There is such a sense of inevitability that Louis van Gaal is reaching the endgame at Manchester United that people are starting to act as though he has already gone.
Much like the final days of José Mourinho’s Chelsea reign, the focus of attention has already shifted to the next man to occupy the Old Trafford dugout, possibly within the next few days.
Michael Carrick has reacted angrily to suggestions that the players are deliberately not performing to spite Van Gaal, but realistically what is the alternative? After eight games without a win and a pathetic Champions League exit, how else can Carrick explain the team’s shortcomings?
Either they have in fact downed tools because they don’t want to play for the Dutchman or the club has spent £250 million in the past three years and has been left with a deeply average squad. Because what Carrick seems to be suggesting is that every single one of them is simply off form, in the most bizarre collective loss of talent since aliens stole the abilities of NBA players in the film Space Jam.
This is not an attack on Carrick by the way, it’s just that what he says in public and what the team is doing on the pitch are two completely different things. Van Gaal’s situation is perilous, and the players know this, yet in the first half against Stoke at the weekend – when they really needed to fight for him – they produced one of the most feeble displays of any team in the league this season. These aren’t players who are fighting to keep their manager in a job.
Not that he deserves to keep it. The thing about managerial instability is that once it sets in it never really goes away. A couple of decent results might stave it off for a few weeks, months even, but in the end there is only going to be one outcome.
Van Gaal has long reached that stage now. For a man who forged so much of his reputation on tactical manoeuvrability there has been nothing to suggest he knows how to fix this. The midfield is unfathomably slow and ponderous, the forwards don’t seem to know where the goal is and but for the defence, which has now seemingly fallen down the same black hole as the rest of the team, their season could have been going as badly as Chelsea’s.
We’ve reached the perfect storm of a sinking manager and a set of players who are sick of playing for him – the end, when it comes, will be merciful for all concerned.
The next problem for Man United is who do they bring in to replace Van Gaal? The main targets seem to be Ryan Giggs, José Mourinho or Pep Guardiola (with Giggs as interim boss until the summer) – so do they go for the inexperienced legend, the divisive short-termist or the restless visionary?
That these three are the main objects of Ed Woodward’s affection shows that something is very wrong with how this club is operating. The problem is not with the names themselves, more the vastly different types of manager they are. The three options represent vastly different prospects for where the club will go under their stewardship. But as far as Woodward is concerned, these are big names so that alone should suffice.
This has always been the problem with Woodward – he cares far more about “Manchester United: The Brand” than “Manchester United: The Football Team”. He wants Mourinho for the same reason he wanted Ángel Di Maria, Sergio Ramos and Gareth Bale, why he was so public in his pursuit of Neymar and Thomas Müller and why he is so quick to boast about the club’s transfer prowess with so little to back it up.
Woodward is all about the showbiz – if the new manager is a big name then that brings in guaranteed social media interest and that will be seen as a success, regardless of the team’s exploits on the pitch. Commercially the club has never been stronger but what good is that to the fans who have had to watch a series of dull displays and poor results?
In an era where managers tend to be lasting at clubs for shorter periods of time, the structure around them at these clubs has to be more organised. The elite clubs all have systems in place whereby the departure of a manager is not felt so harshly. Bayern for example will be losing Guardiola in the summer but will replace him with Carlo Ancelotti and move on. They have a youth system and organised transfer policy and it’s all very – to borrow a word from an old Manchester City mission statement – holistic.
Mourinho, who would appear to be in the driving seat as Guardiola is probably off to Man City, would be the antithesis of all of that. He would probably bring in a trophy or two, but Man United would be in the exact same position they are in now two or three years down the line. What the former Chelsea boss does at clubs is the perfect example of a scorched earth policy – he will run those players into the ground and leave them in an absolute mess. It wouldn’t matter how good the youth teams are either, they would be routinely ignored.
If what Paul Smith of the Sunday Mirror has been tweeting on Monday is even half true then it would appear that certain members of the Man United hierarchy recognise that José would be a mistake.
On the other hand, hiring Giggs would not be without its risks either. A legend of the club he may be, but that alone should not qualify him for one of the biggest jobs in football. If the support structure around him was right then that might be different but a potential pairing of Giggs and Woodward has all the hallmarks of the blind leading the blind.
After two subpar appointments, Woodward has to get this next one spot on. That said, the most likely outcome, as of this moment, would appear to be that Mourinho will be in the job within the week and we’ll all meet back here for the exact same conversation in 2017.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena
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