Saturday 17 March 2018

Dion Fanning: Van Gaal's helplessness has become what defines him now

Dutchman has spent his career arguing he is right, but now it just feels like a bit of a show

Manchester United supporters Photo: Eddie Keogh
Manchester United supporters Photo: Eddie Keogh

Dion Fanning

When Louis van Gaal had moved on from the latest batch of "stupid" questions which have dogged him his whole career on Friday night, when he was done talking about the expensive bottle of wine Ed Woodward had given him for beating Liverpool, he had to consider the reality for Manchester United and a return this week to their bogey ground: Old Trafford.

For 90 minutes at the iPro Stadium, the Manchester United supporters had provided the backdrop to a fine performance by their team, but this week could be different. "I am not so popular any more," Van Gaal says.

On a Friday night in Derby, a town which has a fine football tradition of its own, the Manchester United supporters offered a reminder of what the club's historical expectations are. They sung of Georgie Best and Cristiano Ronaldo. They honoured Nemanja Vidic and, when the game was won, they chanted that "Forever and ever, we'll follow the boys of Man United, the Busby Babes."

There were, it was noted by some, no songs about the players they were watching beat Derby County. In time the fans might sing about Anthony Martial or Jesse Lingard, but on Friday night, they provided support while also making a statement about the club's traditions, and what is required from the present generation at all levels of the club.

"Today they were a big part of Manchester United," Van Gaal said later. "I heard more the fans of Manchester United than Derby County. I think it is also fantastic that so many came to see boring Manchester United, in spite of that."

Van Gaal might have overestimated the drawing power of his side. The United supporters hadn't come to see Morgan Schneiderlin give the ball away, or watch Marouane Fellaini perform as an emergency centre-forward when, in the first half, the emergency was in the position he was selected to play in: midfield.

Van Gaal is not responsible for all these problems as will become clear when he leaves. Manchester United are unattractive to watch because the philosophy he is wedded to is particularly unappealing when implemented by the players United have signed.

Van Gaal had gone into the game complaining about the "awful" stories which had appeared in the aftermath of the defeat at home to Southampton. These stories included reports that he had offered to resign, a suggestion, if anything, which portrays him in quite a noble light.

He is still there, having survived the tricky trip to Derby, but an even more testing week awaits. United, the club that thrived under the long-term stability provided by Alex Ferguson, now is existing week-to-week and, at times, day-to-day.

Last week Van Gaal talked about seeing out his contract, something which is clearly the desperate desire of the executives at the club, not necessarily because they have overwhelming faith in the manager, but because they won't know what to do if he goes. The emergence of Ryan Giggs as a central figure is baffling, but also an illustration of the power vacuum.

If Van Gaal survives until the summer, what then? Will they pursue Neymar, Gareth Bale and other galacticos or will they appoint a sporting director or someone who might have knowledge of players beyond the stars?

But the summer is a long way away. This week, with Stoke at Old Trafford and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, will be tougher, especially if the fans at home show their frustration.

When it was put to Van Gaal that it might be easier for United to play away from home than at Old Trafford at the moment, he was typically dismissive. "Why this question? It is easier at home because we have won more matches at home than away."

In the Premier League, United have won five games at Old Trafford and five away from their ground. They haven't scored in the first half of any game at Old Trafford since they played Wolfsburg on September 30.

Perhaps the home fans' views are understandable in that context, but it is not new that a club's support can feel so different home and away, When Roy Keane criticised the prawn sandwich brigade, he distinguished them from United's away supporters who were, he said then, "as good as any".

If things go wrong at Old Trafford on Tuesday night then Van Gaal will see a different type of supporter. There will be boos and snarls, and the anguished howls of impatience from fans of a club who are facing into a third season without a Premier League title.

Perhaps they would have shown more restraint with a different type of football, but it is impossible to say. United may have failed in the selection of the two managers to succeed Alex Ferguson, but the general sense of drift is as critical.

On Friday night in Derby, it was possible to believe in Louis van Gaal's Manchester United again, but perhaps only for the 90 minutes it took to defeat a Championship side which had only won one of their previous six matches.

Van Gaal was happy with the win, and he would return home to drink the bottle of wine which Woodward had given his manager for beating Liverpool. Whenever United beat a top six side, Woodward presented him with a nice bottle of wine, Van Gaal revealed. It wasn't, one reporter asked, a way of saying thank you after the tough week the manager had endured.

"That is again a stupid question. It is not a question of one match. It's difficult to understand but it is a process. And it is a period of three years. And this board is very intelligent to understand that."

Others might have tired of the process and Van Gaal has looked fed up with it too. He has spent his whole career arguing that he is right. During his time as a player at Sparta Rotterdam he was booked five times, but never for a foul. Every time it was for dissent. But there is no ferocity to his righteousness any more. When he criticised the questions from journalists on Friday night, it felt more like a performance. There was little tension in the room, certainly not compared to the occasions when Alex Ferguson would turn on a reporter. It felt like a show. Here was the Van Gaal eccentricity we had heard so much about.

His helplessness is what defines him now. He reacted angrily to a question that wondered if he had allowed United to play with more freedom or if that was down to the opposition, suggesting it was set up for a headline.

"They have always freedom from me," he said, perhaps aware of the reports that the players have had more of a say in things recently. "It is the same training sessions the last three days,"

There will be tougher questions if United fail on Tuesday night, if the crowd turn on the manager again. Van Gaal has lost any certainty about the future.

"I'm not a stupid man, I am an intelligent man. I cannot predict the atmosphere. I hope we can give the same level of performance as today. It's not so important that they yell at me, it's more that they are supporting the players. That's the most important thing. The players have the most difficult task. They have to get a result at that hour, with that resistance and there are no excuses."

He seemed less concerned with his own fate, but that can change weekly as well, something he has witnessed many times in his extraordinary career. "I am not so popular any more, ok. It's also not the first time that it happens with me, but I can survive."

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