Van Gaal is not the story: how he goes about sorting out Manchester United is the story

Opening day defeat by Swansea City shows manager only as good as the team he puts out

We were informed how he walked and where he walked. How he stood and where he stood. We had his facial expressions and the language of his body interpreted for us.

Nothing Louis van Gaal did in the half hour preceding kick-off at Old Trafford last Saturday was left unremarked upon. Everything held the possibility of significance. This was the dawn of a new time, the cult of the manager in full flow. Then Swansea City beat Manchester United 2-1.

Van Gaal, it turned out, was just like every other manager most Saturdays of the year: he was as good as the players he put on the field.

And so the "story" was not the new manager, it was the old team, the one beaten 2-1 by Swansea at Old Trafford eight months earlier in the FA Cup. The story was not change, it was stasis.


In the desire to see Van Gaal as the man who would instantly re-energise Manchester United – and most of us have colluded in the cult of the manager at some stage – it was overlooked just how little had changed within the team.

There was only one newly-bought player making his United debut, Ander Herrera.

Last Saturday was meant to be about Van Gaal and how this master-manager would inject his personality and tactics straight into the veins of United, but that ignored not just that Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young remain in the starting XI, it glossed over the club United have become.


This is a club whose website shows its daily share price on the New York Stock Exchange, but one which neglected to replace either Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand in time for the new season.

This is a club that boasts of its commercial success, but which has a squad that finished 15 points behind fourth-place Arsenal in May.

The green-and-gold shade of fan will be quick to remind you that this is a regime, the Glazer family, wearing a United mask.

The failure to replace either Vidic or Ferdinand – until Marcos Rojo arrived on Wednesday – meant 20-year-old Tyler Blackett was given a debut against Swansea.

Jesse Lingard (21) was another given a first start.

Van Gaal's history says he will have been comfortable with this. After all, part of the reason for the tsunami of appreciation since Van Gaal decided to succeed David Moyes stemmed from the work the Dutch man did at Ajax is his first manager's job.

Youth is not a problem to him, he was a teacher for 11 years. When Van Gaal's Ajax beat a hugely powerful AC Milan side 1-0 in the 1995 Champions League final, their scorer was Patrick Kluivert, then 18.

In midfield Van Gaal started Clarence Seedorf, one month past his 19th birthday. Milan, meanwhile, had Franco Baresi and Roberto Donadoni.

One of multiple conclusions Van Gaal may have reached after a mere 90 minutes of this season was United do not possess youth players of the calibre of Kluivert or Seedorf.

He may have wondered at the sheer ordinariness of some of his new staff and just how most of them won the Premier League as recently as April 2013 – with four games to spare. It could also have crossed his mind Alex Ferguson was really some manager.

What Ferguson dragged from his players in his final season did Moyes few favours, Van Gaal neither.


That season acts as an exhibit in the cult of the manager, because Ferguson extracted so much, and there is an expectation Van Gaal will be able to pull performances out of the team the way Ferguson did and Moyes did not.

This is why Van Gaal’s every gesture comes loaded with external analysis. Gravitas is seen in all he does and yet the brutal reality is six months ago United were sometimes not as good as ordinary and that even an educator such as the 63 year-old Dutchman might be unable to inspire development in this squad.

A football club’s reality is seen on the pitch. Even in this era of overblown attention on managers, clubs should be concerned when the biggest story is in the dugout.

Ferguson had rivals for attention along the way – Cantona, Keane, Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs – but just now Van Gaal is United’s biggest name. That needs to change if United are to change.

Van Gaal, more flexible than is commonly portrayed, will be well aware that United’s teamsheets over the season will tell the true tale of the club.

At Sunderland tomorrow there will be alterations – United hope to have Robin van Persie involved – and an upping of quality.

Van Gaal knows this is where the focus should be, not on how he strokes his chin. It is about work. The cult can wait.