So, Louis van Gaal has been told that he will see out the third year of his Manchester United contract – at least according to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, which reports that talk of José Mourinho joining the club is wide of the mark. If true, Van Gaal will still be in post come August; news few United fans wanted to hear. After all, the veteran coach is six games from a second disastrous Premier League season, whether United qualifies for the Champions League or not. Rant has little stomach for a third season of football under the Dutchman – and 30 reasons why he should be awarded the Order of the Boot forthwith.
It’s the results, stupid
Sure, the Dutchman took over a team that had finished seventh the season before, but also one that was league champions just 24 months before. His squad needed an overhaul and he has been provided the funds to do so. In return United scraped into last season’s top four and may, or may not, make it this year. The dip post- Sir Alex Ferguson is one thing, but Van Gaal’s team has been out-performed by Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and, at times, West Ham United, this season. It puts the Dutchman’s performance in some context. Then there are the cups, with little impression made on Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup or League Cup. United’s replay at West Ham next week is the last chance at silverware this season. It is not good enough by some stretch.
The mind-numbingly uninspiring football
Let’s face it, not since Dave Sexton patrolled the Old Trafford sidelines has the football been quite this dull. Van Gaal’s process-driven approach has sucked the creativity out of United. Long gone are the days when Ferguson would send his team out with little more tactical instruction than “enjoy it” and “lads, it’s Spurs.” Today, classroom lectures on the polynomial regression of inverted full-backs begin on a Tuesday, ending sometime Saturday morning. The result is football that sells the benefits of watching paint dry. No thanks, and no thanks again.
Restricting players’ freedoms
The tendency towards conservatism, the insistence on over-analysis, the fury when instructions are ignored or forgotten; Van Gaal has little interest in individual talent beyond the team ethic. It might be a good philosophy in a team sport, bar the metronomic football that it has produced. Talented players are reigned in, their joy limited. Van Gaal truly sees the world in black and white – and will continue to do so.
Marouane Fellaini in midfield – or anywhere
In what scenario does doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result ever make work? It is the enigma wrapped in a riddle that is Van Gaal’s use of Fellaini in midfield. The Belgian can neither attack nor defend, boasts a first touch of agricultural nomenclature, possesses no range of passing, and has a shocking lack of discipline. Indeed, Fellani’s two greatest qualities are his left and right elbows. Strange player and never one of suitable quality for United; an expensive and embarrassing mistake. Yet, Fellaini appears in Van Gaal’s team too often when fit. Or not fit as it now turns out. It. Makes. No. Sense. Never again.
Rooney, Rooney, Rooney
For that matter why should Wayne Rooney continue to enjoy the “special privileges” of being United captain? With just seven goals in the Premier League this season, Rooney’s performance has consistently remained on the wrong side of underwhelming. In fact of Rooney’s 13 goals in all competitions this season, just three have come against teams in the top half of the Premier League, while the player’s performances have declined year-on-year for the past three seasons. Worse still, Rooney has become a disruption to the team. First, Rooney shunted Anthony Martial out of his role as United’s number nine, and then Juan Mata from number 10. When the Scouser returns to fitness later this month, he’ll disrupt the attacking unit once again. All eyes on the Chinese Super League for an ‘out’ that will suit all parties this summer.
The choice of captain
Hookers. Grannies. Smoking. Drinking. Stealing. Transfer requests. Screaming at your team-mates. Leading by, er, example. No, it wasn’t a great choice. Then there’s that interview technique: erm, ugh, yeah, erm, hopefully, erm, ugh, take each game as it comes, erm, ugh. Try that in Mandarin, Wayne. Please. And take Louis with you.
