Ken Early: Woodward could go the way of Moyes at Manchester United
Van Gaal won’t accept failure to add quality players to squad
Manchester United assistant manager Ryan Giggs speaks to Louis van Gaal during Saturday’s defeat to Swansea. Photograp: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
‘I see something amazing every day, whether it’s an email or a story about how we are, beyond doubt, the biggest sports team in the world. What we do has a ripple effect around the world.”
So Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward told the United We Stand fanzine in an interview published last February. The 43-year-old Woodward is part of the first generation of football chief executives that knows how to use the internet.
If Woodward’s sensitive media antennae quiver with pleasure whenever he gets an email telling him United are the biggest sports team in the world, one imagines with sympathy their agonised twitchings on Saturday, as United became the focus of a worldwide paroxysm of hilarity.
Woodward saw the pressure of failing at Old Trafford transform David Moyes from ambitious up-and-comer to planetary whipping boy. The bad news is that if things don’t improve, the next name in line to become a global byword for failure is “Woodward”.
Last month, Woodward boasted that United would have no problem breaking the British transfer record.
At the time it probably felt good to be telling people what they wanted to hear, but you wonder how many times Woodward has since regretted those words. He has signed a record kit deal with Adidas and a record shirt sponsorship deal with General Motors, but he has not yet signed a single one of Louis van Gaal’s transfer targets. United have signed two senior players this summer: fewer than any other club in the Premier League.
It was impossible to watch United losing to Swansea on Saturday without wondering how a club that never stops talking about its financial strength could have allowed itself to start the season with such a weak squad.
If everyone had been fit, Van Gaal could have cobbled together a more convincing team - but if everyone were always fit, there wouldn’t be any need for 25-man squads. In the event United were missing nine players, forcing Van Gaal to include two debutants and play Ashley Young out of position.
DebutantsOne of the debutants, Tyler Blackett, set Swansea on the way to their winning goal, eagerly passing the ball back to Wilfried Bony so he could take the quick free kick that put United on the back foot. Then Young, who understandably lacks any defensive instincts, was caught under a cross as Swansea worked the ball to the goalscorer, Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The result was embarrassing for Van Gaal, who came to United on the crest of a wave of hype unprecedented in English football history. No manager arriving in England has ever received such universal acclaim before his first competitive match.
The English game has come a long way since the ignorance of “Arsene Who?” but even the young Jose Mourinho was not feted as Van Gaal has been.
Indeed, Mourinho’s remark that “I think I am a special one” was directed at sceptical journalists who, the Portuguese felt, had failed to grasp the magnitude of his genius.
The respect Van Gaal commands has certain benefits. At half-time on Saturday, he abandoned the 5-3-2 system he used throughout pre-season and switched to a flat back four. Had Moyes made such a decision, it would have been interpreted as evidence of weakness and vacillation. When a coach of Van Gaal’s standing does it, everyone sees a fearless football man who knows how to think on his feet.
The downside of everyone hailing you as a genius is that they then expect miracles. Paul Scholes has said he believes Van Gaal can improve Manchester United by 20-25 per cent.
Scholes probably didn’t mean those figures to be interpreted literally, but you get a sense of the scale of Van Gaal’s task by applying them to last season’s performance.
Alpha dogA 25 per cent improvement would have seen United finish on 80 points, which would have enabled them to scrape into the Champions League in fourth place, one point ahead of Arsenal. A 20 per cent improvement would only have been good enough for the Europa League. Both outcomes would represent disappointment for a club that has grown accustomed to being the alpha dog.
Van Gaal has never been a chequebook manager; he prides himself on his record of bringing through youth and his past proteges include names like Seedorf, Xavi and Müller.
But he is also expected to win, and even a genius can’t win with kids in a league where the strongest sides have two teams’ worth of senior internationals. In the next two weeks, he will expect Woodward to spend money on proven quality.
Now the pressure is on Woodward like never before. This time last year, David Moyes was pleading with him to do whatever it took to get players like Cesc Fabregas to United. When Woodward failed, Moyes, the good company man, swallowed his frustration and kept quiet.
That is not Van Gaal’s style. He considers it a professional obligation to point out the shortcomings of those around him – how else can they be expected to learn? If he feels Woodward has not given him the tools he needs, he will tell the world all about it. At that point, Woodward may have to quit the internet altogether.