van Gaal rises to his greatest challenge

May 19, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 19 comments
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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.


James Fulton - May 19, 2014 Reply

superb piece, that.

Shamoon Hafez - May 19, 2014 Reply


Jamie O'Donoghue - May 20, 2014 Reply

Excellent piece

Subterranean Steve - May 20, 2014 Reply

Undoubtedly, van Gaal has taken on one of the biggest, if not the biggest challenge of his coaching career.

A year ago United were riding high and it appeared that the team needed just two or three new faces and a bit of tweaking and things would be set fair. Fast forward to today and it is clear that under Moyes the decline of the team, as a whole, has accelerated sharply. Whether that decline can be reversed with the current squad is problematic.

The loss of Vidic and Ferdinand coupled with the decline of Evra leaves the back line exposed to uncertainty. Whether a Jones, Smalling or Evans pairing at centreback is the future, is questionable. Equally, the fullback options need to be strengthened.

In midfield, van Gaal will have to be a magician to draw top class performances out of the likes of Carrick, Cleverley, Fletcher and Fellaini. Can he also (will he want to) weave his magic and resurrect the careers of Valencia, Young and Nani?

In the playmaker and striker roles, van Gaal has some good options but will need to get the balance right.

Clearly the priority areas for new blood are in the midfield and in the backline. Let’s hope that the transfer window and the cash, isn’t wasted chasing some high-priced marquee striker who will be good for business (selling shirts etc.), but is not a footballing priority.

Being Manchester United, we like to think that we give kids a chance and van Gaal has a reputation for promoting youth, so it would be great to see younger players given the opportunity to establish themselves. Imagine if we could unearth another couple of players with the potential of Januzaj.

Lots for van Gaal to consider and to do.

Only 88 sleeps before the campaign to regain our crown begins.

geoff - May 20, 2014 Reply

Young & Valencia are past their best. plus they’re are both 29. We signed young so late after he had played his best football at Villa park. For Valencia he’s not the modern winger who is flexible with technical ability. He is not n the mould of bale, robben or hazard, moura or neymar. He’s so predictable. He can maybe play as a wingback,fulback but not as a winger

Nemesis - May 20, 2014 Reply

Excellent and prescient.LVG’s current formation flexibility based upon necessary Nationally limited resources gives hope.

ForeverRed - May 20, 2014 Reply

Just wish Woodward would stop showing his inexperience by continually saying how much money we have to spend & intimating we’re after this or that high profile payer. It surprises me that a commercial guy shows so much naïveté on the big stage. He needs to stop the talk and walk the walk. And even if he does, he’s guaranteed himself that he’ll have to overpay. He’s come to epitomize much that’s become objectionable about our club under the Glazers.

Julian - May 20, 2014 Reply

Excellent piece on the challenges facing Van Gaal. Yes his ultimate priority is to restore United to its rightful position at or near the top. However this is going to take time. It certainly wont be accomplished during the forthcoming transfer window or, most probably in LVG’s first season although perhaps a top four finish will be expected as a minimum. LVG has to re-build the squad and to do this he has to decide who stays and who he’d like to bring in. Given that United will need to pay a premium to attract top talent, particularly that no European football is on offer, this will be no easy task. What’s more LVG will only be able to really assess the current available resources once he takes over which is likely to be during the latter part of July when United’s pre-season will already have begun. At least LVG’s appointment has removed a great deal of uncertainty as regards United’s future direction. On the face of it LVG’s vast experience, track record of success, no nonsense approach and vision , make him the ideal man to take charge of this transition.

geoff - May 20, 2014 Reply

A strong top 3 finish(a strong challenge to the title as well) and a cup win(FA- we haven’t won it for a long time) would be decent start to his tenure.
I wouldn’t want all many players coming in. A maximum of 4 players would be fine for a next season. A left-back , a center-back & 2 central midfielders. shaw, hummels, Kroos, strootman

Denton Davey - May 20, 2014 Reply

“A left-back , a center-back & 2 central midfielders. shaw, hummels, Kroos, strootman”

And NO INJURIES to the remaining four defenders (Rafa and Smalling and Jones and Evans).

Steve West - May 20, 2014 Reply

worth a read

sean roche - May 20, 2014 Reply

great piece

Damian Garside - May 20, 2014 Reply

A very nice piece, saying many of the things that needed to be said (sometimes you guys are such hot analysts of what’s happening at United). What worries me is the disjunction, and possible huge conflict between Woodward’s desire to make United the bling team that sells (if we can’t get Cavani, or Cesc Fabregas, then maybe we can go for that black woman who won the Oscae, or Britney or Beyonce, and Van Gaal’s approach — which will probably be he wants to builde the power attacking side that kicks the s*** out of everybody, plays Chelsea, City and Liverpool off the park, and does not care how much it costs to build such a team or … and here’s the kicker … how little. Given the youngsters we have and van Gaal’s penchant for working with youngsters and turning them into stars, he could decide that he needs one or two players from outside who are perfect for United and the game he wants to play… but are not high on glamour. And Woodward must be careful with regard to his ideas of glamour — for us United fans are not totally sold on the Beckham model of glamour, when we think of what he did for United, the phrase “metrosexual fashion icon” does not immediately come to mind. No, for united fans our two most glamorous players since the dawning of the Premiership have been Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo — neither of whom would really fit Ed Woodward’s bill.

Denton Davey - May 20, 2014 Reply

“Given the youngsters we have and van Gaal’s penchant for working with youngsters and turning them into stars, he could decide that he needs one or two players from outside who are perfect for United and the game he wants to play… but are not high on glamour.”

There’s a bit of a dis-connect here since most of those “youngsters” (like Wilson and Lingard and Powell and Henriquez) play in the same position where UTD are strongest – in the attacking part of the team.

Are any of the midfield/defence “youngsters” good enough to challenge for a starting role ?

Stephen - May 21, 2014 Reply

Unbelievably good article. Enjoyed every sentence!

RedBlueDevil - May 21, 2014 Reply

Spot on…it’s infuriating to think we’d easily win the title in 2010 & 2012 & 1 more CL with just a decent bit of investment

RedBlueDevil - May 21, 2014 Reply

hope Moyes’ extensive scouting doesn’t go to waste

matt - May 21, 2014 Reply

say ed you’re pretty good at this.

mancmanme - May 21, 2014 Reply

The Queen is dead. Long live the King. It’s sunny outside and we have a manager who is arrogant enough to think he can do the job. That is the MAIN qualifying criteria. It’s not enough to have a firm hand on the tiller any more. You have got to think that your tiller is the best, that you invented the tiller and that you will smash someone over the head with your brilliant tiller if they disagree. Van Gaal take a bow.

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