Square pegs in round holes
Count the number in United’s last match against Everton: Marcos Rojo, a natural centre-back; Daley Blind, a natural left-back; Jess Lingard, a natural winger; Juan Mata, a natural number 10; Anthony Martial, a natural number nine. Positional flexibility is one thing, but almost all of the 93 games that Van Gaal has been in charge has featured players in roles that are sometimes not comfortable, and often not ideal. Angel di Maria is the prime example of a player so frazzled by the policy that he became the world’s first homeopathic player – diluted to the point that none of the original was left in existence. Di Maria played in five different positions during his 27 games for the club.
Juan Mata on the right wing
Talking of which, when you posses a world-class creative player, why ask them to spend so much time on the periphery of the game? True, some of Mata’s worst performances have come at 10, and some of his best on the right, but as a rule, Mata creates more from areas where he can dictate play. Yet, Van Gaal’s essential MO has little to do with creativity – even attacking selections are made on the basis of structure and defensive contribution. With Rooney injured – a very poor number 10 in any case – Van Gaal has turned to Lingard, a young player better off-the-ball than he is on it. A third year of this? No thanks!
The Plan B
Launch it at Fellaini. Or switch to a three-man central defence. Or substitute a full-back. Or two full-backs. Maybe switch the full-backs around for no particular reason. Or substitute a defensive midfielder. You get the picture. For all Van Gaal’s tactical renown, the Dutchman’s in-game management is shockingly poor. And it always tends towards the conservative. Picture the scenario: United, desperate for a goal in the final game of the season – one that would secure Champions League football – leaves Van Gaal with little choice but to throw caution to the wind and send on a striker. Yet, the Dutchman is just as likely to pull off Martial for Antonio Valencia at full-back. It is and remains infuriating.
The lack of a Plan B
See above. Strategy, what strategy.
The lack of tactical consistency
3-5-2. 4-4-2. 4-4-2 diamond. 4-2-3-1. 4-3-1-2. 4-3-2-1. 4-3-3. 4-1-4-1. 4-5-1. No, not Van Gaal’s telephone number, nor the winning Lotto ticket this Saturday, but a range of formations that the Dutchman has used during his time at United. Flexibility is one thing; a total lack of certainty about the system is quite another. Almost two years into Van Gaal’s regime and only now is there a flicker of light, with players beginning to understand ‘the philosophy’ and the Dutchman sending his team out with a recognisable strategy. So, anyone for a three man defence at White Hart Lane this weekend? Exactly.
The overly-clever Plan A
There are times in which Van Gaal gives the impression of supreme arrogance. Not just that he knows more than anybody else, especially pundits and supporters, but that it is imperative to prove it. The bizarre tactical changes, incessant tinkering, and use of players out of their natural position – it is a pattern repeated ad infinitum under the Dutchman. Van Gaal’s decision to deploy Mata wide and Lingard inside against Liverpool, with the Merseysiders starting the ponderous James Milner at left-back, reeked of the ‘overly clever plan.’ The trouble, as always, was the Dutchman’s inability to switch to an effective plan B when it became clear his strategy had failed. No more.
Adnan Januzaj, James Wilson and Andrea Pereira
True, Van Gaal has proffered opportunities to a number of young players this season, although his long-term post injury crisis commitment is still an open question. After all, when Rooney returns, Lingard or Rashford may well be out. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson or Marcos Rojo in a crucial tie? It’s going to be the mediocre Argentinian, isn’t it. Then there’s Januzaj, Wilson and Pereira – a trio of highly talented academy graduates to whom Van Gaal has offered so little time. There have, variously, been accusations of limited development and poor attitude – but that is for the manager to fix – and it isn’t done by ostracising genuine talent. Just two years ago there were credible efforts made by PSG to sign Januzaj – at upwards of £25 million. Today, he’ll be (un)lucky to play under Van Gaal ever again. If the Dutchman remains the trio leaves.
