Friday, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman/lightning rod/chief figure of fun (delete as appropriate) was ‘grilled’ by investors when he reported on the club’s financial results for the third quarter. Much like the ‘grilling’ in the second quarter there was little surprise that investor questions focus little on Manchester United’s on the pitch challenges.
Everybody hates Louis van Gaal, and rightly so. In the stands, in the press, probably even in his own house. After all, since the Dutchman’s appointment in May 2014 he has taken it upon himself to tear apart the Theatre of Dreams. Whether its analysis that insults the fans’ intelligence, or the insipid football on show, Van Gaal has successfully alienated the world’s biggest fanbase. Yet, it is not only mistaken to think that all Manchester United’s problems lie at the Dutchman’s feet, but naïve as well. The cancer comes from the top.
At the secret Glazer family money bank, Joel, Bryan and Avram proudly toast inking their latest commercial partnership. Joel strokes his wad as Avram preens, proudly sporting a freshly waxed pony tail. Bryan, known as the ‘fun one’, is busy celebrating United’s latest success by polishing his tractor.
Sometimes it is the messenger as much as the message that resonates most. The ranking is up for debate, of course, but there is little doubt that Manchester United’s Europa League defeat at Liverpool on Thursday night was one of the club’s most embarrassing in the past three decades. Paul Scholes knew it, Rio Ferdinand saw it, the travelling United supporters left Anfield certain of it. So what is it, exactly, that Louis van Gaal and his paymaster Ed Woodward cannot see?
Louis van Gaal. For the moment it seems more like Louis van Gone. There’s a certain sense of inevitability that the Dutchman’s time in Manchester is coming to a close. If not for Ed Woodward’s foolish pride, Van Gaal might have been given his marching orders already. Following last weekend’s home defeat to Southampton Van Gaal could be at the point of no return. Lose at Derby County in the FA Cup and Woodward’s hand may be forced. Read More
It was, one supporter departing Old Trafford claimed, the worst Manchester United performance in more than 30 years. Perhaps not, there have been some truly devastating defeats in that time, but few supporters can remember less entertainment on a night where United’s passivity in the face of a supposedly inferior opposition reached a fresh nadir. Indeed, the Reds’ narrow FA Cup victory over League One Sheffield United, despite a rash of defeats in December, may yet come to be seen as peak Louis van Gaal – a day when the tide finally turned in the endgame of the Dutchman’s Old Trafford departure. Read More
“Until the club understands what it stands for, and how it operates beyond making deals with regional noodle vendors, any manager will struggle.” – United Rant Twitter feed, 22 December 2015
Manchester United is now a fully blown Glazer entity, a cash cow being milked to the nth degree and then some. The club can boast a total of 21 global, 16 regional, 15 media and 14 financial partners; more than 60 partners in total. Talk about leveraging an asset. Read More
Just when you thought the crisis has hit its lowest point, Louis van Gaal’s side found a way to burrow further into the abyss. Following another comprehensive defeat at the hands of Stoke City the club has now lost four games in a row, something the Red Devils have not suffered since 1961. The side is also now winless in seven games. Can the situation get any worse?
The answer might be yes – a home clash to finish the year awaits, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Monday. Optimism hasn’t been at a lower ebb at any point during the Van Gaal era, and most fans are hoping he is either given his marching orders or falls on his own sword before the end of the year.
Criticism of the Dutchman is almost certainly justified, with defence of his methods now as flimsy as the efforts of his back-four. Despite Van Gaal’s successes in rebuilding the club from the ground up, for which he deserves credit, on-field performances have at best stalled and are arguably going backwards. Patience with the process has reached a pivotal moment.
Comparison’s with David Moyes grow by the day – the two managers records are comparable, with Van Gaal’s number no longer that favourable. Yet the common thread between the two men is less the results, but the man who hired them: Edward Gareth Woodward.
Woodward was promoted to the role of executive vice-chairman when David Gill stepped aside in 2013, following Sir Alex Ferguson out the door. Whilst Woodward is clearly a marketing guru, the former banker has essentially acted as the Chief Executive Officer, Commercial Director and Director of Football for United in the past two years. It isn’t working.
The reality, of course, is that Woodward is succeeding in running United as a business, but not as a football club. The question remains as to why Woodward appears to be immune to media criticism given that he now has two managerial failures behind him. If Van Gaal is in the firing line, then Woodward should join him.
