Derby week is done, with round one taken by United’s noisy neighbours as the world’s gaze focused on Manchester for the season’s most anticipated match. Manchester City won a tough battle 2-1, with an electric opening period enough to secure Pep Guardiola victory at Old Trafford.
On the surface José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola appear to be polar opposites; the brash Portuguese man of war against the Catalan revolutionary, the pragmatist versus the visionary, the provocateur of “anti-football” dancing with the purveyor of “tiki-taka.”
Befuddlement on the faces of supporters was clearly evident, Tuesday night, as they watched Manchester United play something close to ‘really good’ football. It is easy to mock the assertion that fans have ‘suffered’ since the Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign ended, but the pain has been tangible in the stands, as a thick fog descends on the Theatre of Sleep. Read More
The winter transfer window has come and gone with a few departures and no Old Trafford arrivals. Ordinarily the headlines might have focused on the fact that United failed to bring in a fresh face in winter window for the first time since 2005. These are no ordinary times though as Manchester City confirmed football’s worst kept secret: Pep Guardiola will take charge of the Blues next season. Read More
“He’s got incredible energy and very importantly he likes attacking football.” It was the kind of off-the-cuff boast that Manchester United’s executive vice chairman has become known for. Summer 2014, brimming with the kind of bravado inspired by victory, Woodward added another supposed truism to his unveiling of a new manager secured: that Louis van Gaal’s style would bring “the kind of football Manchester United fans love.” That attacking football is “part of our DNA.” Woodward got only one part of the story correct. Read More
Modern economic theory is built on the mathematical technique called “constrained optimisation.” Resources are scarce and people are assumed to behave in a way that maximises their individual happiness given what they have. It is natural to extend this analysis to football clubs.
Manchester United, as a business entity, seeks to maximise its profit. To maximise profit, the Glazer family run club must achieve good results on the pitch – after all, few firms want to be the “regional partner” of a struggling club, where the relationship is essentially about reflected glory. In other words, the Glazers must pay close attention to matters on the football pitch if they indeed are rational, profit-seeking – some might argue profit-exploiting – businessmen.
The Glazers have so far behaved “rationally.” They have also delegated on-pitch matters entirely to the manager, perhaps to the detriment of the club.
United is falling behind other clubs in terms of structure, with many inside the industry viewing United’s scouting department, in particular, as antiquated, while the argument for hiring a director of football holds much merit. Yet, the behind-the-scenes backroom structure does not concern the Glazers greatly, especially if they intend to sell United sometime in the future – not unlike politicians who invest in industries that yield immediate profits, but not in social infrastructure.
At Old Trafford first-team football is the fruit-bearing industry. Alarmed by the Reds’ recent performances under Louis van Gaal, the Glazers and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward will be carefully considering a plethora of options available, including a replacement.
One feasible strategy could be to inject a lot more cash in the winter transfer market to keep United in contention for a place in the Champions League, and then go for Pep Guardiola come the summer. Van Gaal will surely not be allowed to see out his contract if the Bayern Munich manager can be convinced that Old Trafford is his best next step.
Should United lose out on Guardiola to Manchester City – a club that has tailored its structure around capturing the former Barcelona manager – the Reds will be in a particularly precarious situation. Jose Mourinho might be jobless, and seemingly waiting for Woodward’s phone call, but there is no guarantee that he will be available at the end of the season. For one, Rafa Benitez’s struggles at Real Madrid is such that the Spanish club might act in desperation and bring the ‘Special One’ back to Bernabeu.
Should Van Gaal complete his contract, which runs to 2017, both Guardiola and Mourinho will probably be unavailable; Carlo Ancelotti too. Elsewhere few élite managers will be available – Jurgen Klopp has made a mixed start as Liverpool manager, but is unlikely to have departed within the next 18 months, while Diego Simeone could well be managing Chelsea. With Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal winding down, the Gunners might also be searching for a replacement by summer 2017.
Meanwhile, there is little evidence, on the pitch or statistically, that supports the proposition that Ryan Giggs will become a leading manager, as romantic as the idea is. And at the end of the day United is not the Class of 92’s plaything.
The conclusion, even if Van Gaal does last out his contract, is that United will face a real challenge securing a manager proven and tested on the biggest stages. Or, in other words, United might have to settle for a lesser name or gamble on an up-and-coming younger coach come 2017.