The transfer market
Van Gaal doesn’t make all the decisions of course, but without a Director of Football, his remains the loudest voice at Old Trafford. The successes are so few over the past two years. The hits that Van Gaal has enjoyed are either by accident, or not of his design: Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, for example. Elsewhere, players on which he signed off have hardly been major successes: Victor Valdes, Daley Blind, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Who he hasn’t played
Talking of Herrera, what exactly is Van Gaal’s problem? The Spaniard is certainly no imposter when it comes to promoting dynamic, quick and inventive passing – three qualities that United has lacked so often over the past two years. Yet, the Dutchman appears to not fully trust the former Atletico Bilbao midfielder. Herrera has made 46 starts over two campaigns under Van Gaal, and come off the bench on a further 19 occasions. Yet, when Herrera does start it is not always in roles that bring out the best in the 26-year-old. Herrera has played 10 times at number 10 this season, and just twice a little deeper at eight. Yet, by far the Spaniard’s most effective performances have come in a deeper role, and there were far more of those last season than this.
The unnecessarily thin squad
United’s small squad, said Van Gaal, was a decision made to promote opportunities for younger players. Sounds credible, until the list of youngsters dumped after only a few games is examined. Van Gaal’s rush to youth has been a factor of injury and desperation and not strategy. Instead, the small squad and an intensive training regimen that has relented not one bit despite the brutal Premier League pace, has subjected United’s youngsters to exposure in the worst possible circumstances. It was unnecessary given United’s commitments this season in four competitions – a poor strategy, poorly executed.
Selling Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck
It is true that neither Welbeck nor Hernández made the kind of impact at Old Trafford that ensures regular first team football. And yet, at times this season, with United short of goals, the pair has undoubtedly been missed. Chicharito has scored 20 goals in 32 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen – significantly more than any United forward. Meanwhile, Welbeck has returned from a lengthy injury with a flurry of goals and positive performances for Arsenal. The real crime, of course, was Van Gaal’s decision not to recruit another striker in the summer. With Rooney washed up, Martial inexperienced, and Rashford a fortunate find relatively late in the season, it is little wonder United has scored just 39 times in 31 Premier League games.
Not signing a centre back
Not only has United been subject to Daley Blind at centre-back, a limited player whose excellent reading of the game cannot always hide a lack of pace or sound positional sense, but also to the vagaries of injury. Of which there have been many during Van Gaal’s time at the club. Chris Smalling’s excellent form has, for large parts of the campaign, masked a huge problem – one that might just cost United a place in next season’s Champions League. After all, Van Gaal’s response to his shaky back-four has been to limit United’s openness, and by default the team’s goalscoring and fans’ entertainment. It was a decision of cataclysmic neglect.
Bizarre treatment of Victor Valdes
Valdes, a six-time La Liga winner, with three European Cups and a World Cup winners’ medal didn’t fancy playing reserve-team football. It wasn’t the best attitude, but instead of making up with Valdes, Van Gaal ostracised the Spaniard, forcing the ‘keeper to train with the academy side before sending him to Belgium on loan. Valdes may not have been of the requisite quality – although, really, could he be any worse than Sergio Romero – but Van Gaal’s treatment of an experienced player resonates strongly of victimisation. Some of the Spanish-speaking clique at United, we are led to believe, also felt this way too.
Dropping David De Gea
Has there ever, even once, been the suggestion that De Gea is less than professional in his approach? Through the medium of the press, via the player’s agent, De Gea let it be known that he wanted to play as the drama over a mooted transfer to Real Madrid unfolded. Van Gaal thought not, subjecting United to the aforementioned Romero for four games, including a howler against Swansea City that cost United a point. Food for thought should the Reds miss out on Europe by a point. All for a rather pointless point that Van Gaal wanted to make. You get the point?
Calling out players publicly
Schweinsteiger is a player of huge experience, who having played at two clubs under Van Gaal, is probably immune to the Dutchman’s more idiosyncratic habits. Paddy McNair, a 21-year-old trying to make his way in the game, is not. The pair are not the only United players to have been called out over the past two years. Valdes knows it. So does Lingard, who was substituted shortly after missing a good chance in the Reds’ 3-3 draw at Newcastle United earlier this season. Little wonder that rumours of discontent continue to circulate. It is just one facet of Van Gaal’s pettiness. Keep it in-house Louis. Or better still, take it with you.
