Why Louis van Gaal is not to blame for Manchester United's failures
The great teams take time to build and Louis Van Gaal has laid the foundations for several.
His insistence on playing youth academy products resulted in the breakthrough of David Alaba and Thomas Muller at Bayern Munich, Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona and an Ajax team which won the European Cup in 1995 with a goal from 19 year old Patrick Kluivert.
But Van Gaal is a coach who has helped construct club identities, won the European Cup with a team of relative unknowns and took an average-at-best Holland to third place at the World Cup. So why hasn't it quite worked for him at Manchester United?
Injuries have ruined the season
Without their few star players, United are a mid-table side at best but the number of injuries to first team players that Louis Van Gaal has had to deal with since taking charge at Old Trafford is astonishing. If Anthony Martial does not overcome a tight hamstring before their game against Arsenal on Sunday, Van Gaal will be unable to call upon 15 members of his first team squad.
Arsene Wenger's side has not looked the same since an injury to Santi Cazorla in 2015 and their title bid has faultered in recent weeks as a result.
An injury like that to a key player can derail a team when they find form and United have been unable to play with any sort of momentum or even a consistent line-up since the season began. With left wingers playing at right back and Marouane Fellaini on the pitch – it’s been tough.
Incredibly, seven fullbacks are currently injured in addition to United's two best players - Wayne Rooney and David De Gea. Far from being an excuse for the team underperforming, it should be considered a legitimate explanation.
A good deal of pre-season planning went out the window when Luke Shaw broke his leg. Chris Smalling had been superb when paired with Daley Blind but the injury to Shaw scuppered Van Gaal’s desire to play with two attacking wing backs in the opening games of the season.
Van Gaal has always planned to use Daley Blind as his playmaker from defence and rely on width provided from two fast runners on either side but has had the opportunity - the central (wide) plan of his tactical system - taken away as his players queue up to see the physio. Instead of his planned starting XI, Van Gaal's team has looked more like this:
While Blind may not be a natural centreback, Van Gaal has consistently been proven correct in the past when he has repositioned players - Bastian Schweinsteiger's emergence as a central midfielder and David Alaba's switch to left-back just two of his success stories. It must be incredibly frustrating for Van Gaal that his tactics and eye for talent are questioned so regularly.
The Dutchman has admitted he is unhappy with Schweinsteiger's form since convincing the United board to sign him but injuries have severely interrupted the World Cup winner's playing time too and he has been unable to settle into any kind of rhythm.
Another summer signing, Memphis Depay, has been inconsistent, if not straight up poor since arriving too but thanks to a lack of alternative options brought about by injury, Van Gaal has found it difficult to leave him out of the team recently. While 1-0 up against Chelsea, Van Gaal brought on Memphis and within four minutes his lack of concentration and confidence resulted in a loose pass that Chelsea took advantage of on the counter-attack to grab a late equaliser. The manager was furious.
Against Midtjylland, forced to start Memphis because of injuries to other players, the winger put in one of the finest performances Old Trafford has seen for quite some time and suddenly that massive transfer fee made sense. Young players are often inconsistent but the potential that Van Gaal sees in this team is there - he just hasn't had the time to squeeze it out.
United’s play has been so boring at times that footage could be used as a torture device but Van Gaal doesn’t want his team to be like this - everyone wants to beat Manchester United and while the key players are out injured, it’s important not to shatter the confidence of their understudies. Brendan Rodgers defended Van Gaal on TalkSport back in January:
"Louis Van Gaal has been around a long time. He built a team in 1995 at Ajax that everyone talked about for years.
"Their style was possession-based but it was a real attacking blend of football. He went to Bayern Munich and it was a bit more possession-based but still very attacking.
"It's a lot about the players as well. Do Manchester United have the players to excite that they've had before? That's a big part of it. Van Gaal has been at the top of his game for a long time."
The customers, or fans as they used to be known, might not have enjoyed the football on offer but Van Gaal does prefer to attack. It’s just that with so many injuries, churning out 0-0 draws could prove the difference between a Champions League and Europa League place come the end of the season. You can use the side of a spanner to whack a nail into a wall, but a hammer will always be better. Why not wait?
The fans (and the sponsors) want big name signings
When asked about how Leicester managed to assemble their team on the cheap, Arsene Wenger said, “If I sign a player for £400,000 before he plays people will say, ‘What is that, that is not serious for Arsenal’.
“If you say we signed a player for £40million they will think he is really good.”
United's fans - and their sponsors - demand superstars but truly elite players are simply not available to buy and so clubs like United must look at the shelf below, and to United those players tend to cost more.
Watford's £1.5million signing of Odion Ighalo is another of these under-the-radar signings that smaller clubs make. Were Man Utd to have been interested in the striker before he set the Premier League on fire, you can bet that same transfer would have cost somewhere between £10m and £20m. But there are better players in the world - or at least better known players - who usually cost this much money.
The point is that Watford can get away with going for cheap signings, United can't. Without the cheaply assembled partnership of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, they wouldn't be doing so well - together they work perfectly and score pretty much every single one of the club's goals - if Ighalo had signed for United and not scored in five games, the fans would have questioned why Van Gaal didn't go out and sign a Big Name Player. A Proven World Class Striker.