Woodward has not been clear of blame from the club’s fans since he was promoted to the top job. He is, after all, a figurehead for the Glazer’s ownership of the club – a controversial topic within itself – whilst appearing to place financial success far above on-field performance. Woodward, it appears, fails to grasp that on the pitch success also means that the dollars will follow.
Woodward’s first window in charge was underwhelming – he hired Moyes, then failed in pursuit of a string of star players, leading to a very public display of panic on transfer deadline day. Marouane Fellaini joined for £27.5 million in August 2013 when the Belgian could have been signed for four million less had he a move been completed in July.
This followed a tortuous summer, with fruitless pursuits of players that, in some cases, were never likely to join the club. It has become an unfortunate routine, with supporters teased on an almost daily basis once transfer windows open – an embarrassing turn of events for a club of United’s stature.
Woodward chased Leighton Baines through summer 2013, although the defender was never close to a move, with the vice chair leading a naïve series of low bids for both the left-back and his teammate Fellaini. The pursuit indicated a gross lack of experience in transfer negotiation and a lack of respect for the selling club, with Everton already hesitant to join negotiations.
Then, for all of United’s spending power and willing show of financial muscle, the club could not tempt Gareth Bale to stay in England and make the move from Tottenham Hotspur. Despite reportedly offering north of £100 million for the Welshman, Bale joined Real Madrid that summer for a world record transfer fee.
Cesc Fabregas also turned his back on interest from United and a year later led the Premier League in assists as Chelsea reclaimed the Premier League. Fabregas is struggling this season, but at the time the Reds Devils were in desperate need of creativity in midfield.
Fabregas’ compatriot Thiago Alcantara also seemed to be on his way from Spain before Bayern Munich’s late interest, and Moyes’ dithering, scuppered a move. The opportunity to sign Munich’s Toni Kroos was turned down a year later, which makes even less sense now than it did then as the German flourishes in Madrid.
The list goes on. Woodward’s apparent interest in Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal approach farcical proportions, leading to accusations of amateurism in the transfer market. It was and is unacceptable given United’s stature and does not appear to happen to other European giants. The longer the club holds am interest in Cristiano Ronaldo the more it mirrors that of the ex who cannot accept their former partner has moved on.
Worse than amateur behaviour, United’s transfer policy seems to prioritise commercial interests ahead of playing needs. It led directly to United’s acquisition of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, neither of whom lasted 12 months in Manchester before bolting for greener pastures. The Argentine’s departure may prove to be a mistake, but Di Maria’s signature, despite his lack of fit within Van Gaal’s system, must also be questioned.
Then there is United’s chase for a central defender over the last two summers. It is, frankly, ridiculous that someone of a suitable calibre has not yet arrived at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos used United’s interest to secure a new contract and the captaincy at Real Madrid, whilst Nicolas Otamendi now plies his trade on the other side of Manchester – and was signed at a relatively reasonable price.
Woodward might be a lifelong United fan, whose father attended the 1968 European Cup Final, but the executive apparently does not have the nous to lead United’s transfer policy. That is not to understate his genius in globalising United’s commercial operation, but what happens on the field is more important to the club’s future.
Woodward’s failings through five transfer windows and two managerial appointments is threatening to drive United into a sustained period of failure. Meanwhile, rivals at home and abroad have progressed far beyond United on the pitch, perhaps to the point that it will be hard to attract players from elite clubs, even if they are being forced out the door, as Di Maria was at Real.
The harsh reality is that even United’s English rivals are outpacing the Reds on and off the field. Pep Guardiola seems closer to the blue side of Manchester than the red, whilst United slips further down the league table with each defeat. United risks ‘doing a Liverpool’ and being left far behind. Perhaps for years to come.
And much of this regression can be traced back to decisions Woodward has personally made. It’s surely now time to start holding United’s vice chair to account if the club wants to move forward. The best scenario might that United’s future is one without its executive chairman.
There is a scene in the American 1990s sitcom Seinfeld in which two Italian hairdressers discuss the movie Edward Scissorhands – the one where actor Johnny Depp plays a man who has scissors for hands. “I’d like to have scissors for hands,” one of them says. “Have you ever thought about what you are going do when you go to the toilet?” the other angrily responds. You wouldn’t want to have scissors for hands when you go to the bathroom. And neither would you want to have Edward Woodward in charge of solving United’s crises. No wins in seven matches, out of the Champions League, effectively out of the title race, and facing a scrappy fight with a resurgent Tottenham Hotpsur for a place among the European élite next season.
