Old Trafford will bounce to the chant of “José Mourinho” for the next three seasons, with the Portuguese finally taking control of the club he has always wanted to manage. Mourinho might not host his first press conference until July, but the 53-year-old’s work is underway within a week of his managerial announcement. And there is plenty of work to do.
Once the curtain came down on David Moyes’ reign as Manchester United manager, it was clear that the Reds required a major overhaul to bring stability back to the club. Following the inevitable reshaping of the squad and the backroom staff under Louis Van Gaal, it seems that the club is in need of major surgery once again. The Dutchman has failed to end the malaise surrounding United’s fortunes. The higher-ups have some key decisions to make this summer.
He just cannot let it go. Every now Angel Di Maria pops up to discuss just how happy he is in Paris after a tumultuous period in northern England. One might think that Di Maria was forced into modern slavery in Manchester. It was the opposite, in fact. The Argentine was fairly compensated to the tune of around £140,000 per week after tax. Yet, with some Manchester United fans still pining for the club’s temporary number seven, why exactly can’t both parties just move on?
Winter is coming. José Mourinho’s cold stare and stone heart is set to be unleashed on a failing Manchester United squad. The Portuguese will find the basis of a moderate team, although one shorn of almost any world-class talent, despite more than £250 million spent over the past three years. In the place of true quality comes a misfit collection of wasters, shirkers and frauds – or at least Marouane Fellaini, Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones. On the precipice of permanent decline, the club must move on and that surely means another round of change this summer. Old Trafford’s revolving exit calls for these 10 players …
Four goals in two starts, a pair of braces no less, represents a fairytale start to life in Manchester United’s first team for Marcus Rashford. The 18-year old enjoyed a dream Premier League début against Arsenal, to quote an oft-used cliché. Rashford’s strikes were predatory; his movement sharp, while his hold-up play and awareness to set-up Ander Herrera displayed maturity beyond his years. The Fletcher Moss Rangers graduate deservedly picked up the man of the match award for a sensational performance at Old Trafford. What happens next is up to him, but Rashford could become a key player should his progress continue. Read More
No matter how fans receive the news, Louis van Gaal is often the headline. Twitter, Facebook, the Internet; the Dutchman fills plenty of column inches. And whether it’s a focus on the process, philosophy or the recent bizarre remarks about keeping his players “horny,” Van Gaal is bursting with quotes. The downside is the same regurgitated stories, recycled and reworded with a new angle to keep the speculation-driven media happy. Meanwhile, the headlines shift fans’ minds off the players, who for much of the season have failed their manager and club. Read More
There are few certainties in life. Death, taxes and José Mourinho becoming the next manager at Old Trafford are three of them. The Portuguese’s long awaited arrival in Manchester to secure his dream job seem a foregone conclusion, and barring another Ed Woodward inspired screw-up, he will likely take charge this summer. Who needs who more – manager or club – is rendered irrelevant this point; Mourinho will be the United manager sooner or later. But what will his Manchester United look like? Read More
Okay, so what’s the deal here?
Well, Atlético Madrid and the club’s illustrious neighbour, Real, have been hit with transfer bans that span two windows. Read More
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.
“Ridículo” ran the headline in two of Spain’s leading sports dailies last week. No translation needed there. Except that the farce surrounding David de Gea’s aborted transfer to Real Madrid extends beyond the Spanish capital to include a little too much of Manchester United’s approach to the transfer window. It is the third summer in which the club’s executive judgement must be called into question.
The window began with Memphis Depay’s acquisition in May and ended amid bickering about the intricacies of FIFA’s transfer matching system. From the hope of progress to come, to the relative embarrassment of a summer that offered a glimpse into a world of planned squad improvement, but concluded with too many questions for real comfort. It is a window that has left Louis van Gaal better off than 12 months ago, but still short of the resources needed to mount a truly effective title challenge
The club’s critics, including Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez, crudely frame the narrative of United’s summer as one of expensive incompetence where the truth encompasses a far broader story. There is a path forward to a future in which United returns to preeminence, albeit one there are few guarantees the club will take.
El Presidente was moved to labeled United’s vice chairman, Ed Woodward, “inexperienced’ following Madrid’s failed de Gea chase. The Spaniard, like many, missed the nuance in the considerable farce – one that defies the basest evaluation. After all, subtly is a quality that rarely fares well amid all the media noise that accompanies each summer’s extended haggling.
“It’s the inexperience of the new people in charge,” concluded Pérez last week. “This is exactly the same as what happened before with Coentrão and Herrera and we thought they would have learned from what happened in the past.”
Base, perhaps, but Perez’ accusation does cut to the heart of supporter concerns about Woodward’s ability to land the biggest deals. The former banker has brought in more than £250 million in new talent since taking over from David Gill, but the impression remains that more astute executives have too often outmaneuvered Woodward.
The charge from Madrid is perhaps darker still – that Woodward’s bumbling cost the Spanish giants a player, De Gea the move he so obviously desires, and United a £29 million fee.
