Fergie Time over as Glazers flex their muscles
Manchester United's owners have broken ties with Sir Alex Ferguson and the past by handing the manager's job to a European heavyweight in Louis van Gaal
The Glazers bought Manchester United nine years ago, but only now is the takeover complete.
Louis van Gaal's appointment as manager was by the Glazers, for the Glazers, and brings to a close the age in which the club’s American owners tiptoed around tradition.
During Sir Alex Ferguson's long reign, the Glazers allowed the football side of England’s biggest club to run itself. There was no need to impose big footballing decisions from above.
While Ferguson ran the trophy factory, the Glazers fixed their energies on servicing the club’s debt by extending the commercial reach to snacks, drinks, photocopiers and tyres. Even when Ferguson stepped down a year to the day prior to Van Gaal’s appointment, the decision to hire David Moyes looked like an extension of Fergie Time.
United’s fans can say goodbye to all that. There was probably no symbolic importance to Van Gaal signing exactly 12 months after United’s 5-5 draw at West Brom on the final day of the 2012-13 season – but the rumble of shifting furniture is unmistakable.
After the failed experiment with Moyes – and the corporate disinclination to rush Ryan Giggs up the line to the No1 job – the Glazers have played it ultra-safe, picking a name from the slim brochure of managers with a proven ability to control the biggest clubs.
Van Gaal is the inverse of Moyes. He is a technocratic autocrat, a continental A-lister who is romantic in his inclinations about the game but no abstract thinker in the more extreme Dutch sense. Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Holland jumped out at the Glazers after Moyes’s CV had listed his achievements at Preston North End and Everton.
Van Gaal is invariably described as “arrogant”. Moyes, on the other hand, could be unyielding in his approach to training and team selection but was never equipped to impose his record or personality on a dressing room of multimillionaires.
Van Gaal knows that a modern top-echelon squad is a human powder keg.
He will not see the love or approval of those players who turned against Moyes. The drip of admiring comment about Robin van Persie suggests Van Gaal has already identified his main ally at Old Trafford.
This will create its own tensions, given Van Persie’s meagre contribution last season, though manager and star player will be helped by the unavoidable realism about how far United have fallen.
Though the appointment bears the imprint of Ed Woodward, their commercial dealmaker supreme, it also fits the business logic of trans-Atlantic owners who are ready to join the European mainstream of two-to-three year managerial cycles.
Ajax aside, in his early days, Van Gaal is not one for long stays. He imposes his will on players, fires them out of a cannon and then either falls out with people or goes hunting for new experiences.
The Glazers will be happy with that. Though Ryan Giggs is Van Gaal’s assistant manager – the most prestigious title all sides could have come up with – United’s owners were obviously not looking to be captive to the Class of ’92: the gang of legends who rode back in on tanks when Moyes was sacked.
Keeping Giggs could be cast as succession planning. More likely, Woodward and the Glazers felt a Van Gaal-Giggs dream team would be the best formula for success without allowing Fergie’s Fledglings too much power.
The combination has much to commend it. Giggs, if he avoids looking at his calendar like Gordon Brown waiting to take over from Tony Blair, is the bridge to all ages at the academy, as well as most first-team players.
The legacy of Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson is not part of the new equation, except in the sense that Van Gaal, too, expects his teams to attack with a dagger between their teeth.
Positivity, entertainment, charisma, authority. The Glazers have signed up to them all. They no longer think in dynasties and 10-year reigns. No other big European club, with the exception of Arsenal, is in the hands of an immovable patriarch.
The velvet transition to Moyes has given way to one of the biggest cultural changes in the club’s history, with United turning to Europe for the first time, and another wholesale reshaping of the coaching staff.
Van Gaal’s countenance is suitably aggressive, his style of play appropriately bold and his record befitting of the Manchester United manager’s job.
Less clear is the club’s ability to attract the half-dozen players he needs to compete with England’s current top four. By any measure, they need a full-back on both sides, at least one centre-half and two central midfielders (preferably three).
The chain of command in the transfer market from the Glazers to Van Gaal runs through Woodward. There is no reason why the new manager should agree with Moyes’s choices but equally plenty of risk and drawing up a new list and starting from zero.
We already know Van Gaal will have an energising effect. Now player recruitment becomes the crux. As the Glazers complete their annexation of the club by hiring a big shot 12 months to the day after Ferguson’s retirement, the hard part still awaits. United have their big-name manager. Now they need a team.