So United have called time on Louis van Gaal’s period as manager; at least he can go out with his head held high having won the FA Cup.
Reaction has been mixed. Many are happy to see the back of him have long lost faith in his methods and patience as United’s progress had stalled in his second season. This has spilled over into a situation where at Wembley some United fans, a minority for sure, booed a manager who had just steered the club to trophy success. This is ridiculous, spoilt and shameful.
News that Van Gaal was likely to be replaced by Jose Mourinho then leaked out via social media as we all made our way back to the tube station at the end of Wembley Way. This was almost certainly not leaked by the club but it is massively disappointing that it should come out in this way at this time; can’t the man even be allowed a few days to savour his success? Having seen his post-match press conference one was left with great sympathy for Van Gaal. He has been treated appallingly by the press, (who we should all remember are really only all about selling newspapers), and by the attitude of many fans. Van Gaal is an honest man, too honest at times, who did his best. Even if the judgement is that his best wasn’t quite good enough, it was not for want of trying.
It should be remembered by his detractors that Van Gaal did a number of things very well. He understood from the first minute the size of the club, even if he perhaps underestimated the size of the task ahead. Nevertheless, he steadied the ship and has laid some solid foundations from which to build. Let us not forget that by the end of the 2013-14 season the club was in freefall. He was able to do that stabilizing because he is a big nonsense character, who has the strength to impose his will on a situation, which is exactly what United needed post-Moyes. That’s both an asset and a weakness because it means that he perhaps lacks the tact and diplomacy to deal with those with which he doesn’t work with on a day to day basis: press and pundits of course, but also some fans. This is what has undermined him as his stock has fallen; he seems to have few friends in English football outside the club.
By some accounts inside the club he is believed to be popular; many consider him to be charming. Others are reporting his unpopularity with players and rumours of a dressing room mutiny are currently rife. In these situations people often believe the narrative that best suits their opinion.
Van Gaal will be judged by the character of his team, however, and that despite the fact that he himself is known to be deeply frustrated by the slow tempo and caution shown by his squad of players, (something he has regularly stated in press conferences). Fans will rightly point out that he bought many of the players and that is true. He is responsible for any shortcomings in the quality of the squad, but only to a point. Players have to take responsibility too. All managers make good and bad buys and the CEO and club owners have some say in how money is spent. We could also add that you never really know what you’ve got until they start to play for you. About youngsters, Sir Matt used to say, “You never really know what you’ve got until you put them in”. Perhaps this is Van Gaal’s most important legacy to the club: his promotion of youth. By our estimation United currently have only one World Class player, but we have five youngsters with the clear potential to become World Class. We won’t name them (that would put them under too much pressure) but all have been signed or have emerged through the youth ranks under his tutelage.
Having criticised the press for their treatment of Van Gaal we would turn to one of journalism’s more measured exponents David Walsh of The Sunday Times. After the FA Cup Final he wrote:
“For all his defiance, Van Gaal has been a dead man walking for months………..His team has not been good enough. United have standards Van Gaal couldn’t reach. The team is honest and together but without pace and verve that Ferguson made part of United’s DNA. Van Gaal’s team made too many backwards passes and placed too much emphasis on simply retaining possession. Too much structure, too little flair and too unlike Manchester United.
For two years theirs has been a loveless marriage, held together for the sake of the kids. Van Gaal nurtured them, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, They will be his legacy and United’s future depends on them”.
This is all true and we will return to look at the successes and failures of Van Gaal’s time at the club in a few weeks’ time, but one important thing that we would add is that on Saturday Van Gaal made United winners again.
Thank you for that Louis van Gaal.