Manchester United fans know fourth place may save Van Gaal
Struggling Old Trafford club still have chance of edging Manchester City to fourth spot
Manchester United’s Dutch manager Louis van Gaal signs autographs before last weekend’s game against Aston Villa. Photograph: Getty Images
These are exciting times at Manchester United. Oh come on, they must be. Manchester City dropped a couple of points at Newcastle United, Arsene Wenger has admitted Arsenal face a fight to stay to stay in the top four, and here are United with one of their famous late runs, zooming up the table ready to snatch Champions League football in the nick of time and make everything all right again.
Just imagine what a cheer Louis van Gaal will get if he manoeuvres his side into an unlikely fourth place and secures himself another season at Old Trafford.
There will be no need for Jose Mourinho because the three-year plan will be back on. Ed Woodward will be able to take a break from manager-hunting and put his feet up for another six months. Van Gaal will be allowed to supervise the pre-season tour of China in the knowledge that he will still be working with the same players when the real season commences. United finishing fourth is a win-win situation, right?
That’s probably enough sarcasm for now, but surely Van Gaal is indulging in something similar when indicating entertainment will have to be put on hold because results are the most important thing. What entertainment, fans would be entitled to ask. The only breakouts from plodding functionality United have managed this season are a handful of decent performances against Liverpool and Everton, the FA Cup replay against West Ham United last week and the games in which Old Trafford regulars realised they had a player on their hands in Marcus Rashford.
Many a United manager would have been embarrassed to say what Van Gaal said after the soporific performance against Aston Villa on Saturday. “We know we ought to be offering more entertainment for the fans,” Van Gaal admitted. “But in this game only the result was important.” That was Manchester United at home, to recap, playing against a Villa side in turmoil, eight defeats in a row turning into nine, never a hope of avoiding relegation, and the manager was just glad to have three points in the bag, though he did claim when pressed that Rashford’s goal had been a thing of beauty.
Here lies the dilemma for Manchester United supporters. Not whether this sort of thing will continue to the end of the season, because if United are now openly admitting the results are more important than the performances it suggests an underwhelming campaign is not going to be decorated with any sort of final flourish.
Van Gaal understands that his job might be on the line if Champions League football cannot be secured and, as he must, he is trying to ensure that United get as close to the target as possible so as to be able to profit from any further slips by the teams above them. But given the commonly held view that fourth place equals success and another season for the manager, whereas finishing lower down the league would be an opportunity for the board to say thanks but no thanks and find someone else capable of taking the club forward, where would supporters themselves like to see United finish at the end of the season?
Right at this moment, Van Gaal, his methods and his philosophy do not appear to be popular with supporters, and maybe a few players feel the same way, too. Conduct a straw poll now and the mood would most likely be for change. But is that simply because United fans believe Mourinho or Mauricio Pochettino would be recruited instead?
Unlike most clubs, United have a sense of entitlement that may actually be justifiable. Most managers seem to feel they are too big a club to turn down, so why persevere with someone who is struggling when better candidates will always be available?
But suppose Van Gaal does guide United into fourth place. Though hardly on a par with what has gone before, that would still count as an achievement of sorts in this topsy-turvy season. The type of forceful, relentless football Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur have been producing may still be a long way off, but should United retain Champions League status a few more judicious summer signings could be all that is needed to put the club back on track.
Perhaps that depends on whether you think any of Van Gaal’s signings so far have been judicious. Anthony Martial looks the real deal, as he should for the money involved. Morgan Schneiderlin, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo have been fairly good, without pulling up any trees, while Memphis Depay has disappointed and Bastian Schweinsteiger has been the sort of mistake that reflects poorly on a manager’s judgment.
Overall, United have spent a lot of money under Van Gaal to no immediately discernible effect, and it says a great deal when most of the expensive incomers have ended up being upstaged by the club’s youth products. Which is as it should be, Van Gaal would argue, knowing he will always be on a winner with the youth line at United. If the club want a manager prepared to give young players a chance then it cannot be denied they have one already in place, even if Adnan Janujaz’s development seems to have come to a halt.
Over the last few weeks Van Gaal has been asked the same question over and over again. Would he prefer to win the FA Cup or finish in fourth place? He always says the diplomatic thing, that Champions League football would be more important to the club. Which it would, for while Van Gaal would love to pick up a trophy in this country, so he can retire and be able to say he won silverware wherever he went, he knows perfectly well that FA Cups do not keep managers in jobs any more. Those days have gone. The new question for United is whether finishing fourth, which would necessarily involve climbing past Arsenal or Manchester City, should keep a manager in a job. And if the answer is yes, is everyone behind Van Gaal and his quest to keep on winning, or not?