As most Manchester United fans will be only too happy to mention (i.e, lament, complain, etc), they have endured a trying period following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. The first successor to the throne was David Moyes, who possessed the romantic characteristics to convince fans that he was the logical candidate to continue Sir Alex’s legacy. Moyes is also a Scot like Ferguson, and showed a decent track record in the Premier League with Everton, so it appeared as though United would offer him the pedestal on which he could achieve a step up in the managerial arena. Unfortunately, far from stepping seamlessly into Ferguson’s shoes Moyes showed early in his tenure that the United job was above his ability.
Beyond just requiring a gifted manager, the hot seat at any of Europe’s largest clubs needs a formidable personality to cope with the rigours of being carved apart in the media week after week. After the forgettable season that Moyes inflicted on the Old Trafford faithfuls, it appeared that they had their prayers answered when Louis van Gaal was announced as the new manager the following summer. The esteemed Dutch manager boasts successful periods with Ajax, where he won a European trophy, as well as European giants Barcelona and Bayern Munich. However, his success comes at a price; unquestioning adherence to his rigid and technical philosophy of how the game is played. His headstrong approach to the game has not only earned him silverware and fans in abundance, but also an equal amount of enemies who detest his managerial style and uncompromising personality.
He quickly stamped his mark not only onto the Manchester United squad he took over, but also onto the press conferences he delivered. Known for being a headstrong and formidable individual who would not suffer any fools, van Gaal exuded the old school authority that was associated with Sir Alex Ferguson’s unparalleled reign in the Old Trafford dugout. While he possesses an impressive CV, and guided United back into the Champions League at the first time of asking, halfway through his second season in charge it appears as though the lustre of his presence is beginning to wear off. Fans were content to give him time during his debut season, but it was expected that a similar level of improvement would be seen now in his second – which simply has not arrived.
After over £200m of investment into an aged and lacking squad most fans expected to once again be competing for silverware. Instead, United have most recently suffered a 2-1 defeat to Norwich City at home, the first time ever that the Canaries have emerged victorious at Old Trafford, and United have slipped out of the top four leading into the tough Christmas period.
While United may not have the best squad in the league, there is a growing belief that van Gaal’s pedantic and conservative approach may be creating the impression that the team is worse than it really is. Both Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial are bright young talents, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin are the midfield reinforcements that United have craved since Roy Keane’s departure, and Chris Smalling has indicated he may be on of the best centre backs in the league. Oh, and they arguably have the best keeper in the league between the posts as well. Playing entertaining football is certainly not beyond these players, the experienced heads of Carrick and Schweinsteiger are indeed quite used to it, but this loss against Norwich all but confirms that the players are being held back – and it may possibly be van Gaal’s contribution standing in the way of a promising squad being allowed to flourish. Most fans have reached consensus that the players appear hesitant and are severely lacking confidence, neither of which are conducive to confident, attacking play.
Although van Gaal has a contract that runs until the end of the 16/17 season, there are extraneous variables that could tempt the Manchester United board into cutting his stay short. José Mourinho’s recent departure from Chelsea means he’s immediately available, and he has indicated he intends to step back into management as soon as he can. Additionally, another talented young manager in Pep Guardiola has announced he will part ways with German giants Bayern Munich at the end of this season. Guardiola and Mourinho are two of the most talented managers in the modern game, winning two Champions League trophies each in the last decade. Any ambitious club will sit up and take notice if their services become available and United should follow suit if they intend to get back to the top.
As was seen with Chelsea rapid decline this season, once the dressing room is no longer behind a manager a difficult situation can rapidly deteriorate into an untenable one. While van Gaal does not quite have Mourinho’s flair for public outbursts, he is renowned for being stubborn to a fault and showing little tact with cheeky journalists. His lack of willingness to adapt his style to resemble the cavalier attacking football United fans have become used to could prove to drain whatever support they still have for him. He has enjoyed fierce support from the fans, but their patience with poor results and worse performances is running dangerously low. The coincidental availability of Mourinho, despite his horrendous start to this season, is likely to result in at least a few United fans taking the position that if a manager with more recent success than van Gaal is available, they would prefer him to having dreary and lifeless football inflicted on them for far longer.
With the money flowing through European football, particularly the Premier League, the amount of smaller clubs becoming more competitive is quickly increasing. Leicester City currently occupying top spot in the Premier League is evidence enough of that, but for a brand the size of Manchester United absence from the Champions League and upper echelon of the domestic league comes with financial implications they can ill afford. While fans may loathe the idea of rotating managers so freely to inspire instant results, there is also the reality that the game is different to 25 years ago when managers enjoyed longer periods to find their feet. If United are to retain the success of a household name in the same vein of Real Madrid and Barcelona, they will need to start performing like a team that deserves that accolade. If Louis van Gaal does not turn the performances around quickly, with the availability of Mourinho looming large over the European football world, another high profile managerial change may not be far away.
As a neutral or a devout supporter of United, how would you handle the situation? Boot out van Gaal and get Mourinho in? Allow van Gaal to continue? Let assistant manager Ryan Giggs see out the rest of the season and hope the board attempts to convince Guardiola to take the reigns next season? Many options are available to the movers and shakers behind the scenes at Old Trafford, but with tough fixtures against Stoke and Chelsea coming up, Louis van Gaal will need six points out of six if he wants to prevent the club from prematurely showing him the door.