‘Philosophy’ may have been the loudest self-proclaimed soundbite of Louis van Gaal’s ascension to the Old Trafford throne in summer 2014, but it’s results rather than performances or any appreciation of playing style that has kept the Dutchman’s Manchester United career alive.
When LVG has needed it most, the players – who the media contradictorily claim only grow increasingly apathetic towards his autocratic methods – have always delivered for him.
The 1-0 win over North West rivals Liverpool in January came at the end of a run of just two victories in 13 games across all competitions – including elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Wolfsburg – when the abrupt availability of Jose Mourinho had seemingly made Van Gaal’s position untenable.
The 3-2 victory over Arsenal last month was United’s first Premier League outing since that debasing Europa League defeat to FC Midtjylland and suddenly put the Red Devils back in contention for a top four finish.
Likewise, the 1-0 win in the Manchester Derby immediately followed a shock 1-0 defeat to West Brom, elimination from the Europa League courtesy of Liverpool and an underwhelming draw with West Ham in the FA Cup quarter-final – appeasing the fans with some much-needed bragging rights at just the right time.
Regardless of the common narrative, professing him to be out-dated, arrogant and occasionally insufferable, LVG’s players pull him back from the brink just when his feet dangling over the abyss of early retirement. That’s an enormous testament to the respect they have for him.
Similarly, considering how the Red Devils’ performances this season have ranged from abject to abysmal for significant periods, amid a campaign that has produced one crisis after another, the fact United are currently just one point away from a Champions League spot with seven fixtures remaining is an achievement in itself.
With that in mind, the notion that United might decide to honour the final year of Van Gaal’s three-term contract and not replace him with Mourinho in the summer, should the Red Devils finish in the top four, becomes an increasingly plausible one.
Especially considering ‘The Special One’ appears to be doing his best to force their hand via the media. He’s been linked with the Syria job and the Valencia position in recent weeks, whilst some reports have claimed he’ll cost twice as much to appoint in the summer as oppose to before the end of the season.
Perhaps it’s just tabloid chatter, but they must be getting their information from somewhere and if the source is from the Mourinho camp, it strongly suggests United are yet to make their minds up.
But regardless of what LVG has survived this season, regardless of whether United finish in the top four and regardless of how much healthier the squad could look by the time the summer transfer window closes in September, it still feels as if no true good can come from having the Dutchman at the helm for another term.
His alliance with United is an unholy one, one that has created a division between the supporters and the club’s management from LVG upwards, and after two campaigns of almost oxymoronic stable instability, the Carrington outfit need to start moving in the right direction once again.
Of course, for a club like Manchester United, there is always another season. But the dynamics of the Premier League are rapidly changing; Leicester City’s unanticipated rise to the Premier League’s summit, followed closely by Tottenham Hotspur, is by no means as miraculous as it may seem; and the Red Devils are in danger of being left behind.
Liverpool have a top-class manager in Jurgen Klopp, Chelsea have just appointed another in Antonio Conte, Spurs can establish themselves as top-four regulars if they capitalise on this season correctly and the noisy neighbours are about to be taken over by Pep Guardiola – arguably the greatest gaffer of his generation. Having a night watchman in charge just won’t cut it next season.
Likewise, for all the animosity towards Van Gaal, there is still a legacy for him to leave behind at Old Trafford. Two campaigns of Champions League qualification is a decent if unspectacular contribution to the post-Alex Ferguson era and although it has been a product of circumstance as much as design, LVG has blooded through a number of incredibly promising young talents – Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Paddy McNair and Timothy Fosu-Mensah to name a few.
In a couple of years’ time, United fans may look at LVG’s spell far more fondly as the era in which the shoots of future success first began to sprout. But another season of continued crises, with crucial results sparing the Dutchman from the axe by their hair on his nose, whilst United’s divisional rivals grow stronger will put any legacy in jeopardy.
Regardless of how the season ends – let’s not forget Manchester United could still qualify for the Champions League and lift the FA Cup – it’s time for both parties to part company amicably.