It was still December when the noises coming out of Manchester United were that Louis van Gaal was set to be offered a new contract.
Still only a couple of weeks ago, Manchester United were happy enough with their manager to allow neighbours Manchester City free reign to approach outgoing Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola. Now, the departure of Jose Mourinho from Chelsea and United’s apparent collapse have changed things.
Defeats to Wolfsburg, Bournemouth and then Norwich City have brought Van Gaal’s performance – and his job security – under media scrutiny.
Crashing out of the Champions League was inexcusable not just for a Manchester United manager, but for a manager who has spent over a quarter of a billion pounds since his arrival. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, United are now out of the Premier League’s Champions League spots.
[ffc-gal cat=”manchester-united” no=”5″]
Yet, oddly, there are two opposites at play here. One is the pressure mounting on a manager the fans and media have been criticising for months, and the other is the knee-jerk reaction from the United board.
That discord was felt a few weeks ago when the board were keen to view Van Gaal’s performances as steps along a path, progression towards the lands of Ferguson-like success.
The fans, however, see progression, too. They see progression from a team that looked to attack and play entertaining football into a dull troupe of young men beaten and broken into submission by an ultra-conservative coach. It’s the divergent path where they differ.
So whilst the board were vocal about their support for their manager only a few weeks ago, they’ve become silent now. They could easily speak out to back the manager, but they are shying away from it, for the moment at least.
Their silence has allowed people to jump to their own conclusions – last night Twitter was awash with rumours that Van Gaal had actually been sacked, which of course turned out to be false.
But such false rumours do mean something at least. They don’t mean for one second that Van Gaal is even remotely close to the sack, but they do show that speculation is growing. Usually in order to change the media narrative, the board come out and say something, but in this case they seem happy to let the speculation continue. And that, in turn, just fuels more speculation.
So what changed? If the board were willing to stick with Van Gaal even when the fans were up in arms, why did three defeats change things?
The first one, away to Wolfsburg was bad. Being knocked out of the Champions League might be a good enough reason to want to look at other managerial options, but if the board seriously did consider Van Gaal’s tenure as one of progression, perhaps they could put the exit down to at least some sort of progress given that last season they were never in the competition.
The next two defeats are also bad. Two defeats in two games against newly-promoted sides. But again, it could still be characterised as a slump.
The pressure has been mounting on Van Gaal for quite a while according to the media. Under him, the problems are obvious. The defence is good, but the build up is slow and boring, the attack simply not good enough, and the ability to penetrate, non existent.
But the board don’t seem to have mounted any pressure on him until now. Strangely, if Van Gaal is to be sacked over the next few weeks, it’ll be a thoroughly deserved sacking from the point of view of many United fans who feel that their team simply bores them to tears, yet from the board’s point of view, it’s difficult to get away from the thought that it would be a knee-jerk reaction in some way.
They could have mounted the pressure on their manager a few months ago when the fan pressure started, but instead the board backed their man, which is both admirable and naive. Now they’re staying silent because he suffered three defeats, which seem to have changed their mind – three huge defeats, granted, but if they were so set on keeping him surely they could still back him now.
The media and fans have been calling for Van Gaal’s head for weeks, but it’s only when Jose Mourinho became available that the board seem to be interested.
But if they’re suddenly going to listen to the fans, is Mourinho really the man to play the attacking football the fans want? Perhaps this whole thing shows just how out of touch Ed Woodward and Manchester United’s top brass are these days.