"I need a new challenge and I want to use that chance to be a manager in England. I want to experience the atmosphere in England and I look forward to the stadiums there. I am 44 and it is the right time. There are offers but I haven’t signed for anyone yet. When I have a new club I will let everyone know.”- Pep Guardiola
As the self-coined ‘leader of the free world’ was invited to the floor of the US house of representatives on Capitol Hill, this week, to deliver what would be his very last State of the Union address, many Americans had already decided the value of whatever speech President Obama, and his speech writers had served up for the lawmakers and citizens at large. It is a bewilderingly most simplistic process, and its potency can fell even the most larger than life executives – it’s fondly called right track-wrong track. Many citizens through painstaking polls, and other smart social media questionnaires are asked to indicate whether they feel the country is on the right track, going in the right direction, or on the wrong track. It is not an exact science, and the results are an amalgamation of various perceptions of current and future realities, however, the implications of the result of this exercise is very real, and is normally acted upon. Manchester United board of directors must ask themselves this same query, and come up with an answer that is as laconic as it is clear. Are the Red Devils, under the guidance of Louis Van Gaal, on the right or wrong track?
I will offer small advice to this point, not that my opinions have any sway in the lofty circles of United directors, mostly just a public service as a devout supporter of this fantastic football club – United are on the right track, but going the wrong direction under Van Gaal. When Alex Ferguson departed with a plea to United supporters to stand by their manager, he inadvertently incited much complacency amongst fans, that most reds are reluctant to shine even the most meager of lights on the performances of their managers. Also in the vacuum, is the disastrous job in succession management executed by the board. The employment of David Moyes will go down in history as one of the most short-sighted, and ill-advised moves a major global sporting entity would make following decades of success. Much like Kodak or the Sony Walkman, the refusal to adapt and evolve because of a curious desire to replicate or cling to old traditions. The urge to replicate the retiring Scotsman with a younger version was more fairytale than sound transition planning. The Moyes production was supposed to be the ‘Return of the Clones’, but ended it up being ‘Snakes on a Plane’.
Here is one irrefutable fact for those reds out there still entangled in emotional debates. David Moyes was sacked by the Manchester United board with a better run of games, and less financial backing than what his successor has enjoyed. Moyes never lost more than 2 games in a row, took United to the semi final of the League Cup, quarter finals of champions league losing out to Bayern Munich, and won the Community Shield trophy which still represents the last trophy United have won in 4 years. United won 19 games at the end of the Moyes-Giggs era, Van Gaal managed to guide the club to 20 wins in his first season in charge. This season after 21 of 38 matches, United are currently on 9 wins and are on pace to finish with relatively the same or less wins than last season.
The Red Devils have crashed out of Champions League down to the Europa league, failing to emerge from a modest group of European light weights. They are out of the League Cup, and are only in contention for the FA Cup and Europa league which nobody realistically believes Van Gaal can win. In Rome, Rudi Garcia has just learned the hard lesson of modern football management, Garcia, let go by Roma this week, even after securing second place league finishes for two consecutive seasons. Roma, like United, had once been at the top of the Serie A last year, but getting dumped out of Italian cup competition, further compounded by a miserable 7-game run where he was able to secure only 1 win, sealed his fate with the club and convinced them that they were in need of a fresh direction. Van Gaal in comparison struggled to reach top 4 last season, but with Woodward doubling down on the war chest, the Dutch coach was able to climb to the top of the table last year for a brief stint.
Louis Van Gaal has not delivered results that justify the strong backing he has recieved from the United board.
LVG has been very vocal and forceful about the style and brand of possession football he wants his players to play. The end result being a football so aesthetically abominable it bored pundits, fans, rivals, sponsors, and by his own admission, the trainer-coach himself. United’s absolute predictability in their setup saw teams quickly adjust, and get points off them utilizing basic counter attack. LVG has now overseen an 11 game streak where he has been able to win only 2 games. Majority of the games in the run-in were against minnows, relegation and bottom half teams – struggling teams. United currently now lie 6th, and face a stiff test to scamper back into top 4, which is by no means out of reach. Van Gaal’s past conquests and football portfolio precedes him, chief reason why most people prefer to tip toe around mediocre results and appalling decisions like playing one of his best wingers as a right back.
Manchester United squad are not star studded, but are better than current showing - underperforming under LVG.
The power brokers at United have resisted calling upon José.
I personally, as a spectator, have a hard time digesting LVG's philosophy on the pitch, don’t get me wrong, there is inherent beauty in possession based football. However, Van Gaal’s ultra-approach is based primarily on fear. Fear of losing possession, which suffocates the impulse to take risk or to embrace individuality when the opportunity arises. Just like the apprentices of the dark side in George Lucas’s fables, the force behind the Dutch coach’s philosophy is predominately negative, and that was borne out on the pitch with miserable attempt on goal rates. The sack noose tightened in December, with the shadows of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mouhrinho seductively shimmering from a distance, subsequently Van Gaal’s philosophy which had always been a fait accompli, fell away. He will never admit it, but the United approach in the final third has noticeably changed to something more fluid, more direct, and more exciting. The Red devils have looked a different team in the last three matches even with mixed results.
The Sunday match against bitter mersyside rivals, under the reins of the all-action Klopp will be watched very closely and may prove the pivotal point in United's resurgence or retreat. The high energy gengen pressing parachuted in by Jürgen Klopp may serve as a contrast point, the German has energized the Kop with positive football. He trains his squads to be the aggressors, juxtaposed to the deferential slow build up that has characterized majority of Uniteds season thus far. It is yet to see if LVG sticks with his new found tolerance of more rapid attacking schemes at Anfield. The dissapointing draw against a very poor Newcastle side, after establishing a 2-0 lead early on, will linger in Van Gaal's mind. Hopefully it does not tempt him back to the dark side, a fluid United can unsettle any opponent, the trick is to get the balance right. LVG must impose on his players the need to kill teams off when they are ahead, then control tempo to shut the gates and bag all 3 points. Either way I do not think LVG has done enough to be trusted with another season with similar heavy financial backing.
It may be the best interest of the club to actively pursue Pep Guardiola, and not take his bromance with City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, as an excuse to be docile in pursuit. Pep has a similar, and equally exhaustive love relationship with possession football, the big delta being he promotes innovation in the final third of the pitch. He permits players to conjure magic in that final phase of play, the structure is softened, the handbrakes come off, and the fluid triangular passing patterns are allowed to blossom into whatever the situation compels it to grow into. Allowing the noisy neighbors capture the services of Guardiola unimpeded will be a fatal mistake in the new power struggle between the red and blue half of Manchester. United need a super-manager at the prime of their talent, still in the hunt for trophies, which less we forget, has propelled the club to global super club status and commercial juggernaut. Missing out on Pep might bring back the Mourinho whispers, and there are many Red supporters who have a personal distaste for the controversial Portuguese manager. Guardiola will be for the Sheiks of City what the acquisition of the atomic bomb meant for the US. It did not only mean they could win the war, it meant they could incite surrender - which is an exponentially worse form of defeat.