Friday 15 December 2017

Van Gaal's accidental revolution may be enough to save him

The emergence of players like Marcus Rashford has energised Manchester United and manager Louis Van Gaal Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
The emergence of players like Marcus Rashford has energised Manchester United and manager Louis Van Gaal Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

Tim Rich

There were not many arguments to be made for Louis van Gaal as the new year broke over Old Trafford, but Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward tried hard to put one together.

Put simply it was this: Van Gaal's work encompassed the whole of the club, especially the young footballers who have been such a part of Manchester United's history.

The name of Jose Mourinho was not mentioned but the subtext was clear. The man who would succeed Van Gaal has little time or patience for developing footballers, as his treatment of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at Stamford Bridge suggests. Even one of his closest allies, Brendan Rodgers, who was his youth-team manager at Chelsea, remarked that Mourinho prefers ready-made, off-the-peg footballers.

Van Gaal's reputation was made when an 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert scored Ajax's winner in the 1995 European Cup final.

Marcus Rashford, also 18, was the 11th graduate of United's academy who has been given his debut by the Dutchman and it was by a distance the most impressive beginning. Two goals against Midtjylland to see United through in the Europa League, two more against Arsenal on Sunday.

"I have seen some unbelievable debuts in my time but nothing quite like that," said Michael Carrick, who, because of the extent of United's injury list, faced Arsenal at centre-half.

United's was a victory shaped by young footballers - Guillermo Varela and Jesse Lingard are 22, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who looked astonishingly assured as a makeshift left-back, is 18.

"They have all looked comfortable, they have all settled in really well and everyone responds to that," said Carrick.

"The older boys want to look after them and it brings everyone together.

"Marcus is very down to earth. He is quite quiet at the moment, although he might come out of his shell after this. I was talking to him in the changing rooms and he was speaking about the atmosphere, what it means to him and seeing the fans respond.

"It is like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes you take things for granted and to see what it means to the young lads is incredible."

There was more advice for Rashford. Juan Mata called him "a killer" but added: "Obviously, he needs to keep calm now. Everyone is going to call him, text him and write about him but right now he needs to keep calm."

Old Trafford was not calm on Sunday afternoon but it was a more optimistic place. A little over a week ago, as Manchester United's double-decker coach pulled into the car park at Shrewsbury, it appeared Van Gaal's time was done, his future more in doubt than it had been over Christmas. Had he lost any one of the next three matches, no special pleading would have saved him.

That it was a group of young footballers who rescued him appears apt, given Van Gaal's history and that of the club.

And yet the rise of a group of players who may yet come to be called the Class of 2016 was not the calm, considered decision that Alex Ferguson made when he promoted the Class of '92.

Ferguson was insistent that the talents of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers could not be held back and he dispensed brutally with Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis to accommodate them.

Woodward's grand plan had been to bring marquee signings to Old Trafford. The failure of Angel Di Maria did not deter him from attempting to sign Gareth Bale or travelling to Barcelona in a forlorn effort to attract Neymar to Manchester.

The youngsters played because a dozen injuries meant that there was nobody else.

Manchester United's youth policy had been attacked for failing to keep pace with Manchester City, who could offer their young footballers games in a specially designed 6,000-seat stadium and a place at one of Manchester's elite private schools, St Bede's.

Woodward had begun an urgent review of the academy that had led to Paul McGuinness, who had been associated with developing its young players since Ferguson's day, leaving the club. Brian McClair, their academy director for nine years, had already quit to become performance director for the Scottish FA.

Between October and January, the U-18s lost 12 of their 13 fixtures - the win was over Queen's Park Rangers in the FA Youth Cup and required extra-time.

The rise of Rashford and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, another who has settled astonishingly easily into the pressures of first-team football, was, like many things in sport, in part a happy accident.

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