How did it all come to this? The situation was optimistic around a month ago when United led the table for the first time after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Further back, supporters rooted for the Netherlands in the World Cup last summer because of the club’s new manager in waiting. It all seems like a lifetime ago, and there is probably no going back for manager Louis van Gaal now. Judging by the recent games it is hard to see players working for their manager.
Van Gaal almost took a limited Netherlands to the World Cup Final and his side comfortably won the bronze match against home side Brazil – all with a cautious approach. It’s hard to blame the Dutchman for taking the same approach at United – he’s trying to win the league with a limited United squad. Van Gaal’s plan was to win the league with United, retire with his wife and let Ryan Giggs take over. And Van Gaal could have have succeeded. Supporters should not have expected thrilling football under the Dutchman.
Yet, for playing this brand of cautious football, the side has certainly made a few mistakes in the defensive area lately. It leaves open questions about United’s transfer policy. Such as the decision by vice chair Woodward to not give Patrice Evra the two-year contract the Frenchman wanted. After all, Evra recently stated that he still is a United fan, and that he always will be. Even in the seasons that weren’t his best for United Evra was very much a leader in the dressing room and the side does have a serious problem with a lack of passion and leadership on the pitch these days.
Add the very unfortunate injury to Luke Shaw and United’s problems in that area grew larger. Having Evra now would at least solve the left-back conundrum. He is not – a recent Champions League final participant – a worse player than Daley Blind, Ashley Young or anyone else United has used at left back this season.
The same is true of finding a proper replacement for Nemanja Vidic. The Serbian hated life under former manager David Moyes so much that he wanted out, and his departure to Italian football was announced in February – 2014! Not that it was a secret for United’s backroom staff. There was plenty of time, then, for Woodward to work towards bringing top-class central defenders to the club – if the vice chair had had any strategy in the transfer market like he has with marketing. Defenders such as Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin, Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes, or Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels could have been deployed next to the improved Chris Smalling in United’s team.
After all, another injury crises could have been forecast, with Phil Jones still being, well, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo spending much of last season injured. Woodward thought he had secured a new defender this summer in Sergio Ramos – and he duly told Van Gaal that the Spaniard would arrive, only to be left with egg on his face when Ramos predictably signed a new and very lucrative contract with his club. Not exactly the first time someone has used United’s genuine interest to get a hefty pay rise under Woodward. And it won’t be the last either. There is little benefit in briefing journalists to “watch this space” or leaking transfer targets to sections of the fourth estate.
Both Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were Edward Woodward’s signings and they were both very successful. Not on the pitch, no, but that is secondary in Woodward’s thinking. What counts is an excel spreadsheet of shirt sales, and both the South-Americans sold plenty to justify their price and salary.
Roy Keane claims Woodward told David Moyes that he could get “either Bale or Ronaldo” in the summer of 2013. Maybe that’s why the Scotsman looks so bemused at Marouane Fellaini’s unveiling. Recently sacked Chelsea manager José Mourinho says that managers who bring their former players with them to new clubs need to work on their network of scouts. It’s a fair point. If Everton was the shop of choice, then Woodward could have bought the talented Ross Barkley, but instead he overpaid for Fellaini and supporters have suffered ever since.
Not that Van Gaal has helped himself with some of his own bizarre dealings lately. What, for example, has Morgan Schneiderlin done to be dropped to the bench? United look a different side with him in it. Van Gaal’s decisions on Javier Hernandez, James Wilson, and Adnan Januzaj – is the latter not better than Jesse Lingard? – have been strange with United struggling for goals. Januzaj was widely considered to be one of the world’s brightest young stars in 2013 and Mourinho singled him out for praise after Moyes’ first game against Chelsea at Old Trafford in August 2013. “He is only eighteen but he plays like he is twenty-five! It is very impressive,” said the unemployed Portuguese manager after the young winger toyed with Branislav Ivanovic.
While Mourinho is privately drooling for the United job, sacking Van Gaal is more complicated than many fans believe. There is, after all, a massive severance package involved, and we know that the owners revere bottom line above all. That’s why they waited until Champions League qualifying was impossible before Moyes got the boot. If United had finished fourth he would have kept his job. There is also a clause or two about confidentiality. After all, the last thing Woodward wants is Van Gaal telling the world exactly what he knows about United’s chief.
