Louis Van Gaal on Borrowed Time
If it is possible to subscribe to the idea that pathetic fallacy has any traction as a real life phenomenon, the full-time whistle at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon was the place to go looking for proof. As the heavens lashed the spectators with rain, the sky fell in on Manchester United’s season with a home defeat by Norwich City which added grist to the swelling mill of opinion that all is most definitely not right within the club at the moment. There has been a feeling that supporters are in a state of uneasy detente with manager Louis Van Gaal for some time, now. Manchester United is a club where two decades of near unbroken success have led to a culture which doesn’t just require trophies to be delivered at the end of each season, but for the team to do so with an air of élan.
The two full seasons since the retirement of Alex Ferguson have been threadbare in comparison with those which preceded them, but a combination of dourly grinding out results whilst the rest of the Premier League seemed to be tripping over itself to hand the trophy to whichever club could get its act together and put together a run of decent form led to a belief that, no matter what the evidence of our own eyes, this could have been Manchester United’s season. Leicester City, said optimists, are top of the table. Tottenham Hotspur, they added, are starting to be talked of as possible championship challengers. In such a muddy title race, surely Manchester United, a global institution and a football club richer than Croesus, could get their act sufficiently to scramble through the morass and offer a serious tile at the title, couldn’t they?
The evidence of the last three matches would seem to indicate that the optimists have been somewhat wide of the mark. Three consecutive defeats haven’t completely torpedoed Manchester United’s season, but the quiet has turned to booing at Old Trafford, and a home defeat at the hands of a tepid Norwich City team yesterday afternoon was further indication of a system that doesn’t seem to be working for the team, the club, or its supporters. The latter of those three groups has been forced into making something of a Faustian pact this season, sacrificing aesthetics for the bread and butter of Premier League points. But Louis Van Gaal’s system, built on an impregnable defence, has started to unravel over the last couple of weeks or so, first in the Champions League at Wolfsburg, and then in the Premier League against AFC Bournemouth and Norwich City – two teams that title challengers should, in theory at least, be beating with considerable comfort – and, without attacking extravagance to fall back upon, the vultures started to circle ominously over Old Trafford, yesterday evening.
Yesterday afternoon, familiar insecurities were on display yet again. A stodgy midfield seemed unable to pick holes in the Norwich defence to such an extent that Anthony Martial’s goal, scored twenty-one minutes into the second half, came from their first shot on target of the match. They managed just one more from the remaining twenty-four minutes of the match. Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch, a defence that is ravaged by injury at present but which should still should have been able to cope with the attack of a team whose primary ambition for the season is to reach the safety of seventeenth place in the table once all of their matches are over showed what are now starting to look very much like familiar shortcomings. Manchester United were not just beaten by Norwich City yesterday afternoon. They were well beaten. And no amounts of optimism on the part of some supporters can mask the fact that there are no signs of improvement on the pitch, at present.
Inevitably, there are some – now many, really – who are clamouring for Van Gaal’s head, and the manager’s post-match interview carried several hints at the fact that he now feels himself that his time is coming to an end. But to replace a manager during the season comes at a cost. Should Louis Van Gaal be relieved of his duties, what will become of Ryan Giggs, a man who has spent the entirety of his adult life at Old Trafford and, it was widely believed, was being groomed as the successor to Van Gaal once the current manager does move on? With a failure to qualify for the Champions League at the end of the season surely being considered an intolerable failure by the club, could Giggs be outliving his usefulness at Old Trafford in his current position? It seems highly unlikely that the club would take the gamble of promoting him in the event of Van Gaal either falling on his own sword or being pushed out of the club, but to usher Giggs out of the club would also signal the termination of a long-term plan of accession that has been in place for a couple of years.
It’s not as though there aren’t options, either, should the club be looking to make a change right now. He might not be the most popular choice amongst Manchester United supporters, but Jose Mourinho is now available, and the bulk of the former Chelsea manager’s career has been weighed down with precisely the sort of success that Manchester United have been chasing over the last couple of seasons. The flip side to this, however, is that a considerable amount of Mourinho’s sheen as a manager has vanished into thin air over the course of this season, so his appointment would not necessarily be a guarantee of immediate success. Alternatively, Pep Guardiola has signalled that he is to leave Bayern Munich at the end of this season, and he is likely to automatically become the most sought-after manager in the whole of Europe once he becomes a free agent. He, however, will not be available until the end of this season and on current form Manchester United need attention well before then if they are to qualify for the Champions League for next season. Rival clubs, both in the Premier League and beyond, might well be more tempting for a coach who can surely pick the club of his choice than Manchester United is in its current condition.
So, stick or twist? The nature of the modern football supporter often seems to be hair-triggered, but it can be difficult to tell the full extent of a groundswell of opinion at times, especially online, where the loudest – and frequently angriest – voices get heard the most. At this precise moment in time, with the correct care and attention the club can still win the Premier League this season, such has been the nature of the division this season. But any managerial comes with that element of risk. Jose Mourinho, even more than Louis Van Gaal, would be dependent on results if he is to retain any degree of goodwill from supporters who spent the best part of the last twelve or thirteen years hating him. The appointment of Guardiola cannot happen until the end of the season. The feeling, however, remains that patience is now in short supply at Old Trafford, and that, whilst the manager may or may not have lost the dressing room, he is certainly rapidly losing the supporters. And that is a very dangerous territory for the manager of any football club to be in. At Manchester United, where expectations are higher than just about anywhere else, he is starting to carry the air of being a dead man walking.
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