Watching United’s home game with Norwich City on Saturday was a surreal experience. I’d like to say that I’ve never felt anything like it before, but I have. On the 20th April 2014 Everton beat David Moyes’ side 2-0, with the Grim Reaper literally visible over his shoulder throughout the match. I wouldn’t say that I wanted United to lose, but when it came to pass I felt a sense of relief. Of peace. No anger, just an unusual calm. This nightmare, I thought, could not continue and surely the end of the Scot’s disastrous tenure as manager was nigh. And indeed it was. It was a desperately needed defeat. We had to take one for the team for the greater good of the club. The Norwich game felt exactly the same.
At half time, with United trailing 1-0 to a team who had not won away from home since August, that sense of tranquility enveloped me once again. Another first half had passed without a home goal at Old Trafford. United have not scored in the first forty-five minutes of any of their home matches, in all competitions, since September. What’s more, another half had passed without United troubling an away team’s goalkeeper. By the end of the day one of a plethora of jaw-dropping and depressing stats would show that in their last four home games Van Gaal’s side have produced only seven shots on target. My feeling at approximately 3.50 was that it would be better for the club if they went on to lose the match. I couldn’t bring myself to will it, and indeed I celebrated Martial’s consolation goal with as much vigour as any other, but I felt no pain when Alex Tettey fired home the Canaries second. The last vestiges of the Dutchman’s dire reign were finally being pulled down. Perhaps he will limp on from here, to Stoke on Boxing Day, but it is surely now irrelevant. Even if it were not, I wouldn’t back United to beat any Premier League side right now, not home or away. It feels, with almost total certainty, like Van Gaal is done.
It will be a sad end. There was so much excitement upon his appointment. United fans were so pleased to have purged an amateur and replaced him with a true heavyweight of the game. Given the options at the time I still think that Van Gaal was the standout candidate, when viewing the situation through my 2014 goggles. Discipline needed to be restored at the club and the rebellious players needed a manager who they would respect and follow into the trenches. But, with hindsight, he was not the man for the job. His philosophy, or system, or ‘f*cking shambles’ as I like to call it, was unsuitable for the Premier League and, more importantly, unsuitable for Manchester United. After Van Gaal was sacked as Bayern Munich manager, the German club’s Chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said, “Football should be enjoyable, but there has been nothing enjoyable about football at FC Bayern for a while now.” It is a comment which is equally applicable to his time at United. It has been an 18 months in which the joy has been drained from the team’s game, when excitement did not become a rarity, it was almost entirely expunged from our footballing experience. Yes, there were deficiencies in his squad in his first season, but a club of United’s financial and footballing resources should not be succumbing to the football cliche of a new manager ‘tightening it up at the back’ before worrying about his team’s attacking capabilities. With all due respect, Van Gaal is not Sam Allardyce and this is not Sunderland. Continuing such anaemic, conservative football into his second season, after spending circa £250m on a raft of his own players has simply been inexcusable.
Looking back in it hard to believe how many key decisions Van Gaal has got wrong. The circa £80m wasted on Di Maria and Falcao was the first mistake, although it is hard to pin too much responsibility on his shoulders for two signings who, I suspect, were driven by the incompetent clown above him. However, regardless of whether the Argentine wanted to be at the club or not, it is clear that the manager failed to get the best from him. He has failed to get the best out of every offensive player at the club. The remainder of his signings have been solid but unexceptional. Some would argue that Ander Herrera has been one of the better acquisitions, the irony being that Van Gaal has never showed the slightest trust in him. Luke Shaw looks promising but has been desperately unlucky with injury, whilst Rojo and Blind have been steady, solid signings, but no more. They are the sort of squad players that every club needs, but neither should be starting on a regular basis for Manchester United.
If Van Gaal could be given the benefit of the doubt in his first summer, the same cannot be said for his second. Another raft of players came in, whilst many others departed. None have offered consistently high-class performances. Only Martial has elevated himself above the mundane. The suspicion is that all are good players, but their true abilities will not be known until the manager is gone. Constrained by a failing system and desperately low on confidence their talents remain unknown. Even though six players joined the club last summer, they did not include the desperately needed centre back or a forward. Failing to strengthen the centre of the defence was sheer negligence. A summer was spent chasing the impossible and there appeared to be no back-up plan.
However, these were not Van Gaal’s biggest follies. That must surely be his decision to put faith in a hopelessly declining Wayne Rooney as his only remaining senior striker. Out went an equally lame Van Persie, a sensible move, but he was followed by Javier Hernandez, the only finisher at the club. The Mexican was unhappy and unloved, but to let him go without replacement was madness. The result, whilst the Little Pea bangs in record numbers of goals at Bayer Leverkusen, has been an anaemic front line, dulled by the lumbering, hopeless Rooney and without a natural goalscorer. That burden falls on the shoulders of a twenty year old. It is beyond absurd. Also out of the door, eventually, went Adnan Januzaj and, later, James Wilson on loan and, at the back, Jonny Evans and Rafael departed. Reducing the numbers of a defence made up of average, injury-prone footballers was suicidal. The decision to have a small squad seemed to be a mistake at the time and so it has proven.