Not that hiring Mourinho would solve much. He cannot be expected to magically transform the team into an attacking machine. Mourinho learned his approach from the Dutchman. And the Portuguese likes to spend money too, lots of it. Van Gaal’s net spend at United is, contrary to the way it is normally presented, quite low at ‘only’ £100 million. For an institution such as United that’s a drop in the ocean – and less than Manchester City has spent in the same period. Without a proper strategy in the transfer market it is almost pointless to talk about money spent.
Another match, another game without a win, another non-performance. Mediocrity is now the new normal at Manchester United. In truth, defeat to Norwich City at the weekend should not have come as a surprise. Nothing in recent displays suggested that Louis van Gaal’s team is on the cusp of ending an uninspiring run. And true to form, bereft of guile and confidence, the team went down to an opponent whose solid, if predictable, game plan worked.
The visitors made limited possession count at Old Trafford; United once again looked blunt up front despite hogging 70 per cent of the ball. It is no surprise that the home side enjoyed only two shots on target, and its perhaps fitting that the under-performing Red Devils should be led out by a sub-par captain who marked his 500th game for the club with a loss.
Yet, with another defeat comes a new set of questions. Some with no obvious answers.
Keeping the faith
“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you the dawn is coming” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight.
Van Gaal’s United tenure is now in its darkest hour. No wins in six, three defeats in succession, back-to-back defeats in the league to promoted clubs, and a first loss at Old Trafford to a promoted team since 2001. Yet, the greatest concern is not just poor results, but also the manner in which defeats are coming. United’s lack of cutting edge is astonishing and Van Gaal’s football ‘philosophy’ has clipped the team’s wings. So much so that the club’s style of play now resembles one famously epic encounter between Portugal and Mexico in … The Simpsons.
Van Gaal knows more than anyone that this iteration of United will struggle to challenge for a Champions League spot, let alone make a charge at the title. The Dutchman admitted on Saturday to being “worried” about his future as manager and so he should be.
Optimists can point to the nadir of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, which culminated in the infamous banner declaring that it had been “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie.” The Scot turned it around, of course, leaving some evidence that a coach of Van Gaal’s stature is not yet finished at Old Trafford.
Then there’s the January transfer window and the opportunity it brings to strengthen a squad in need of high quality attacking and defensive reinforcements. That said, given supporters’ frustrations and rumours of discord among the players, it will take an investment of faith from the board to back Van Gaal in January. And to push the analysis to its cynical extreme, perhaps the only positive in keeping the Dutchman – for Ed Woodward and the Glazers at least – is that the focus of supporters’ ire remains on the 64-year-old and not the board.
Van Gaal may hope that the dawn is coming, but as Harvey Dent once noted “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Van Gaal has become more a villain with every passing game.
“Jorge, get me Jose!”
“Mourinho,” wrote journalist Diego Torres in Prepare to Lose: The Mourinho Era, “thought that Ferguson was, besides his ally, also his friend and godfather. He was convinced that they were tied by a relationship of genuine trust.
“He thought that his fabulous collection of titles constituted an ‘endorsement’ unreachable to any other contenders. When he knew that Ferguson had chosen Moyes, the Everton coach, he was struck by a terrible disbelief. Moyes hadn’t won absolutely anything!”
It is the story of a man who feels that it is his destiny to manage United. It is also the story of United’s board who, despite all reassurances to the contrary, completely botched the post-Ferguson transition.
Mourinho’s character and style of football is not to everyone’s liking, but to overlook the Portuguese in favour of a manager who had no experience winning trophies, let alone managing a super-club, smacks of negligence. To miss out on Mourinho once is sloppy; to let him slip by again would be incompetence. Mourinho may be tarnished after a turbulent third season in his second stint at Stamford Bridge, but he is still a winner.
Given United’s relationship with Jorge Mendes getting a hold of the two-time Champions League winner should not be difficult. It’s a question of how much United’s hierarchy wants Mourinho at the club. After all, with the success comes the baggage. Mourinho’s ‘scorched earth’ approach brings trophies, but at the expense of long-term development.