The failure of Christian Benteke at Liverpool suggests that successful team building might not be as simple as extracting part of a winning team and having it work immediately elsewhere.
So the decision is, do you overspend - seriously overspend - to acquire players who could form part of a great team like Ighalo and hope they adjust to the Premier League and club, invest time and coaching in getting the most out of promising young players like Jesse Lingard, or sign Big Name Players to keep the supporters happy?
The players aren't available to sign
Spending money on transfers does not guarantee success. In fact, according to the rules of Money Ball, a team's likelihood to succeed correlates perfectly with how much they are paid in wages rather than the money spent on signing new ones, which suggests that promoting from within is the way forward.
Van Gaal is not only trying to restore Man Utd to winning ways, he’s trying to rediscover the team’s identity and the players he is trying to replace are irreplaceable.
You cannot buy a player as perfect as Paul Scholes – someone who is not only of the highest quality but also understands the club, its history and has the experience of playing a game every week where every single opponent feels like he’s in a cup final.
Van Gaal has been slated for spending £250million on players but he has had to replace key members of the playing staff and has done so with the development of youth players in mind. If you sign an average midfielder/forward who might score eight goals a season if you're lucky, an academy player loses out on the chance to show what he can do. Voice from the future: "And that little academy player grew up to Lionel Messi".
In his own words, some of United’s transfers in the summer were made for “the next guy”. That guy was widely believed to be Ryan Giggs until the managerial Grim Reaper started showing up at Carrington.
There are no leaders in the dressing room
“You have to play as a team and not as individuals. That's why I'm always going back to the vision, then the team, and then which players fit in my system, a 1-4-3-3, because I'm always playing that. If a young player can do it, then I select him. If it's an older player, it doesn't bother me; it's not the most important factor. Age is not important," said Van Gaal before agreeing to take over at Manchester United. Does he feel the same now?
His young team, a selection forced by a massive number of injuries, destroyed Danish champions FC Midtjylland on Thursday evening but teams like Arsenal are far more difficult opponents and United lack the inspirational leaders they have had on the pitch in the past.
When Wayne Rooney made his debut for United in 2004 as a 19 year old, he had already shown enormous potential in the Premier League and joined a team with Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes.
He wasn't expected to be the team's star player straight away and the players he found himself surrounded by had to perform to the highest standard possible or be dropped. Rooney and Michael Carrick can look as sad as they like after a defeat to Sunderland as they lament "the lads" not being good enough, but they are the veterans now – they are supposed to be leading the team.
Rio Ferdinand revealed earlier in the season that he and other United players used to kick Cristiano Ronaldo around the training ground and it was the player's desperate drive to succeed and the advice imparted physically by the United elders that sorted him out.
Is Chris Smalling the type of player to kick Ronaldo – or Memphis Depay - into shape? Juan Mata? Can you really buy a player that understands what "Manchester United means" when they're 19 and being paid more money than the Queen?
The repercussions of short-term thinking
When Manchester United hired Louis Van Gaal they must have had a plan but the negative atmosphere and poor results don’t seem to have been part of it. When this happens at Chelsea, the manager goes and now United stand over the big red button to execute Plan B: Operation Mourinho.
Mourinho is a master of winning trophies and undoubtedly one of the world's best coaches but he routinely burns out in his third season and the teams take time to recover from it.
Ed Woodward has the difficulty of deciding between instant, shareholder-pleasing short-term success or committing to the long-term strategy under a seasoned builder of teams which they embarked on in 2014.
It is early to draw comparisons with Liverpool, who haven't been anywhere close to recreating that consistent success for about 25 years, but United are at a crossroads.
Fans who call for Van Gaal’s head may find themselves in exactly the same position post-Rodgers Anfield is in now (the very same as post-Dalglish 2.0, post-Hodgson etc) – Jurgen Klopp is a great coach but hasn’t really been able to change a thing since taking charge. They might be happier if United appoint a new manager but there are such fine margins in football that ending an era on the luck of the draw, a spin on the injury roulette wheel and missed chances seems very short-termist.
Based on Van Gaal's past record, if Manchester United stick to the original plan, in five or ten years they will likely become a European powerhouse once more and be a team that not only wins, but wins a lot - and with a clear identity too.
United are in danger of trying to relive history instead of creating a new chapter in the book. Jose Mourinho almost guarantees short-term gain but if playing youngsters and trying to create the next generation of Manchester United players harms his chances of winning, he will not do it. How would he cope with the injury epidemic Van Gaal has had to deal with when his team of league winners capitulated so dismally this season?
Even with their crippling injury list, United are in the quarter finals of the Europa League, the FA Cup and sit fifth in the league - yet this is not deemed good enough by impatient supporters. Only three managers have ever won the title at Manchester United.
The glorious golden years - the Class of 92 - are over and if United want to experience another incredible period of dominance like that of Alex Ferguson's freakishly successful era, they must allow another to build a team. Van Gaal has done it before.