning squads from under 8 to,under 21.

In 25 years Jose will have won 20 premierships and 10’european cups, 8 league cups and 8’FACups.

Jose will,have built the best soccer infrastructure of any sport. A builder and maintainer.

Record internationals produced from under 8 to full,international.

Record breaking women’s teams…..record numbers of women’s team. Winning the world,club championshipmamrecord 12’times..

JoseM knows every youth player. He knows every loan player 25/30 of them at times.

JoseM asked to be chairman of FIFA. 2038……’to complete the standing of Manchester United in the new world after Louis the loser nearly destroyed the club with his clipboard and being too tired to get out of his chair on match days.

JoseM can deliver us record trophies over the next 25!years…..and with attacking football……football that even our enemy want to watch and admire. We are respected again with in 12′ months of JoseM being leader.

Don’t waste any more time Woodward and glaziers. Please.

Stop the muddled Louis. He know he is out of,depth. help,find him a RoyH type job……a Holland National coach job again.Russia or Qatar need him……louis for national coach of Qatar and Russia. And we offer free clipboards for 12’months. The pressure is off Louis.No loss of face with his re assignments to amnationalmteam environment.

At national level cost cutting skills are not needed.

Please fire Louis Glazier family. Please reassign Woodward to non control of football matters.

Rich - March 1, 2016 Reply

I think the injury crisis is the only reason why so many academy players have been used. If Shaw didn’t get injured, Ramos got signed, Alves got signed, we wouldn’t be seeing these players. Mourinho or anyone else would have had to have used the kids as well; there was no choice. Van Gaal’s small squad I would guess is reflective of Ed more than Van Gaal.

The ‘true’ United way would have been to introduce Keane, or Rashford, into the squad at the beginning of the season to give competition to our fledgling scouse.

Ed - March 1, 2016 Reply

agree with this

Opti - March 2, 2016 Reply

I think that is harsh. Shaw, Darmian, and Martial are three young players… who were replaced by young players…. it’s not luck. It was by design to play with youth.

Gordon - March 1, 2016 Reply

Absolute disgrace. Louis making it sound that he planned these under 21 playing and debuting.SPIN and lies.

Louis was forced into playing Borth and rash ….Riley/love….it’s killing Louis thatcher has to play Moyes first signing.Louis played young at fullback….to,try and make Varella go on loan again.The philosophy cannot have attacking overlapping skillful tough fullback who can pass forewards .
Louis and Woodwards spin is an absolute disgrace .I have not been seduced or deducted by it, Red card out of Manchester. Please.

Dayusdred - March 1, 2016 Reply

After reading off all the youth players lvg has given opportunities in his previous clubs, its unfortunate you guys are still doubting his intentions for having a small sqaurd in order to give youth a chance. Yes injury played a part but may i remind you guys that there were no injuries in Ajax, Barca or Bayern when he gave those players you read off in the article their chances. He delibrately released the older players create room for them, like he is doing here. Even though the fans/media couldn’t see it then and he altimately paid the price of loosing his job, those players will ever remain gratefull to him. Morinho will come, win probably a tittle in 3yrs, leaves the club in ruins like he did in his last two jobs, and we shall be back here again. Be careful what you wish for.

Ed - March 1, 2016 Reply

It’s more nuanced than ‘LVG good’ or ‘LVG bad’. He does believe in young players, he certainly keeps saying it, and the record is over 20 years is pretty good. But he’s also given more young players, more opportunities than he otherwise would have. Absolutely no doubt. If Valencia wasn’t injured would Varela get a look in? Doubtful. Same with CBJ and Shaw, or Lingard and Young, or Rashford and Rooney. etc and so on. Mourinho is a pragmatist. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. Won’t he?

Rich - March 1, 2016 Reply

I can relate to you wanting to defend Van Gaal. Two attractive games of football – important wins, a comical tumble and an academy fairy tale do naturally create a lot of optimism. Though I have to say that two weeks ago you wouldn’t have found a united fan anywhere happy with Van Gaal. The Van Gaal out on this forum is a result of two seasons of mostly turgid football, poor results and unmet expectations.

No one is discrediting his past achievements, but for many many reasons Louis’ systems haven’t been working at United; check back through the podcasts if you need reminding.

dayudred - March 1, 2016 Reply

My concern about Morinho is the fact he has never coached a struggling team and we sruggling right now. I stand to be corrected he has never built a team from the scratch before. He had always inherited most of his teams @ near peak and that it is why he always struggle after two yrs. The Porto team he inherited was the best in portugar. The Chelsea team he inherited was Ranieri’s team that came second to Arsenal and played in the semi final of a CL. The Inter team was Mancini’s, and the Madrid team was Pelegrini’s. Benitez won Europa with the second Chelsea he inherited. If he comes to United, it will be the first time in his career that he will be taking over a team outside second position in any league. So it is not as straight forward as people think.

B Mann - March 3, 2016 Reply

Great article, it has made me feel a little depressed. The cuts to the accadamy make no sense when you look at income from player sales and the money saved and generated from those that make it.
Then we have the Jose question. I love to see the kids at united always have always will. And that 70+ year record must stand.
Personally I would rather see the kids develop and to hell with trophies. Entertaining football over trophies for me any day. We are so lucky all the success we have seen. Let Leicester win the league for a few years and let the kids play on

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