Louis van Gaal has an enormous job on his hands going into next season after becoming the next manager of Manchester United.
The focus has very much been on the Dutchman since David Moyes’ sacking – and since we got over that now-senseless idea of giving Ryan Giggs the job – but it’s at times forgotten just how much work is needed at Old Trafford. Van Gaal can bring trophies back to the club, but the changes needed – often described as an overhaul – must force trophies to the backseat, if only temporarily.
The football world can’t seem to make its mind up: can Manchester United be in transition? Can a club of that stature ever be in a position where trophies aren’t seen for a few years and in the stead of silverware rebuilding and a long-term vision takes precedence?
United’s last title win in 2013 masked the deficiencies of an ageing squad. The addition of Robin van Persie, himself 31 later this year, covered up for the fact that this team were running out of steam. The younger players, either brought up through the academy or via the market, weren’t developing or simply weren’t good enough. There was no bridge between the old and young. No continuity.
The easy thing for United and van Gaal to do this summer is spend big on established stars on the continent and immediately re-join the race the silverware. But it should be acknowledged that the Netherlands coach has a fantastic record of getting the best out of younger players.
His title win with AZ Alkmaar was built around youth and very little investment. At Bayern, Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber were among the youth players promoted and afforded chances. The latter has been well out of the limelight due to long-term injury, but he, like Muller, can be considered a successful graduate of the team’s academy.
The key for United is in establishing a strong base that can be successful for the next decade. Alex Ferguson did it with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney after going through what can be considered a transitional period, landing the League Cup in 2006 and using that as a springboard to further trophy successes. Much of the same is needed this time around.
Despite his record of burning bridges and holding short tenures at each of his clubs, van Gaal is the ideal manager to build from the bottom up at United. He certainly won’t see the end result or even the real fruits of his work midway through, but he can lay the foundation.
Luke Shaw is a name that has been heavily linked with United, and that’s the right way to go, even if it means splashing out £27 million on a teenage full-back. Wayne Rooney is now tied to United for the foreseeable future, and with van Persie still good for, say, two more seasons, the club need a younger forward to work with who can pick up that scoring responsibility in the coming years. Danny Welbeck isn’t that player.
And then there’s the midfield. United’s reserves may hold a few names who can come into the first-team and fill out the squad, but the club must decide now whether Nick Powell has what it takes to dictate play from the midfield or whether serious, youthful investment is needed. Van Gaal will obviously turn to what he knows best, but players like Wesley Sneijder or Rafael van der Vaart are not the answer. The younger Kevin Strootman and Daley Blind (who can operate at both full-back and holding midfield) serve different roles. Perhaps Feyenoord’s Jordy Clasie.
The point is United must be wary of becoming a club who work to short cycles, essentially having to start from scratch each time a new manager comes in because his predecessor only bought for himself and for the short term.
There is no strong base in the squad, no group of players who can become the spine of the team for the foreseeable future. Adnan Januzaj and David De Gea, yes; Juan Mata is still relatively young. But there are question marks over Phil Jones and Chris Smalling for varying reasons. The club need players who can learn from the remaining veterans in the team and then develop to a high enough standard whereby they can carry the torch.