Fergie, Moyes, van Gaal, Woodward and The Glazers: What happened to Manchester United?

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Even though it’s not particularly fashionable to say such, I like David Moyes. I also admire Louis van Gaal. Whilst Moyes can provide the air of a small time manager, his job at Everton has been underrated in some quarters. He’s the only person who cracked the traditional top 4, without the backing of  sugar daddy. He excelled through great scouting and coaching and had to deal with losing his best players to bigger clubs as Everton battled their financial problems. Whilst the Manchester United job at times felt like a bit of an over promotion, it can’t be argued that his credentials didn’t deserve that test.

As a student of the game, van Gaal amuses me. He undoubtedly has the best CV in the football and is one of the great theorists of our time. Then, there are the one liners and tales of dropped trousers. Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal does not suffer fools gladly as explained by the fact that he has a tendency not to last long in his jobs. The van Gaal cycle goes like this: Gets appointed. Applies radical changes. Wins trophies. Falls out with people. Gets sacked. At Ajax, he and Cryuff fell out which explains the rivalry between the two great Dutch visionaries. At Barcelona, it was World Player of the Year, Rivaldo. At Bayern, it started with the likes of Lucio and Luca Toni and ended at boardroom level with the Uli Hoeness and Karl- Heinz Rummenigge. Speaking to Simon Kuper earlier this year, he speaks of this propensity for conflict as a Dutch thing. The Dutch see their football culture as being a world leader and those entwined in it don’t sing from the same hymnbook. They all have their interpretations and some tend to make the fatal mistake of thinking their way is best (Cryuff vs van Gaal in a nutshell). When faced with opposition or dissent, there is a possibility it can get condescending as happened when van Gaal clashed with Ronald Koeman.

Koeman was Van Gaal’s assistant at Barcelona, where their wives, Bartina and Truus respectively, became best friends. Yet the two men rubbed up one another like sandpaper when Van Gaal went back to Ajax as their technical director. Koeman was the head coach and objected to the way Van Gaal would put a chair by the side of the training pitch, plonk himself down and observe every session, arms folded, in the manner of someone monitoring a sixth-form exam.

More than once, Koeman went to the chairman to complain about Van Gaal’s intrusiveness. Yet Van Gaal, in his authorised biography, explains that he had to be that way because his colleague – “that boy” – was weak and needed career advice on the basis, deliciously put, that “what the farmer doesn’t know he won’t eat”

Daniel Taylor, ‘Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman require help from above to succeed’, The Guardian, 16th August 2014

Swansea defeating United at Old Trafford proves one thing though, the extent of last season’s malaise goes beyond Moyes. For too long under Ferguson’s reign, United took the easy option. The parasitic owners who have taken money out of the club and hid behind Ferguson’s genius have some answering to do. Ferguson, out of his desire to ensure his authority reigned supreme tended to do the minimum. He left the midfield unattended to  for too long. There’s more to the Paul Pogba story than we have been made to believe but it strikes as suicidal that a player of his budding ability was allowed to run his contract down. A player of his profile is exactly what United need. He’s spoken of as being worth in the region of £60million and United would not get a penny were he to move on today. That must sting.

Under Fergie’s reign, United who boast about their stupendous wealth and status as the biggest club in the world in a manner that comes across as very nouveau riche tended to buy British which whilst a good thing in securing attachment and loyalty raises some question marks on the quality side. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are decent players but a level below Raphael Varane. When was the last time United recruited a top class foreign talent at the peak of their powers despite competition from other big clubs? Perhaps, Robin van Persie but the fact that their competition was Juventus who ended up with Nicklas Bendtner that summer and Manchester City, it doesn’t seem so big an achievement. The likes of Eden Hazard and Lucas Moura went elsewhere. I refuse to buy into Gary Neville’s rhetoric of The United Way referring to certain values the club possesses.  United have a problem: Recruitment. Since Ed Woodward took on the role as Managing Director, the Mancuians have splashed big cash on decent players who they’ve had a free pass at. Juan Mata had to leave Chelsea as Jose Mourinho didn’t like him and United were the only club in for him. Nobody else wanted Ander Herrera. Chelsea were the only club after Luke Shaw and as soon as they were sounded out about the financial implications, they dropped out. When Moyes went back in for Marouane Fellaini, there was no competition. United’s last set of signings have had two components: Overpriced/Overvalued and a lack of competition. When competition has risen as with Thiago Alcantara, Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos, they’ve been found wanting.

I like to believe the Van Gaal experiment would work. United not playing in Europe would mean that their Manager who’s already one of the more obsessive tacticians out there would have a upper hand in match preparation that none of his rivals would. Despite the 3-5-2 formation not clicking right away, I saw enough to suggest it could work. The defenders are able to push up and pass the ball out thus minimizing the space with which opponents could play. Whilst it could be deadly on the counter, effectively playing half pitch against smaller teams can only go one way: United would keep creating gaps and their opponents would struggle to compete. That formation also gets the best out of their three best players; Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata. Its use by teams like Queens Park Rangers (who have hired Glenn Hoddle as coach to familiarize the players with it), Hull City (Who woulda thunk it? Steve Bruce as a tactical mastermind) and Liverpool, at stages last season suggests that it might be more common on the British isles.

For the errors made by Moyes not to be repeated, Ed Woodward (whose strengths are more suited to securing commercial deals) needs to start bucking the trend. There also has to be an element of fairness in shaping the Moyes narrative: Yes, he made mistakes but he was dealt a bad hand by both Fergie and the Glazers via Woodward. As for van Gaal, being a little bit more decisive would help while time does the telling.