Louis van Gaal is 18 months and $375 million into his ”process” of rebuilding Manchester United. What’s it got him? So far this season, a playing squad lacking balance and depth, accusations that he is betraying Manchester United’s heritage of attacking football, and an ignominious exit from the group stage of the Champion League.
”United just look like an average team, and with an average team you are going to get average performances,” former United great Paul Scholes said after a 3-2 loss at Wolfsburg on Tuesday consigned the team to Thursday nights in the oft-maligned Europa League.
Supporters of the increasingly embattled Van Gaal argue he has stabilized United after a period of upheaval following Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013 and David Moyes’ ill-fated 10-month tenure. They’d point to a lengthy injury list that keeps robbing Van Gaal of key players. They’d say United is fourth in the Premier League, still has three trophies to play for this season and that it’s too soon to make judgments, especially with another transfer window looming.
Critics counter by saying it would be tough not to be in what appears to be the most open Premier League title race in years – although Chelsea somehow has managed to be out of contention already. They’d say being in the Europa League is humiliating – former United defender Rio Ferdinand called it ”embarrassing” – for a club of United’s wealth and stature.
And then there’s the cash United has spent under Van Gaal, which is the biggest gripe about the Dutchman.
How, for its biggest match of the season and having spent that much money, did Van Gaal end up with one fit striker (Anthony Martial) available? How was it that United ended the game with two young full backs (Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson) making just their second appearances for the team, and a 21-year-old midfielder in Nick Powell whose last match for United came 18 months ago in the English League Cup?
Injuries played a part, sure, but Van Gaal has let go of players like Adnan Januzaj, Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Rafael da Silva since he took charge, weakening the squad’s overall strength. Last month, he loaned out one of the three genuine strikers in his squad, James Wilson, to leave him with just Martial and the now-injured Wayne Rooney.
”At the moment, I cannot defend myself because we are out of the Champions League,” said Van Gaal, who has 18 months left on his contract.
He still gave it a try, though, by saying that ”facts” proved United was better than last season because the team had gone further in the League Cup – to the third round – and had reached the group stage of the Champions League after missing out on Europe entirely last season.
That will not satisfy United’s demanding fans, many of whom are struggling to tolerate the defensive style of play Van Gaal has brought to a club known for its expansive, attacking approach down the years.
Before the Wolfsburg game, five of United’s previous outings had finished 0-0. United actually went on the attack in Germany but that impacted on its previously stingy defense, which looked uncertain and conceded three goals for only the second time this season.
So, United has failed to advance from what initially seemed to be one of the least difficult groups of them all.
”I am not agreeing with any opinion that this was an easy group,” Van Gaal said, even if the United of old would have had no problem getting through.
And now the club is faced with the schedule-clogging, energy-sapping competition that is the Europa League. For some reason, the Thursday-Sunday turnaround for Europa League participants seems to be tougher than the Wednesday-Saturday one for teams in the Champions League.
”As a ManUtd player I was embarrassed going from the Champions league to the Europa league,” Ferdinand said on Twitter, ”we expected more of ourselves.”
In many ways, things just aren’t the same at Manchester United anymore.