Getting spooked by defeat at Leicester City
There was a brief period in the late summer 2014 when Van Gaal’s side looked good. Very good. Then Leicester at the King Power Stadium happened – the Foxes turned round a deficit to win 5-3 in spectacular fashion. Van Gaal blamed his defence for the catastrophe, but he regretted his side’s openness more. The Dutchman has rarely come out of his shell since. It had a visceral effect on Van Gaal’s ambition and willingness to take risks. Already ever more conservative, the Dutchman fully gave up on the notion of following United’s rich tradition of open, attractive, attacking football.
Failing to get the best out of Angel Di Maria
There is no one party to blame for Di Maria’s failure at United, although if you have to pick one then it’s Louis. The Argentine is far from perfect, even though he is enjoying a strong season with Paris Saint German. Yet, all of Di Maria’s idiosyncrasies are those that Van Gaal cannot stand: risk-taking, wasting possession, a lack of positional discipline. Di Maria was punished for it, moved from role-to-role each week until he had started in five different positions in a single season with the club. As Di Maria’s value sank in Van Gaal’s estimation, so did the winger’s level of commitment to the cause. He has contributed to more than 20 goals at PSG this season. Q. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? A. Van Gaal’s pig-headed mistrust of flair.
Mistaking possession for domination
Achieving 70 per cent possession with no shots on goal is not “dominating of the game.” Not by some way. At times Van Gaal’s United has taken not one pass too many, but 10. Control of the ball is a sound defensive strategy, but United’s brand of one-paced attack has led to some of the most monotonous football at Old Trafford in living memory. Possession without a purpose. Toothless too. It cannot continue.
Van Gaal warned that it might be so, but nearing the end of two seasons under the Dutchman it is not yet fully clear that his methods have sunk in. There has been more cohesion in recent weeks, but few supporters will bet on such a performance against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend. Inconsistency remains a strong theme among a squad that does not fully buy into the manager’s philosophy. Hours of video analysis, tactics sheets and microscopic instructions on where to stand, where to pass, and how many touches to take have sucked the freedom of expression out of United’s football. “Ignore him, he’ll brainwash you,” one young player was said to have been told by a club elder. Well, quite.
The X Files
Phil Jones on corners; Robin van Persie in midfield; Nick Powell for Juan Mata at Bournemouth. The unexplained and other bizarre choices.
That rampant ego
There was a time when Van Gaal’s ego brought amusement. The certain certainty of a man who knew what he wanted and liked it. After David Moyes’ weakness, Van Gaal’s charisma seemed fresh. Important even. Yet, 689 days since Van Gaal’s appointment at Old Trafford there are few supporters who can stomach yet another display of pompous defiance in the face of turgid football and poor results. There is time when humility counts – it was about 600 days ago.
The cheap insults
Sure, Neil Custis is a man who likes a doughnut and isn’t afraid to admit it. The Sun reporter probably hasn’t seen his feet in a while. But fat shaming? In public? Really? Van Gaal’s annoyance at “that fat man’s” questions was a childish response to a childish reporter. The Dutchman should have been above Custis’ mocking. That he wasn’t says much.
PSV at home
There are some games for which it is impossible to forgive Van Gaal, even months after the trauma has subsided. With United’s Champions League future in the balance, Van Gaal’s team played a match devoid of ambition, at Old Trafford of all places. Chasing a goal, and three vital points, the Dutchman’s outfit played out a tepid scoreless draw reeking of a team that didn’t care, and manager too cowardly to throw caution to the wind. Imagine Camp Nou, 1999. United 0-1 down with seconds left on the clock. Van Gaal would have brought on a full-back for a striker and crowed about the amount of possession in defeat. Van Gaal was always a strange choice at United; this game might well be his defining moment.
Has anybody worked it out yet?