There is a tendency to view Manchester United’s future in one of two extremes: those who believe the sky has fallen in on a once great empire, and observers who hold true that all ills have been cured by dismissing David Moyes. As ever the truth lies at neither poll, although it is axiomatic to suggest Louis van Gaal faces his greatest challenge. More than 20 years, 19 trophies and six jobs into a stellar coaching career, van Gaal signs as United’s manager with little guarantee of replicating the success of his past. Or United’s.
Indeed, Moyes’ failure highlights not only the 51-year-old Scot’s shortcomings, but inadequacies in the club’s playing resources and structure too. Such was the fall from grace – and performances so downtrodden in the season past – that it is naïve to presume van Gaal’s arrival alone will restore United’s glory.
The Dutchman spoke this week of a desire to fulfil the club’s “big ambitions” and put forward a promise to “make history together,” but his challenges are multifaceted, starting with, but certainly not limited to the team.
Moyes’ failure exposed structural and political challenges in United’s hierarchy, subdued by Sir Alex Ferguson’s brilliance, and catalysed by the former Evertonian’s incompetence. The club’s parsimonious investment strategy, commercial prioritisation, and supporter exploitation have become the new ‘United way’. It is a reality that will dawn on van Gaal soon enough.
Indeed, almost a decade of underinvestment, compared to rivals at home and abroad, precipitated a sure but gradual degradation in squad quality. That the spine of a once great United team – Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs – will each leave United this summer is testament to a failure in long-term squad management.
Yet, politically, United is now run by the commercial rather than football departments – highlighted by Ed Woodward’s ill-advised push to sign Paris Saint Germain’s Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani this summer. Not for the player’s undoubted quality, it seems, but for the ‘superstar’ status his signature might confer.
Sponsorship outreach often trumps playing requirements as Moyes found to his frustration during last summer’s Asian tour. It is also a truism that United’s most recent high-profile signings have each brought home the lack strategy; Robin van Persie acquired out of expediency, Marouane Fellaini through desperation, and Juan Mata for little better reason than opportunism. Moyes’ forthright assessment of United’s scouting department may actually prove a boon to the club over the longer piece.
This summer’s transfer market will be a proving ground for whether United’s months of preparatory work will pay off, or whether desperation and incompetence will once again take hold. van Gaal’s dogmatic personality may provide the stimulus to challenge an in-grained status quo.
Still, it is on the pitch where van Gaal must do his best work, with challenges existing in every position bar David de Gea’s, although nervous glances will certainly be cast toward Madrid and Barcelona in the coming months if Ilker Cassilas’ future is not resolved, or if Marc André ter Stegen proves a failure at Camp Nou.
The Dutchman’s old maxim that he is not “the kind of coach who just goes out and buys players for the sake of it” and that his methods “can improve players” will certainly be tested. Nor is the conclusion that United “have to turn it around 360 degrees,” adrift according to Dutch coach Ronald de Boer. “But if there’s a man who can do it I would say van Gaal is the man,” he added.
In the back four the Dutchman faces three departures in Ferdinand, Vidić and Evra – more than 1100 United appearances between them. Luke Shaw is set to arrive for just shy of £30 million, although entrusting United’s left-flank to a rookie and Alexander Büttner is a risk van Gaal may wish to hedge.
Centrally neither Phil Jones, Chris Smalling nor Jonny Evans can claim an unblemished performance or injury record; an experienced acquisition is required. The same observation can be made of Rafael da Silva, whose performances and fitness have deteriorated over the past 12 months.
As ever it is in midfield where van Gaal’s brilliance and United’s financial muscle must be felt. There is little guarantee Michael Carrick’s performance levels will return after a campaign of such complacency that omission from England’s party to Brazil was both inevitable and fully earned. Meanwhile, Darren Fletcher is unlikely to compete with the continent’s best again, while Anderson and Tom Cleverley will find new homes this summer if adequate buyers can be found.
The same might be said of eternal misfit Nani, while there are surely few in van Gaal’s rebuilt coaching team – including new assistant Ryan Giggs -that hold positive observations of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia’s recent performances.
Up front the new manager enjoys greater riches, although he must find the attacking balance that extracts greatest value from van Persie, Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney. Local boy Danny Welbeck’s role requires definition, while Javier Hernández can surely not countenance another season as an infrequently used reserve.
In the market United will be tested by van Gaal’s lengthy absence as the World Cup plays out this summer, while rivals will attach a premium to any player on which the club has designs. Woodward’s regular briefings to the sizeable extent of United’s investment pool guarantees few straightforward negotiations ahead.
The new manager also has a history of gravitating towards players he trusts; it may narrow the scope of players United is competing for this summer, to say little of Woodward’s budget-busting obsession with landing that marquee signing.
“We didn’t talk about money, we talked about the players I want,” van Gaal told Dutch TV on Monday.
“We’ll have to see if we can get them. We also talked about who can go. The aim is to bring United back to the number one position as soon as possible, because that’s where they were under Sir Alex Ferguson. United is the biggest club in the world marketing-wise, but if you look at their budget they have to finish high.
“So that’s the goal. And the goal is that you not only do it with stars, but also with youth players.”
van Gaal certainly boasts an unenviable record in promoting youth. United’s successful reserve side, which finished winners and then runners-up in the Premier League Under-21 competition in the past two seasons, may prove an attractive pool. In James Wilson, Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard and Tom Lawrence van Gaal has a quartet likely to push hard for inclusion over the next 12 months. Reserve Player of the Year Saidy Janko could offer support to Rafael, while a decision is yet to be made on Wilfried Zaha’s future. Ángelo Henríquez and Nick Powell may also look on with hope.
Nor will the veteran be persuaded by reputation if history is any barometer. van Gaal once faced down Bayern Munich striker Luca Toni by dropping his trousers in a literal interpretation of a popular idiom. The new manager’s reproductive organs are indeed sizeable. The precious, complacent and previously infallible in United’s squad – there are many – will be driven out of Manchester. After the past year few can hold a legitimate complaint.
Nor will there be room in van Gaal’s side for those unwilling to fit into a philosophy and tactical system that bends first towards the team ethic. It is a principle that has largely been absent over the past season much to Moyes’ chagrin – and considerable fault.
Moreover, specialists, such as Kagawa, Mata and Hernández, or those unwilling to place the team’s positional requirements first, may find the adjustment challenging.
“You have to play as a team, and not as an individual,” van Gaal once said. “That’s why I’m always looking at the vision, then the team, and then who fits in the profiles that I make for all the positions in my system. A system depends on the players you have. The philosophy stays the same though.”
Indeed, while van Gaal has often deployed a typically Dutch 4-3-3 he is prone to adapt to the resources at hand. This flexibility has prompted former Ajax coach to deploy a 3-5-2 system with the Dutch national team at the World Cup this summer.
He will need that kind of innovation and more at United. Yet, in an époque when change is coming to Old Trafford, it is a task for which van Gaal is distinctly qualified. It is a challenge among the Dutchman’s most difficult. One suspects he’ll enjoy it.