Since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from Old Trafford two years ago, a thick veil of disappointment, embarrassment and failure has cloaked Manchester United. Two managers in two seasons; one has been and gone, the other has produced fleeting rays of hope. And yet the sale of Angel Di Maria to PSG has proven only one thing – this veil of disappointment is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
Louis Van Gaal is clearly an experienced manager, and yet he seems hell bent on destroying any semblance of the character that has landed United some of the most prestigious trophies in world football. Spending ludicrous amounts of money for no real gain, we still have not seen any signs of the man who has won successive league titles in Spain and guided an over-achieving Netherland’s team to a third place finish at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Given his less-than-spectacular record and decadent transfer spending, comparisons between Van Gaal and the exiled David Moyes are to be expected. Indeed, once thoroughly examined, it is fair to argue that Van Gaal’s tenure as the United manager has been far less successful than that of Moyes.
Moyes was only able to lead his team to a mediocre seventh place finish back in 2014, the team’s lowest finish in over 20 years. But to what extent was this actually his fault?
Let us not forget that the Scot inherited a mediocre team that achieved wonders thanks to a combination of poor competition and the brilliance of Fergie. With an ageing defence and a bland midfield, the squad would have probably struggled to reach the top four if it were not for the heroics of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie.
Leading on from that, the summer of 2013 saw the departure of another United hero, Chief Executive David Gill. In his place, Ed Woodward has failed miserably in every transfer window he has overseen, which is best exemplified by the foolish signing of Marouane Fellaini for a staggering £27.5 million. With a weak team and a Chief Executive doggy paddling his way through the Olympic pool of world football, Moyes was always going to be up against it.
Stacking the cards even higher against him was the rather large chip that resided on his shoulder for the entirety of his tenure in charge of United. Fergie’s legacy was always going to be both tremendous and damning for whoever took over from him. Moyes faced an uphill battle at the start of his reign; by contrast Van Gaal has enjoyed the support of a downward slope cushioning his every decision.
The clearest example of this is seen by the play of Fellaini. Van Gaal seems to have reignited the midfielder’s dwindling career by playing him as a centre-forward in times of desperation. But there was no way that Moyes could get away with doing this. If he had played the big Belgian in the same successful manner that he had done while in charge of Everton, he would have been crucified on the goal posts by pundits, legends and fans alike. The long ball was an option for Van Gaal; it was not for Moyes.
Let us now focus our attention on Angel Di Maria; what a player he is. Having already proved himself both internationally and at club level, the Champions League winner arrived at Old Trafford at a time when a wave of excitement was sweeping through the crowds. And yet, after a bright start, he failed to leave a lasting legacy at England’s most successful club. Constantly played out of position by the stubborn Dutchman, and plagued with injury, he perfectly embodies Van Gaal’s failure as a manager. Pricey, talented, but sadly wasted.
His sale to PSG saw the departure of the only player at United with any really creative flair; something you need if you want to win a Premier League title or the Champions League. Real Madrid has Cristiano Ronaldo, Bayern Munich has Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, United had Di Maria. But now they are back to square one, without a coherent spine and simply lacking the technical ability to compete with the Premier League’s finest.
The opening two weekends of the 2014/15 season saw United narrowly beat Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Boring and slow, Van Gaal’s side lacked penetration in both matches and was forced to rely on good fortune to secure the victories. True to his character, Van Gaal was the first to criticise the performances in his post-match interviews. But hearing the Dutchman continuously deliver the same monotonous ‘I expected better’ phrase is surely something the fans have grown weary of. Gone are the days of Beckham’s floating crosses and Cantona’s attacking flair. The honeymoon is over, and Van Gaal is well into Fergie-time.
But why and how has he been able to avoid the same criticism that proved to be Moyes’ Achilles heel?
An obvious explanation is that he has more experience and has won a greater number of trophies than Moyes. The United board simply have more faith in the Dutchman’s decisions, and they have therefore showered him in money, which has allowed Van Gaal to spend £200 million in less than two years.
But perhaps the veteran managers style offers an alternative explanation. Unlike Moyes, Van Gaal has no problem criticising his own team. And by doing so, he’s able to take the sting out of any criticism that might come up against him. A masterful tactic, of course, but something the humble, trophy-less Moyes could not pull off.
The upcoming season will be critical for United. With European football back on the table, it will confirm how far away they are from their former glories, and will either see the rejection of Van Gaal’s elusive ‘philosophy’ or the complete destruction of the character that Fergie and Sir Bobby Charlton have spent decades trying to create.
Van Gaal is yet to achieve anything of significance at Manchester United. He has spent irresponsibly and has shown a baffling level of naiveté for someone with as impressive a résumé as him. And yet he is still considered to be a greater asset than the unlucky Moyes. With United continuing to offer less-than-convincing performances, it seems clear that Moyes was a sacrificial lamb that was slaughtered in front of an unforgiving crowd, paving the way for Van Gaal to completely change the club’s trajectory. And in truth, this direction change may leave Manchester United in a far more dire position than Moyes ever could.