Still, while the success of United’s transfer strategy this summer will be judged in May, a window that began with the club having planned ahead, ended with more questions laid at Woodward’s door. It is an uncomfortable position for the 43-year-old executive, who has enjoyed success on the commercial front, while being widely ridiculed for his exploits in the transfer market. Not all of it is fair.
In fact United’s riposte to Perez’ rant was sharp and, it is worth noting, credible. Briefing on the QT, United accused the Spanish giants of, essentially, bringing failure upon themselves with a bid at the 11th hour. Moreover, Van Gaal has privately expressed his delight at United’s summer business, including retaining De Gea.
“The facts speak for themselves. The documents were in on time. Real seem intent to move the focus away from their own clumsiness this summer,” a United spokesman told the Press Association. “We all like to blame others but if you let one slip through your fingers then ultimately the culpability is yours.”
Quite. Others view Perez’ agenda as less opaque than the childish sequence of claim and its rejoinder that filled the back pages last week. Some believe that the Real president was happy to leave De Gea in Manchester for another year, allowing the popular Keylor Navas to stay in Madrid, and the club to pick up a free transfer next summer.
Whatever the truth, Perez’ narrative strikes a chord with some precisely because it hints at that wider perceived truth about Woodward. It is a view that may remain the dominant assessment of the Englishman until United lands the Premier League or the executive the ‘worldie’ he seemingly craves.
Outwith De Gea, United’s summer appeared predominantly logical though. Signatures filled significant holes: Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin add class and defensive cover in midfield; Memphis Depay pace and a goal threat in the attack. Matteo Darmian has already proven an inspired signing at a bargain price to cover the hole left by the departing Rafael da Silva.
Elsewhere, United’s window has been more curious. And once again a little haphazard.
The discussion surrounding Anthony Martial has largely focused on the French teenager’s price, which could potentially top £60 million if all bonuses are paid. Even in an inflated market, fueled by an upcoming 70 per cent increase in television revenues, the figure is eye watering. But the decision to complete the deal – with Chelsea seemingly closing in – was made at the very last moment, suggesting that opportunism and not long-term planning was very much to the fore. It is not the first time that observation has been made about United’s transfer strategy under Woodward.
Van Gaal has stronger options now. No question about that. Yet, a transfer strategy is also one of balance. United’s acquisition of six players this summer – two midfielders, two young forwards, a defender and a goalkeeper – is balanced, but counter-acted by Van Gaal’s decision to let 13 players leave permanently. More still on loan.
Some departures were inevitable: the aforementioned Rafael, Jonny Evans and Nani. Tom Cleverley has long since accepted a future away from Old Trafford, while Anders Lindegaard has spent much of the past two years “picking his nose” on the bench. Angel Di María’s unhappiness in Manchester was no secret. The Argentine’s performances, if not his talent, are unlikely to be missed.
Other departures were more questionable in the context of Van Gaal’s squad. The decision to let Robin van Persie leave for Fenerbache made sense only in the event United secured a replacement striker. The club did not. That decision was later compounded by Javier Hernández’ sale to Bayer Leverkusen, which leaves Van Gaal with Wayne Rooney as the squad’s only number nine. It is an imbalance that could well come back to haunt the Dutchman if Rooney’s stark slump in form is not resolved in the coming months.
Meanwhile, United’s failure to land an experience centre-back exposed the ‘Sergio Ramos or bust’ policy this summer. With Daley Blind still occupying a central defensive berth – and brutally exposed against Swansea City last weekend – the decision not to pursue Nicolas Otamendi, or another high-class option, could well become a source of regret. Not least because Van Gaal has fallen out with yet another player, Marcos Rojo, over the Argentine’s failure to renew his passport, while Phil Jones is injured once again. Nobody should trust the Englishman’s fitness.
The most oddball departure of the summer came with Adnan Januzaj’s loan to Borussia Dortmund. The Belgian’s technical excellence, pace and potential goal threat are all qualities Van Gaal has publicly identified as missing from his squad.
More broadly, Van Gaal’s open-door policy has a led to a rapid transition in the nature of United’s squad. Just seven first team players remain from Ferguson’s time at the club: De Gea, Jones, Rooney, Michael Carrick, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, and Antonia Valencia.
Moreover, of the youngsters offered an opportunity last season – Tyler Blackett, Patrick McNair, Reece James, James Wilson – few, if any, are likely to feature in the months ahead. Blackett and James have left the club; McNair and Wilson will enjoy only intermittent spells on the bench. The club’s proud record of having at least one player from the academy in the match-day squad for more than 3,500 games in succession is likely to be broken this season.
The changes paint a picture of a squad development strategy that does not always sit well with supporters or everyone connected with the club.
“It was always about creating players. Now it is the opposite,” said former assistant manager Carlos Quieroz last week. “There is panic buying. You have to prepare and then make the decisions together. You can still make wrong decisions but we never made panic decisions when buying players.”
And yet, with so many millions spent, the focus also returns to United’s balance, or lack thereof. Woodward’s failure to land a world superstar may haunt the executive; his inability to fill all of the holes in Van Gaal’s squad is likely to limit the team’s competitiveness. Now that’s an assessment worthy of the ridículo moniker.