Even if we put the limitations of the squad aside, there is still much to criticise. A season of toil and very little enjoyment was endured and accepted as a means of regaining Champions League football. There was that brief, delightful run nine months ago, when Liverpool, Spurs and City were thoroughly flamed, but it appeared to have occurred by mistake. When Mourinho found this new system out, followed soon after by Roberto Martinez, Van Gaal had no answers. If Plan A did not work then Plan B simply consisted of lumping the ball to a big man. Once in the Champions League, in a moderately difficult group, the campaign was dominated by caution. The first key game came in Moscow where, having equalised against CSKA, United were on top. The game was there to be won, but instead the team eased off and accepted a point. After that wretched 1-0 win at home to the same opponents Van Gaal set his team up with two holding midfielders and caution in mind. The 0-0 draw, one of five (FIVE) in nine games in all competitions, was a disaster. The dye was then cast for that rotten night in Germany. The handbrake was released too late and an injury-hit United’s soft underbelly was exposed. This is a team who can’t attack when it defends or defend when it attacks. And so a competition for which the fans had endured that dismal first season for was gone, and United had not even had a good thrash at it. A year’s work wasted.
Things have deteriorated quickly since then. The players have clearly been lost. The fans had mostly deserted their manager after the Wolfsburg game or the dismal draw with West Ham which followed. The defeats to Bournemouth and Norwich simply hammered the final nails into Van Gaal’s coffin. For his defenders all excuses have now dissolved. The defence is no longer watertight, the Champions League is gone and United are out of the top four and any title race, if they were ever in it. All of the minimum requirements of the manager not been met.
When the guillotine finally drops (assuming that the club can recognise and act on the enormous disconnect between the the fans and players and their manager) what will we be left with? The squad will certainly have a better age profile than the one which David Moyes left, but whether it is stronger in terms of quality is open to debate. At the back there seems to have been little improvement. Should he recover from that sickening injury sustained in Eindhoven, Luke Shaw can be an able replacement for Patrice Evra. At right back, is Matteo Darmian any better that Rafael? The centre backs remain almost exactly the same, save for the use of Daley Blind in a position which is neither natural or suited to his talents and physical attributes. The centre of the midfield is unquestionably stronger, but up front Martial and a finished Rooney do not compare well with a sharper, younger Rooney, Robin Van Persie at the beginning of his decline, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck. In wide positions little has changed. Swap the largely ineffective Nani for the largely ineffective Depay and it appears to be honours even. Overall, is the squad stronger than the one Van Gaal was left, after £250m of new players? I’m not so sure. Martial, Depay and Shaw may one day develop into world class players and their true value will only then be realised, but that is hope and optimism talking. We simply don’t know. What we do know is that this is a squad filled with good, solid squad players but no exceptional talents, save for United’s one world class player, David De Gea. It lacks creative talent across the midfield and pace and trickery out wide. It also needs a prolific centre forward and at least one top class centre back. For a club of the size of Manchester United the quality of the playing staff is appalling. Yes, the Glazer debt and final years under Sir Alex set us back, as did the disastrous David Moyes, but the money spent without a single standout player being acquired is absolutely staggering. Speaking of Sir Alex, his success was achieved by buying clever rather than chasing unobtainable world stars with little to prove. I’d like to think that Ed Woodward will take note, but he probably won’t. The turbo briefmeister-general is right now likely plotting January moves for Neymar, Bale and Thomas Muller.
The club is a mess, from top to bottom. The suits are out of their depth and the manager has, judging by his press conference after the Norwich game, suddenly realised that he isn’t as clever as he thought he was. He knows he’s failing and that the game is probably up. He can have no complaints when the executioner does his work. Above him there is a an amorphous footballing institution run by men with inadequate football knowledge and the buffer between them and the manager of brains who know the game and can advise is conspicuous by its absence. The club has no expertise or direction and it is hard to see United achieving its potential under the current ownership. But that void above the manager provides no defence for the abject football and loss of soul and identity at the club. It will be a sorry end for a manager United fans took to their hearts and desperately wanted to succeed. But he has failed miserably and now it is time for someone else to have a go. In sacking Van Gaal United are not setting aside their principles and becoming a hiring/firing club. They always were and always will be just that. They occupy no moral high ground. The club simply got lucky and hired a man who went on to be the greatest manager of all time. Such longevity is rare. United are just like any other club and football is a transient business. Van Gaal was always meant to be a short-term appointment and the next manager will likely, intentionally or not, be one too. The question now is how successful that man will be before he inevitably moves on.