Moreover, the former Real Madrid manager’s innate desire for conflict does not sit well at United. The 52-year-old should be under no illusions that a higher standard of behaviour is required at Old Trafford. Could Mourinho could keep his cool if Pep Guardiola turns up at Manchester City? He would certainly relish the battle.
There are potential gains for the manager too. If he takes over from Van Gaal and contrives to win the title this season he will become the “genius” of Woodward’s folklore. Whether he could deliver the Premier League with panache is another question.
Yet, it is no secret that Mourinho want the United job. Maybe the stars have aligned. United has an opportunity to recruit the manager the club once rejected. This time Woodward may just take it.
Guardiola to pep up United
The number of ‘big name’ coaches on the move this summer is significant. Guardiola is expected to leave Bayern Munich, with Carlo Ancelotti succeeding the Spaniard from the start of next season. United has already missed on Ancelotti; the club cannot afford to do the same with Pep.
After all, Guardiola has already admitted to liking the Old Trafford “atmosphere” in Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. “I could see myself coaching here one day,” he is said to add. If true, United should test that sentiment by attempting to steal the Spaniard from under City’s nose.
Guardiola may not have experience managing in the Premier League, but that is unlikely to be a barrier to success. Mourinho, Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini won the Premier League in their first season in the country. It’s no stretch to think that Pep could do the same.
The Spaniard inherited a mess at Barcelona, although had Lionel Messi’s genius to call on. The real credit is in fashioning the Catalan club’s midfield into one of the most efficient, ruthless and creative forces in football’s history.
Guardiola can also deliver the style of football United fans crave. Pep’s Barcelona, at the club’s peak, was one of the most spellbinding teams of the last 50 years. And Bayern comes close. Both clubs demand European success – and Guardiola’s remit at United would be to reestablish domestic dominance and return the Old Trafford club to the European élite.
Would Guardiola commit to a ‘long-term’ project or move on after three or four years? With the club having lost out on Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp it is surely irrelevant.
Give it to Giggs
The alternative, of course, is to appoint the man Van Gaal believes is his successor. Ryan Giggs would be a romantic choice if a risky one, although there is no doubt that he wants the post. Giggs’ march to the technical area, with United struggling to break down Norwich had, to use another movie metaphor, the sense of Darth Vader turning against the Emperor.
Giggs’ appointment would not come without precedent either. Barcelona took a risk with Guardiola and Juventus did the same with Antonio Conte. Yet, for every Guardiola and Conte there’s also Ciro Ferrera and Filippo Inzaghi. Club legends do not always make the grade as head coach.
Still, Giggs is being groomed for the hot seat and his appointment would offer a boost to the collective morale. The Welshman requires no guide to the Premier League and – forgive the cliché – is United to the core, including understanding the requirement for fast attacking football. Giggs would also command the respect of players and fans – commodities that Van Gaal has seemingly lost.
Super-coaches may bring back winning football but, as pretentious as it sounds, can they bring back United’s style? Giggs at least knows what that is.
Appoint a sporting director
United might well hire one of Europe’s super-coaches; the chances that they stay on for 26 trophy laden years is non-existent. If the club is set on a course of appointing a head coach every few years then the emphasis will remain on Woodward to secure the right players and coaches. It is a goal for which the club’s executive vice chairman appears ill-equipped, with his focus on marquee signings made for marketing purposes.
Appointing a sporting director will not solve all ills, but it is a move that promises expertise lacking in the current set up. Indeed, the role of manager is probably now too big for one person, especially if Woodward continues to act as the de facto director of football.
That the club is now looking to appoint full-time scouts and revamp the youth set-up is a sign that the hierarchy recognises some faults. Should the club also appoint a sporting director he will fill a gap on the administrative and recruitment side of the club.
Plan of attack
Whatever United’s move, Van Gaal knows that he is on borrowed time. The Dutchman recently told United fans not to live in the past. If he knows his history Van Gaal will understand that the roots of mediocrity were sown when the Glazers acquired the club in 2005. The family enjoyed the good fortune of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management – and maximized growth with minimal expenditure. Now they’re feeling the pinch after years of under-investment forced a splurge over the last two seasons in an attempt to rebuild the team.
Yet, the Glazers can no longer rely on genius. If only to protect the bottom line the next move is critical if the club is to remain challengers.
Will the force awaken or will the empire fall flat? At this stage the latter appears to be more likely.