Progress was the demand of Louis van Gaal when he became the 22nd manager of Manchester United in July 2014. As his second season started he was in credit. The club was back in the Champions League, the major surgery required on the squad had brought in 13 major new players, and United were again established as serious title contenders.
Following the dark days of the David Moyes campaign in 2013-14 that ended after 34 Premier League games and United heading for a seventh-place finish, some of the swagger had been restored. Except the plodding style that was acceptable during a first season of renaissance has become a glaring issue as results plunge.
The side are sliding away from the leaders, Leicester City, the deficit growing to nine points following Saturday’s defeat by Norwich City, a third consecutive reverse and a sixth outing without a win. The previous victory was four weeks ago, when Watford were defeated. The 3-2 loss at Wolfsburg a fortnight ago knocked United out of the Champions League and crashing into the Europa League.
Now, the conversation has become about Van Gaal’s job security and whether he will survive another defeat, at Stoke City on Boxing Day.
Here is why Van Gaal has changed from hero to close-to-zero …
Van Gaal is proving to be an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. He was the brilliant manager who arrived with the sparkling CV that included league titles at Bayern Munich, AZ Alkmaar, Barcelona and Ajax, all of his previous clubs. He was the man whose 1995 Champions League win with Ajax was a triumph of youthful zest via Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids. His invigorating cocktail of abrasive character and super-smart coaching had him billed as the right man at the right time for a club in quasi-crisis following the retirement of Alex Ferguson and the Moyes farrago.
But now? Selection can be muddled and lacks consistency. The public utterances are off-message with his own club – the recent claim that United fans should stop living in the past was odd. Van Gaal seems to doubt many of his new acquisitions. The 13 players acquired by him are Daley Blind, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero, Ángel Di María, Radamel Falcao (on loan), Marcos Rojo, Víctor Valdés, Ander Herrera, Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw. Only the latter two seem currently to have Van Gaal's approval.
Style of play
The default mode for Van Gaal’s United is to hog the ball. The manager orders his players to occupy particular zones on the pitch and they must remain in these. In possession, the theory of this mode of play is to be patient and artful. But too often it becomes ponderous and anodyne. Game-breaking players of pace and high invention are viewed by Van Gaal as precious commodities who conversely are not always trusted. Di María, a €82m British record buy identified specifically by the Dutchman, can tell one tale of being treated with suspicion. Di María lasted a season before being bombed out by Van Gaal. Herrera, a €42m purchase green-lighted by the manager, has a similar story to offer. When fit, the Spaniard must wonder what is required for his fast-thinking game to be given a consistent chance.
The Van Gaal style also has a chilling effect on those in the XI. Martial scored four times in his opening four appearances after the €50m (minus add-ons) move from Monaco. This has been followed by two in 19 – Saturday’s consolation against Norwich a first league goal since September 20th.
The maladies can be counted as a mitigating circumstance, though the counter to this is that Van Gaal might have strengthened more shrewdly in key areas.
Before the Champions League meeting with Wolfsburg, Van Gaal was unable to call on Wayne Rooney, Herrera, Shaw, Antonio Valencia, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Phil Jones and Paddy McNair.
Eight frontline players is a major number to be missing and would affect any team. Still, the suspicion remains that Van Gaal has failed to build a group of true depth. A trust in youth that meant the 22-year-old Guillermo Varela played at right-back at Wolfsburg would be more admirable if this was not a first start for the club. A high-stakes contest with Champions League survival on the line does not see the best moment for any player’s full debut.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, 18, also came on, just before half-time. He had 14 minutes of first-team experience to draw on. If he and Varela really are part of the future where was the bedding-in time to prepare them for such a test? To compound this, Nick Powell was deemed a better bet than Juan Mata. A player with no first-team playing time this season replaced the Spaniard’s Champions League-winning nous on 69 minutes with United 2-1 behind and going out of the competition. They went on to lose, 3-2.
In the €345m-plus investment driven by Van Gaal, Schweinsteiger appears a military medium midfielder too far, given Michael Carrick’s presence. Jones is continuing his injury nightmare this term and Rojo also seems to be prone to problems, so a robust central defender should have been recruited.
The gaping hole, of course, is in attack. Out went Falcao, which was the right call; Robin van Persie – questionable, as he was surely a good squad option; Javier Hernández – ill-judged given his subsequent success at Bayer Leverkusen; and James Wilson (on loan) – again odd as he would have provided depth. To counterbalance these exits Van Gaal bought just Martial. Last Friday Van Gaal again bemoaned not scoring enough and against Norwich there were only two shots on target. There appears only one person responsible for the dilemma.
The United enthusiast wishes to see red shirts swarming over the opposition and at least one pot of silver at the end of the campaign. The club's storied tradition which includes the Busby Babes, George Best, Eric Cantona, the Class of 92, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney demands this. Despite the fall under Moyes the impatient and (maybe unrealistic) fan now expects United to be in their next pomp, tearing up the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. They look at Van Gaal's quarter-of-a-billion-pound splurge and expect success and glorious football this season. Whether this expectation is too high is immaterial: it is a fact of life for any United manager.
The scintillating stuff appears anathema to Van Gaal. He does, though, have one ace up his sleeve, one play remaining. To simply claim a trophy. This season. Preferably the Premier League, though the FA Cup and Europa League would just about do. These would not stop the grumbles from the sidelines but subdue them for a while.
There is, really, only one who counts: Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman. As the influence of Ferguson and David Gill recedes despite both being board members, United have become Woodward's club and thus ultimate responsibility lies with the 44-year-old.
Woodward’s ask is as challenging as that required of his manager. This is to be the commercial whizzkid who continues to sweat the United product lucratively, and the transfer market wolf who can land a Neymar, Ronaldo, Thomas Müller or Gareth Bale. All of these targets remain works-in-progress, and Woodward’s track record shows he has become slicker than the first summer when only Marouane Fellaini was bought.
There is a third key demand of Woodward: to be a supreme head-hunter who lands a managerial big beast who can again make United a trophy-gobbling behemoth. Moyes is one failed Woodward recruitment and time ticks on Van Gaal.
If no silverware is claimed by the Dutchman then United’s most powerful executive may have to act again to appoint the man who can achieve the club’s holy grail: to coat the Ferguson age in sepia by winning a first honour since he retired three years ago.
Until then Manchester United will not have truly moved on.