That leaves Mourinho, who might charitably be described as being divisive and, perhaps not unfairly, often odious. His teams have sometimes played a brand of football even duller than Van Gaal’s, although there is no denying the former Real Madrid boss’ managerial pedigree. Mourinho is also available now. And the £7 million that it will cost the club to fire Van Gaal is little in the grand scheme of things. After all, United would struggle to recruit a much-needed and capable left-back for that kind of money. The club stands to lose a lot more should it fail to reach next season’s Champions League.
There appears to be little chance of securing Guardiola in the summer, while June 2017, when Van Gaal’s contract runs out, appears to be even more difficult. The opportunity to sign Mourinho now is thus even more urgent. If the goal is to secure a top manager at Old Trafford, then Van Gaal must surely go.
But the question remains as to whether there is any benefit in bringing in Mourinho. Van Gaal is struggling, but he has a chance to turn things around, just as Mourinho may not necessarily decelerate the Reds’ slide down the table. And should Mourinho be appointed and turn things around, as his CV suggests he might, then the Portuguese’s appointment would essentially amount to giving up on Guardiola for the next four years.
In this sense, if Van Gaal ultimately goes early, it is either Mourinho or Guardiola. Many supporters prefer Guardiola, whose football is based more on flair and positivity than the Machiavellian football Mourinho preaches.
Is there a realistic chance in appointing Guardiola? After all, the Spaniard did not bother to let Sir Alex Ferguson know of his move to Germany despite the Scot’s request that the pair keep in touch. There have been many reports suggesting that Guardiola is fascinated with United, although more reputable journalists, such as the Guardian’s Raphael Honingstein, consider City as Guardiola’s most likely destination.
Another crucial issue is whether United, currently sixth in the Premier League, will be in the Champions League next season with Van Gaal in charge. It would be an entirely different proposition for Guardiola to come to Old Trafford with the Reds out of Europe’s premier competition.
There are 19 games left with United only nine points behind Arsenal, with the Londoners an injury or two away from dropping points. An exceptionally strong second half of the season could conceivably see United sneak onto the podium.
In short, United would be betting an awful lot on capturing Guardiola should the Glazers and Woodward decide to pursue him in lieu of securing Mourinho now. Risk must always be in proportion to reward. While an argument can be made that Guardiola will bring more to the club than Mourinho, it is hard to argue that the Guardiola effect will be enough to offset the insane risk United would be taking by passing on Mourinho.
December football is a highlight of the British football calendar, with a seemingly infinite stream of games on which to feast over the festive period. In addition to being an excuse to binge on the beautiful game, and copious amounts of food and drink, it is often a pivotal juncture in Manchester United’s season.
Sir Alex Ferguson often reiterated the need to capture form during the final month of the year. Those were simpler times, and the cloud of uncertainty that looms heavy over Old Trafford ensures that much of the excitement present in previous years is decidedly absent.
There is little to stir any festive optimism in a side whose insipid displays continue – an early Champions League exit in Wolfsburg, followed by an embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth, and then at home to Norwich City, are unwelcome variations on the mundane goalless draws that have become the norm.
There is a growing anxiety among United’s support, especially with little certainty about the future. The evidence suggests there is justification in supporters’ fears.
“Boring, boring United”
At the top of fans’ Christmas list of woes is the dismal nature of football on display from Louis Van Gaal’s side. The pragmatic Dutchman has been cast as Scrooge in recent weeks, and his overtly regimented approach to the game has almost completely nullified the entertainment traditionally associated with United.
One of the most concerning factors is that despite weeks of criticism Van Gaal appears completely unshaken in his belief in the “philosophy” – a concept that seems to have less meaning with every passing week. His ethos is centred on defensive solidity and ball retention, but the important passages detailing the action in the final has been torn from Van Gaal’s coaching manual.
In addition to a indistinguishable team identity, Van Gaal’s choice of formation and substitutions have also raised eyebrows. United’s travelling support was horrified when injury to Ander Herrera at Watford prompted Van Gaal to revert to the much maligned 3-5-2 system. It removed much of United’s attacking impetus in the process.
Even with a wealth of options at his disposal the Dutch manager’s selections have continued to provoke ire. Deploying two holding midfielders against less decorated opposition, who rarely bring much ambition at Old Trafford, is simultaneously mystifying and typical of Van Gaal’s tenure.
Not only does the tactic often result in the aforementioned Herrera being left out, but it is an exasperatingly cautious approach. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick are excellent footballers, but there is no need for two-thirds of this trio to start in home games against lesser sides.
