Manchester United’s slide under Louis van Gaal continues apace
Midtjylland defeat the latest in catalogue of dire performances
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal with assistant manager Ryan Giggs during the FC Midtjylland Europa League first-leg match in Herning, Denmark. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic
Louis van Gaal cited “Murphy’s Law” as the prime reason for Manchester United’s 2-1 humiliation by Midtjylland in Herning. Supporters are entitled to ask: “Is there a Van Gaal Law” which states that whatever tosh they pay £71 to see he remains in a job?
All right-minded football folk hail the idea of allowing a manager time. There should be another clause in that deal, though; that if results and displays dip more leeway is allowed only if overall improvement can be seen. Instead, Van Gaal seems to have the opposite agreement: the poorer the side become and the more deep-rooted the issues the more entrenched his position.
The humbling given to United by Midtjylland in Thursday night’s Europa League last-32 opening leg was the latest reverse on the Van Gaal performance graph. His side are careering backwards at a rate of knots. Last season the Dutchman brought much-required stability and threw in the odd sprinkling of stardust that seemed to light the path back to the Manchester United way. The 3-0 dismantling of Tottenham Hotspur last March was followed by the exhilaration of leaving Anfield with a 2-1 victory over Liverpool. Since, there has been virtually no hope, no cause to believe that Van Gaal will get it right in the long term.
Midtjylland may be Danish champions but owing to the winter break they had last played a competitive game on December 10th. In the build-up to facing United the quality of the Superliga was likened to the middle of the Championship by Cliff Crown, one of their directors. United’s reverse was preceded by their 2-1 loss at 19th-placed Sunderland.
Yet Van Gaal remains and may still be in place for Monday’s trip to Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup despite the gathering noise that now, finally, is the time for him to go.
The 64-year-old might also have been sacked after the 2-0 defeat at Stoke City on St Stephen’s Day and again when Southampton beat United at Old Trafford on January 23rd. As it is now February 19th these inquests are arriving at around one a month, so if Van Gaal survives expect the next to be towards the end of March.
The pattern is a step forward followed by three lurches back. Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, has ordered that club policy on Van Gaal’s future is to stay silent. But this does not stop the questions that need answering.
Since Jose Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea in December there has been a ready-made, hungry candidate waiting for the green light to take United back to where they should be. Why, then, has Mourinho not been appointed? Woodward has his own reservations regarding the Portuguese but as Alex Ferguson is thought to favour Ryan Giggs and be particularly wary of Mourinho, is there also a power struggle going on at board level?
Interviewed in December 2012 Bobby Charlton revealed what Ferguson actually thinks of Mourinho. “He doesn’t like him too much, though”, was the stark verdict from Charlton, who remains a director and who sat in the below-freezing temperatures on Thursday to witness Van Gaal’s nadir.
Sitting in front of Charlton and alongside Woodward was David Gill, Woodward’s predecessor as the club’s most powerful executive. He, too, is still a director and a long-standing colleague of Ferguson. In 2012 Charlton also said: “Mourinho is a really good coach but that’s as far as I would go really. He pontificates too much for my liking.”
If this is a reflection of how the Ferguson-Charlton-Gill axis views Mourinho, it may help explain why he is not yet in place. Although Woodward holds virtually all the power – his closest confidant is managing director, Richard Arnold – is the reluctance to turn to Mourinho due in part to the old guard’s reservations?
Further posers need addressing. Brian McClair left his post as the academy head last February so why did it take a year to appoint a successor, in Nicky Butt? The former United midfielder was already at the club, having rejoined in 2012 to work in the youth structure, so his abilities should have been known. The club may have wanted to undertake a “root-and-branch” review of the academy but 12 months seems a long time for this.
Another question concerns the £200 million (€257 million) investment made across town by Manchester City in the glittering City Football Academy that has a 7,000-seat stadium and is among the world’s finest bespoke facilities. Do the owners, the Glazers, really have the will to match this kind of spend? Because if they do not, United will be left behind in the elite clubs’ new arms race of developing in-house star talent.
United have an outstanding record of having a home-reared player in every first-team squad since 1937. This deserves applauding but is it the window dressing that masks a complacency here, and which matches that surrounding Van Gaal’s future?
Ferguson retired in May 2013 and there is no surprise the club went into a state of flux then. But three years later this remains, and United are threatened by a stasis that could cripple them. Van Gaal still being in place is the emblem of this. His side were knocked out of the Champions League group stage and did not make it into November in the Capital One Cup. They could still overturn the deficit to Midtjylland in Thursday’s second leg at Old Trafford but who would back them to do so? They are fifth in the Premier League, six points from a Champions League berth, and although they could also claw this back who, again, would back them to do so?
This “maybe-hopefully” culture is spreading from club to fans where it has mutated into an apathy found among a sizeable constituency who are resigned to United flatlining as long as Van Gaal is in charge. The supposed Iron Tulip is on course to manage the supposedly unmanageable: to rescue the David Moyes campaign, which reached the Champions League quarter-finals, from the ignominy of being the low point in the club’s recent history. This will become Van Gaal’s dubious honour unless he somehow works a quasi-miracle.
It all points to a deeper, more damaging drift. It is all happening before the eyes of Woodward and the Glazers, but will anything be done? The hope will be that this is the darkest point before the dawn. Sacking Van Gaal or him deciding enough is enough would, at last, be a strong and defining moment and would allow Woodward to take back control. More importantly, it appears the surest way to start rosier times again.
If not, who knows what may happen at the country’s record 20-times champions.