The Louis van Gaal era at Manchester United, seemingly certain to be ended twelve months ahead of schedule this summer, will mostly be remembered for wholesale disillusionment towards the Dutchman’s laboured style of football.
But in a few years time, Red Devils fans may discover the appreciation for the Iron Tulip that currently evades them, looking back upon 24 months in which the shoots of future success at Old Trafford first began to surface.
As Ryan Giggs ended his playing career with a rousing speech in 2014, after utilising debutants James Wilson and Tom Lawrence in a 3-1 win over Hull City during the final home game of his short spell as caretaker, the United icon professed to the faithful; “You’ve seen a little glimpse of the future tonight. We never stand still. We always give youth a chance and play attractive football.”
That has become the criteria many have implicitly judged the two years of van Gaal rule upon. Although scintillating displays of flying wide-men, potent counter-attacks and last-minute comebacks that defined the Ferguson era have been few and far between under the Dutchman, he has, at least, fulfilled the other part of Giggs’ prophecy – giving young players a chance.
Nobody represents that better than Marcus Rashford, who has risen like a phoenix from the fires of a debasing injury crisis to emerge as the most exciting Premier League prospect you’d previously never heard of.
A debut brace against Europa League minnows FC Midtjylland suggested promise; repeating the feat against a title-contending Arsenal side just days later suggested something far more significant. A star in the making.
[ffc-gal cat=”manchester-united” no=”5″]
Let’s not get carried away just yet. In typical Premier League fashion of excessive hyperbole, some are already tipping the teenager to muscle his way into Roy Hodgson’s England squad for Euro 2016.
Nonetheless, amid an era in which the intensity and influx of foreign talent in the Premier League has been accused of blocking young players’ paths to the national team, LVG has seemingly thrust one into contention without much, if any, thought.
No doubt, there is a coincidental element to Rashford’s emergence, rushed into a starting berth against the Danish champions after Anthony Martial withdrew himself from the warm-up with a hamstring complaint.
But van Gaal has issued 13 debuts to academy players since taking the helm in 2014 starting with his first competitive fixture as Old Trafford boss, which saw Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett register inaugural appearances at senior level.
That works out at one debut every 6.6 games from 86 in charge, quite a triumph considering van Gaal has also welcomed twelve first-team signings in that same period – three of which were aged 21 or younger upon their arrival.
Indeed, in addition to promoting from within, the Dutchman has sought to bring world football’s most promising young talents to Old Trafford, splashing out the best part of £90million on Luke Shaw, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial.
Some might suggest the balance has gone too far the other way, van Gaal’s lust for young talent curtailing United’s potential for silverware. Although injuries have often obliged him to test academy products, the argument certainly carries some weight.
Could Nick Powell really be expected to make a difference in a 20-minute substitute outing, his first appearance for over a year, as United crashed out of the Champions League at the hands of Wolfsburg in December? Likewise, fees for Depay and Martial particularly, although potentially wise investments in the long-run, initially seemed excessive to say the least.
Nonetheless, van Gaal’s United legacy appears promising, even if the tenure itself has largely underwhelmed. That has been a recurring theme throughout his management career; shoots emerging from ground the 64-year-old’s footprint has fertilised and later going on to blossom, many reaching the absolute pinnacle of the beautiful game.
Take his first spell at Barcelona, for example. Pep Guardiola was his most senior player, his on-pitch general, whilst Jose Mourinho served as assistant. The duo’s almost simultaneous rise to the top of the management racket can’t be simply a coincidence.
He also issued debuts to Carles Puyol and Xavi, whilst van Gaal’s second, shorter and less successful stint at the Nou Camp heralded the emergence of Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes.
Likewise, during just two years at Bayern Munich, van Gaal plucked David Alaba, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos from the academy ranks to issue them a significant role in the first team, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger was moved to the central midfield role that has gone on to define his career. All of those players are now Champions League winners and three of them are World Cup winners.
Spanning back even further to the beginnings of van Gaal’s management career, his almost legendary Champions League-winning Ajax side included the youthful cohort of Edwin van der Saar, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Nwankwo Kanu, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert – all of whom went on to achieve great success with Europe’s biggest clubs.
Of course, the availability of future world-class players is a luxury for any manager who works with the biggest clubs in world football, as LVG has for the majority of his career.
Nonetheless, his record in that regard remains outstanding and even when he’s not delivered in terms of results, he’s always positively impacted the development of players – both as footballers and coaches.
So will we see some of Louis van Gaal’s 13 debutants and three youthful signings eventually become some of the top talents in world football? Only time will tell, but Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Luke Shaw and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are already displaying enormous potential.
The next Manchester United manager and the supporters may have much to thank him for in a few years’ time, looking back upon an era of chaotic transition at Old Trafford which served as the opening chapters in the United careers of many future stars.
Although many will be glad to see LVG depart this summer, history may remember his two seasons in charge of the Red Devils far more fondly.