Looking back, one would dare to utter the word ‘conspiracy’ – if it didn’t come with the connotation of a celibate 50 year-old wearing a foil helmet in his mother’s basement.
An honest, modest and hardworking Scotsman from Merseyside, brought into the corporate world of Manchester United, only for everything to spiral out of control until low share prices destroyed his reputation. Why? Because it was a sticky wicket and the Red Devils needed a fall-guy. Not too many managers were prepared to step into Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes last summer but David Moyes was flattered to even be considered.
If not a conspiracy, then the plot to one of the Coen Brothers’ screwball comedies. The Big Fellaini anyone?
In truth, there was no untoward, furtive planning going on around Carrington last season. Simply put, Manchester United envisaged a six-year project with Moyes at the epicentre, but got cold feet just ten months later. After all, uncertainty isn’t an emotion United have felt towards their manager since the late 1980s; they’re hardly acclimatised to the Premier League’s seemingly entrenched culture of hire-and-fire. The Moyes situation was an unanticipated shock.
And after winning just one point from his first two league fixtures – that’s three points less than David Moyes had gained this time twelve months ago – Red Devils fans could be forgiven for getting frosty toes over Louis van Gaal too.
The Old Trafford boss has been talking the talk all summer after impressing at the World Cup with the Netherlands and winning the International Champions Cup in Los Angeles, but he’s struggled to find his footing in the Premier League.
Neither the defeat to Swansea City nor the away draw to Sunderland showed particular signs that a return to silverware prosperity could be just around the corner. Against the Swans, United’s 3-4-1-2 formation was undone by quick yet simple transitions of play, whilst against the Black Cats, they struggled to get the ball to a forward line of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie quickly and frequently enough.
Yet losing faith in van Gaal now can only lead down the road to ruin. The Dutchman is an abrasive and confident character who often alienates people – especially the politico behind the scenes. But amid one of the darkest patches in recent Manchester United history, the club, the boardroom, the players and the fan-base must respect the length of his three-year contract. Getting cold feet once again, cannot be an option.
Not least because, first and foremost, two back-to-back managers struggling for results suggests a problem with the players, not with the dugout.
It’s clear that Manchester United lack the quality and depth to effectively compete for the title at this moment in time. Van Gaal has already commented on the fatal imbalance of the Red Devils squad, which currently contains no less than five No.10s and no more than one centre-back over the age of 25. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata were both panic buys, whilst the deadwood has been piling up at Old Trafford for several seasons.
These are problems van Gaal has inherited and it will take more than one transfer window to correct them, although the signings of Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Angel di Maria are certainly a good start. The catch 22 undermining the Red Devils however is the fact that everybody from River Plate to Real Madrid knows they’re in the market to buy this summer. The Argentina international’s record-breaking £59million price-tag is the latest manifestation of this dilemma.
Secondly, the historical importance of Louis van Gaal’s change in philosophy cannot be overstated. LVG is not only implementing a new system but furthermore fighting against an entire culture of back-four-double-wideman football at Old Trafford. He may have overseen that transition for the Netherlands with miraculous haste, having the luxury of an entire national pool to choose from with several players already established at international level, but the situation is remarkably different at a club that, as Moyes mooted last season, has ‘wing-play in its DNA’.
Indeed, whereas Moyes was a continuation of the old regime, van Gaal is working from the ground up , building towards his own vision. His starting XI on the opening day of the season contained two Premier League debutants in Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard, and only three players aged 27 or older. Clearly this is revolution over evolution, and just as with his spells at Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, much will depend upon how quickly and successfully van Gaal can get the players, particularly the younger ones, to buy into his philosophy.
That process will unquestionably take time – the United boss warned as early as July that it will take him at least three months to bring the club up to his standards, adequately tailored to new system and confidence fully restored after the nightmare of last season. And it’s been long forgotten that despite van Gaal’s unquestionable credentials, this is his first experience in the Premier League – even he will have some learning and adapting to do.
Louis van Gaal is not a shock doctrine manager – he hasn’t been brought in to spark an immediate reaction, allowing the chips to fall where they may.Rather, much like Sir Alex Ferguson, he plans to bend, twist and sculpture Manchester United around his own image.
The transformation will not be quick nor pretty, but van Gaal is building a future; brick-by-brick, hour-by-hour. Getting cold feet before the Dutchman’s vision is completed would be like turning your back on the garden of Eden, just as it began to appear on the horizon.