It was all going so well for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United – until the season actually started.
Indeed, King Louis’ reign at Old Trafford hasn’t kicked off as planned. He’s yet to open his winning account with the Red Devils, overseeing two defeat and one draw, with the most harrowing result coming in a 4-0 hiding by League One side MK Dons last night.
You might expect a manager who once famously displayed his testicles to the entire Bayern Munich dressing room to produce a similarly dramatic display after the shock Capital One Cup defeat at Stadium MK. Perhaps he’d give Danny Welbeck a public spanking, or attempt to kick a Dons fan square in the face.
Yet van Gaal’s reaction was surprisingly subdued. Immediately after the final whistle, rather than heading towards the dressing room with fire in his eyes, preparing to give the Dutch equivalent of the hair-dryer treatment (I’m dubbing that ‘the windmill effect’), he turned to the stands and began signing autographs as if United had just strolled their way to a comfortable 3-0 win without a single hiccup.
Even in the post-match press conference, van Gaal remarked, to the astonishment of one journalist, that he ‘wasn’t surprised’ by the result at all. Perhaps an effort to save face, perhaps keen not to directly comment on the 4-0 score-line.
But it must be asked amid the 62-year-old’s perpetual nonchalance – Does van Gaal truly understand the scale of the job at Old Trafford? Shouldn’t he be as worried and confused as the rest of us?
It seems a rather absurd suggestion, considering we’re talking about a manager who has graced the dugouts at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But as Louis van Gaal stated himself just a matter of weeks ago, Manchester United are the biggest club in the world – the pressure on the players right now to turn their form around is enormous.
When it rains, it pours, and currently there’s a seemingly immovable monsoon over Old Trafford. Quite clearly, the players are still hurting from last season while many, such as Javier Hernandez and Anderson, demonstrated with their performances yesterday evening that they simply want out of United. Perhaps the Dons fixture was a last chance saloon – perhaps that is why van Gaal wasn’t surprised.
The Dutch gaffer will argue that it’s all part of the plan. He warned in late July that it would take at least three months to get the club up to his standards, the players fully onboard with his new philosophy and confidence resorted after the nightmares of last season. After all, his 3-4-1-2 formation goes against every tactical tradition at Old Trafford and the transition will undoubtedly throw up a few problems.
But was losing 4-0 to a third tier side really an intrinsic learning curve? Did yesterday’s result have to happen? Of course, at the start of a season immediately following a World Cup in South America, van Gaal was undoubtedly keen to rest his players.
But at the same time, defeating the Dons last night could have provided the kick-start van Gaal’s United revolution desperately needed. In my opinion, it was a fantastic opportunity missed – not to mention the fact that the Red Devils are now eliminated from arguably their best chance of silverware this season.
One question that can be rightly posed is whether the Old Trafford boss truly appreciates the competitiveness of English football. In La Liga and the Bundesliga, even the opposition expect the top teams to steamroll everything in their paths. German and Spanish minnows turn up to the Bernabeu, Nou Camp or Allianz Arena, close their eyes and hope it’s all over quickly.
English football on the other hand comes with this instrumental determination – the idea that any team at any level, on their day, can give even the best of the best a run for their money. That very notion unquestionably inspired MK Dons yesterday evening, but I believe van Gaal is yet to appreciate it fully, perhaps best illustrated by his decision to leave Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney – by far his three most influential players – out of the match-day squad. In short, the United boss must learn that there’s no such thing as an easy game in England.
And in many ways that typifies the enormity of the task at hand. Since United last won a Premier League title, Liverpool have qualified for the Champions League, Chelsea have re-hired Jose Mourinho, Manchester City have amassed one of the most impressive squads in Europe and Arsenal have broken their transfer record twice. The momentum of change is relentless in England, but van Gaal thus far has only taken United another step backwards.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United were a club that scrimped and scavenged for every point and victory possible. Louis van Gaal isn’t that kind of manager – he likes to see the bigger picture. But if United are to escape their recent malaise, then that is the approach they must once again take.
Philosophical revolutions are all well and good, but ideas alone aren’t going to get the Red Devils out of the mess they now find themselves in.