Ideally, this column should have focused on Leicester City who sit atop the Premier League table on Christmas.
Claudio Ranieri’s brilliant Foxes have taken the tournament by storm, riding on the good old 4-4-2, width, pace and the Mahrez-Vardy axis. A side that spent £15 million on transfers during close season, are now serious contenders to win the title. And what a story it would be if they get there, outperforming the pretenders and big-spenders. Leicester have the support of every neutral and come May, they will hopefully present us with the opportunity to stand up and applaud.
For now, however, attention shifts to a Dutchman who has taken centre stage, for all the wrong reasons, in the lead-up to the festive period and hectic activities. In charge of a team in free fall and under immense pressure from media and fans, something within Louis van Gaal eventually snapped. His five-minute rant and subsequent walkout at the Old Trafford media room last Wednesday was bizarre. Even in his verbal assault the 64-year-old sounded like a beaten man. Here are some excerpts:
“Has anybody in this room not a feeling to apologise to me? Nobody has that feeling? That’s what I’m wondering.
“I think I was already sacked, I read. I have been sacked. My colleague (Jose Mourinho) was here already. What do you think happens with my wife or with my kids? Or with my grandchildren? Or with the fans of Manchester United? Or my friends? What do you think?
“No, I don’t think that you can do that because you’ve to stick by the facts and when I get calls off Alex Ferguson and David Gill and Ed Woodward because you’re creating something that is not good, what is not being the facts, now I’ve to answer questions. I don’t think I want to do it. Well what are the facts?
“I only say now I am focused on Stoke City, I help my players. I wish you a Merry Christmas and also maybe a Happy New Year when I see you. Enjoy the wine and a mince pie. Goodbye.”
Van Gaal is walking a tightrope after back-to-back losses against minnows Bournemouth and Norwich City. In fact, at the time of going to press, United haven’t won their last six matches. They’ve dropped from first to fifth in the league table. To make matters worse, they are out of the Champions League as well. The three-time European champions will now have to suffer the indignity of playing Thursday night football. A top four finish in the Premier League is, also, under serious threat. Over £250 million have been spent in transfer market since the 64-year-old arrived at the North-West of England. His squad still looks limp. United have become one of the most boring sides in the league under him. Van Gaal must initiate a course correction or perish.
To be honest, rumours linking Van Gaal’s sacking and Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford didn’t have much to do with the conventional media. A couple of tweets posted from former Manchester City player turned TV pundit Trevor Sinclair’s account had fanned the flames. Sinclair later apologised for the tweets, clarifying that the messages were sent by a prankster as he left his phone “on the table at a Christmas party”. But by then the social media had gone into a virtual meltdown. Yes, it was disrespectful, but after 30 years of managerial experience in top-flight football Van Gaal should have taken it in his stride. He exposed his vulnerability instead.
“In fairness, Louis van Gaal’s press conference was Manchester United’s most gripping five minutes of the season.
“Had Manchester United’s performances on the pitch been as dramatic as LVG’s five-minute Christmas address, he would not be fighting to save his job,” ex-Blackburn Rovers midfielder Robbie Savage, a United academy graduate, wrote in Mirror.
For now, there’s no change of guard. United don’t hand pink-slips to their managers at the drop of a hat—they still regret pulling the trigger on David Moyes after only nine months. But atmosphere might become vitriolic if Van Gaal fails to turn things around by New Year. The home fixture against Chelsea on Monday is going to be a win or bust affair.
Van Gaal might have been successful elsewhere, but he’s struggling to come to terms with the pace, intensity and competitiveness of the Premier League. This is a tournament that separates the men from the boys. The veteran manager must change his philosophy to survive.
He has to defy huge odds, though, to escape to safety. It’s very likely that the Red Devils will have a new manager in 2016. But who is the right candidate for the job, especially when the club is in crisis?
To some fans and a section of the media, Mourinho could be United’s saviour. There’s no questioning his pedigree and success. He remains in high demand despite the fact that Chelsea parted ways with him only a couple of weeks ago. To be precise, Mourinho was sacked by his own players who simply refused to play for him. The 52-year-old Portuguese has had a habit of suffering this third season syndrome. It had happened during his first term at the Bridge. Real Madrid gave him the boot only a few months after extending his contract to 2016. This time, just seven months after guiding Chelsea to Premier League title and signing a new four-year deal, he had been shown the exit door. He lost the dressing room and subsequently lost Roman Abramovich’s backing.
Mourinho no longer remains the ‘special one’ but the lack of elite managers in world football has helped him retain his charm. Agreed that he’s perhaps the best option for a quick fix, but United have always looked long-term and there’s a school of thought that appointing him would be contrary to club ethos. Pep Guardiola would be free next summer but according to some reports, Manchester City have already clinched the deal. Carlo Ancelotti has committed himself to Bayern Munich as Guardiola’s replacement. All these take us to Ryan Giggs, the United legend and Van Gaal’s assistant.
The iconic Zinedine Zidane believes Giggs would seamlessly fit into the role despite his lack of managerial experience. “The fantastic thing about Ryan Giggs is that he already knows Manchester United better than anybody.
I think that he and Paul Scholes could do a very good job if they were given the chance. You will always get arguments that they’re young or that they’re not experienced. But between them they have been at Manchester United for 30 years. And you cannot be better equipped than that,” Zidane had said after Giggs assumed the caretaker job following Moyes’ exit.
United have over 650 million global fans and, especially, the younger lot was “spoiled” by success. It’s good that they’re now witnessing the flip side. It would help them put things in perspective. It takes time to rebuild and it would be very unfair if the Welshman is not allowed an opportunity to preside over the transition. Barcelona showed faith in a callow Guardiola and their decision to choose him ahead of Mourinho in 2008 reaped rich dividends.
United should take a leaf out of Barcelona’s book to move forward.