Almost as frustrating as Plan A is Van Gaal’s persistence in using the lumbering Marouane Fellaini as a route one alternative. Despite his apparent “genius” there is little ingenuity in a contingency plan that involves diagonal balls launched in the Belgian’s general direction – incredulous, even, that an expensively assembled squad should resort to low percentage tactics.
Regardless of the squad’s many deficiencies Van Gaal has once again suffered for a side decimated by injury. Luke Shaw’s horrific leg break in Eindhoven is still fresh in the memory. While the left-back should make a full recovery Shaw’s injury has set the tone for another season of ill luck. Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera and the indispensable Chris Smalling have all been ruled out in recent weeks, along with the perpetually afflicted Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
Once again some question Van Gaal’s rigorous training regimen and its propensity to increase United’s injury list. Pending a thorough scientific analysis the truth will remain unclear, but the skeleton squad that took to the field at Wolfsburg and Bournemouth raises questions about how wisely United invested last summer.
The doomed pursuit of Sergio Ramos was exciting, but amid the frenzy there remained a sense of deja-vu about the episode. Ed Woodward has spent the past two summers flaunting the club’s wealth in a manner akin to Floyd Mayweather – the result is a rash of big name players using United as leverage in contract discussions.
And it is this blind pursuit of marquee names that has left United threadbare in defence, forcing Van Gaal to use his most inexperienced players in significant games. United’s sense of faith in youth is positive, but a monumentally important Champions League tie against a top German outfit is not the optimal time to break in new blood.
In this the board and Van Gaal share blame for the squad’s shortages – and for failing to learn from the painful lessons of last season.
United’s recent spate of injuries, coupled with the impending January window, has raised speculation that the club may once again delve into the market. Acquiring top talent is no easy task, as is often made clear by managers nationwide – and Van Gaal has already moved to temper expectations.
“Goals are the most important thing, we have to always look for solutions to make goals”, the manager opined. “We have to look for the solutions in our selection, that’s important. Maybe we have solutions elsewhere but that’s more difficult, because in January clubs shall not let go of players who score”.
Hardly encouraging words for supporters who long for an extra striker to ease United’s goal famine. Indeed, the squad would benefit from at least two additions, in attack and defence. Yet, the chances of luring élite talent to M16 in January are small.
In truth an internal solution will have to be found – and United must also factor in a rest for Anthony Martial, who cannot be relied upon for an entire season. The challenge becomes greater still if Rooney returns from an injury lay-off the same player who has defiled pitches up and down the country this season.
Commendably, Van Gaal has largely arrested his side’s defensive troubles this season, albeit a record that came to a halt against Bournemouth and Norwich with injuries taking hold. Defensive solidity is dependent on retaining key personnel such as Chris Smalling. The Londoner has developed wonderfully in the past year, but his record suggests doubts about his ability to stay fit for extended periods.
Then there is the question of United’s manager who has indisputably suffered a bad month. The Reds’ mundane football is grudgingly tolerated while results remain acceptable. Ignominious exit from the Champions League, coupled with humiliation against Bournemouth and Norwich, has turned opinion against the Dutchman.
Indeed, United’s slump in form could not have come at a worse time for Van Gaal, with a plethora of world-class coaches suddenly in the shop window. United’s board has lavished praise on the manager, but with José Mourinho out of a job and Pep Guardiola planning a change of scenery, Old Trafford’s suits will surely have noticed a persistent itch in their collective trigger finger.
Should Guardiola decant from Bavaria the clamour for his services will be at its most fervent in Manchester’s blue half. Yet, when Guardiola officially announces his future, United’s board will be left in a precarious situation. Aside from the increasingly unlikely chances of capturing a trophy this season, there is little Van Gaal can do to dissuade fans that the club should ditch him for the enigmatic Spaniard should the opportunity arise.
It is, of course, conjecture at the moment, but losing Guardiola to City would be a watershed moment in Manchester football history, remembered fondly only by those of a blue persuasion. In fact, there is growing consensus that United must mount a pursuit of the former Barcelona boss, lest the club miss out on yet another an élite manager since Ferguson’s retirement.
In that there is recognition the club is in a period of worrying uncertainty – one with an end that may shape the club for the foreseeable future. For the moment Van Gaal is under considerable scrutiny. The only thing the Dutchman can do is to start winning matches.