By Manish Pandey.
This is not just a reaction to the shambolic and embarrassing performance by Manchester United in the Europa League first leg against Liverpool at Anfield. For a number of months now, Manchester United have been without direction. Paul Scholes was famously nicknamed ‘Sat-Nav’ by his team mates for his positive passing and ensuring the ball always reached its desired target. It seems Manchester United’s club ‘Sat-Nav’ is currently suffering from a severe malfunction.
Despite a stuttering first season under Louis van Gaal, Manchester United showed enough promise to suggest that this season would be a season of real improvement. Outstanding performances and results against Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool, along with a terrific performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge led to many fans and pundits alike thinking ‘next season, Manchester United will be in the mix’.
Van Gaal’s first season involved lots of injuries, formation changes and inconsistency. Yet coming into the back end of the season, it seemed he had found the right formation and a tactically balanced team. The 4-3-3 had a little bit of everything. It had the passing of Michael Carrick, the energy of Ander Herrera and the power of Marouane Fellaini in midfield. It had the creativity of Juan Mata, the industry of Ashley Young and the discipline of Wayne Rooney. It looked like a cohesive unit which understood what it needed to do. It looked like a team capable of playing attractive football.
Of course there were shortfalls. They did not have a world class defender. Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria were expensive flops. Robin van Persie looked like a player whose injuries and age had finally caught up with him. A striker was needed to help Wayne Rooney. The squad needed reinforcing. The team needed a sprinkle of stardust. Yet the fundamentals were there in place.
Fast forward to the start of this season, and United’s squad looked incomplete. There was still no world class defender. The midfield was reinforced and young players such as Memphis and Anthony Martial gave fans something to look forward to. Still, there was no stardust. Di Maria opted for a more relaxed lifestyle at PSG, Falcao and van Persie both moved on. Strangely, Javier Hernandez was also allowed to leave, just days after van Gaal stated he was the 2nd choice striker.
This season has demonstrated that the Louis van Gaal that is currently at Manchester United, is not the Louis van Gaal Manchester United and its fans were expecting. Fans were expecting a winner. A strong manager who would put ‘team philosophy’ over individual interests. A tactically flexible manager who would play attractive football. Instead, this season has shown Louis van Gaal to be rigid, weak and tactically backwards- all culminating in providing Manchester United fans with an extra 90 minutes of sleep.
From the strange decision to move away from the 4-3-3 to accommodate his plethora of midfielders, to playing 2 defensive midfielders, to playing Daley Blind at centre back even after he was exposed as a poor defender, to refusing to release the shackles and show adventure to refusing to drop out of form players because of favouritism. This season has been an Argos catalogue of errors by the Dutchman. Results poor, performances even worse, going into 2016, van Gaal was on the brink.
“Sacked in the morning” were the chants. “Mourinho to Manchester United” were the headlines.
2016 saw the blooding of youth. Notably Marcus Rashford. A bit more adventure. Impressive and unlikely victories in a few games had van Gaal in full boast mode. His players followed. Ander Herrera declared United were fighting on all fronts. Mata’s weekly blog posts talked about the turning point. Then came West Brom. Soon after, Liverpool.
One of the many lessons the players could learn from this season is to talk less and perform better consistently.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool over the past month has shown how it wants to play football. High energy, quick transitions and a fluidity in the team. Klopp’s identity is filtering through the team. United’s identity on the other hand seems to be floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere.
Starting with a midfield 2 of Morgan Schneiderlin and Fellaini was tantamount to footballing suicide. The switch to 3 centre backs was a desperate move by a desperate manager going through his last bag of tricks. There was no direction. No way of playing. The players seemed confused. Was the plan to pass the ball through the midfield as they usually do? Or was it to knock it long to Fellaini?
Switching back to experience once players returned was not something the van Gaal of the 1990s would have done. He would have continued with youth all through the team, like his famed Ajax team.
It’s not as though the experienced players are providing any leadership. Juan Mata more often than not goes missing when the going gets tough. Ander Herrera talks off the pitch but rarely dominates a game on the pitch. Daley Blind is not a leader. Morgan Schneiderlin is not a leader. Fellaini is not a leader. Michael Carrick should be a leader, but his current form is seeing him lead himself out of the club in the summer. Wayne Rooney is a leader. Perhaps the only leader Manchester United have. Yet his form is inconsistent and he’s not worth a place in the team on footballing abilities at the moment.
Lightweight, passive and powerless. That is what Manchester United currently look like.
It is not all down to van Gaal and his players. Ed Woodward and the Glazer family must take blame too. His inability to secure transfer targets has seen him become a laughing stock amongst Europe’s top administrators. His pursuit of ‘marquee’ players has been laughable.
There has been a severe underinvestment for a number of years, which has caught up with United. The academy is unable to attract local talent against competition from Manchester City’s modern academy. There is still no Director of Football. Standards have been allowed to drop in all aspects of the club. It was not so visible under Sir Alex Ferguson, whose force of personality acted as a bandage for United’s problems. Since his retirement, standards have fallen dramatically. Slowly and steadily, Ed Woodward and the Glazer family are ruining Manchester United Football Club.
Manchester United is now a business with a football team attached to it. It is all about the money now. There are no football brains on the board. Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton are mere symbolic figures with little power left at the club. It is one of the reasons why they are so strongly in favour of Ryan Giggs becoming the next manager.
Louis van Gaal’s time is up. It’s only a matter of when. He’s a brilliant manager with a glittering career. Sadly though, he is way past his best.
The next manager will firstly need to understand the size of the job. It is no ordinary football management job. The system of transfers will need to be overhauled. The squad will need to be built again. There has to be a clear direction for the club to move in. The next manager has to be a figure which can unite the entire club. Someone who respects and follows the traditions of the club. There was a lot of nonsense printed that Manchester United had lost their identity because they spent big money. Manchester United have always spent big money.
The identity of Manchester United has been based around winning, playing attacking football and trusting youth players. Gary Neville has often described the “fury” and “urgency” of Manchester United teams when chasing a goal. Consistently taking risks, but being sensible and using common sense. It has not always been successful, but more often than not, that mentality drove fear into the opposition.
It is a mentality which is now missing. United are weak. They have no backbone. They have no leadership. They have no clear direction. They risk going down the path of Liverpool in the 1990s and 2000s.
Manchester United need to act swiftly and decisively. Louis van Gaal has no future. It is time for change.