Louis Van Gaal’s failure to buy British is a problem for Manchester United

old-trafford

If one takes a closer look at the list of players bought by Louis van Gaal during his time as manager at Old Trafford (see below), one thing must start to worry a lot of Manchester United supporters, especially the British ones, but perhaps also those of us who were born before soccer became a full-fledged transnational and globalized entertainment industry – that is, in the time before it became politically incorrect to speak of national traditions and stereotypes and before the implosion of the nation-state.

2014/15

Luke Shaw
Ander Herrera
Marcos Rojo
Daley Blind
Angel Di Maria
Radamel Falcao

2015/16

Memphis Depay
Matteo Darmian
Bastian Schweinsteiger
Morgan Schneiderlin
Sergio Romero
(Anthony Martial)

But why worry? It’s because of the growing imbalance between foreign players and British (and Irish) players at Manchester United.

Historically, Manchester United have been a club of extremes, the extreme of extremes even, but at the same time also a club upholding a precarious balance between these extremes. One example is the simultaneous existence of severe, sometimes even fatal rupture (bankruptcy, Luftwaffe bombings, air disaster, American ownership) and unheard of continuity (Matt Busby’s 25 years, Alex Ferguson’s 27 years, Bobby Charlton’s 758 matches during a 20-year career, Ryan Giggs’s 963 matches during a 24-year career). Another would be the club’s strong roots in the local, working class, industrial North and its pioneering European adventures in the 1950s that have disseminated into the global appeal associated with Manchester United today. A third example is the club’s tradition of mixing British players with foreign ones.

For every Jesper Olsen, Manchester United had a Gordon Strachan. For every Ronaldo, a Rooney. For every Yorke, there was a Cole. For every Eric Cantona, a Mark Hughes. Today, Daley Blind is complemented by Chris Smalling. Matteo Darmian by Luke Shaw. But here it apparently stops if we take Van Gaal’s transfer strategy seriously. Shaw is the only British player bought during his reign, and the Dutchman has bought 11 players so far. He has, on top of this, released several British players brought up the United way at the club’s famous academy. The latest casualty was Jonny Evans, but before him Van Gaal sold Darren Fletcher and, controversially, Danny Welbeck.

I am not saying that these goodbyes were wrong. But what must start to look more and more worrying for a lot of United fans is the imbalance between foreigners and English players at Old Trafford. Manchester United have a history of providing the backbone of the English national team – Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney etc. Today, only Wayne Rooney (and perhaps Luke Shaw) can be considered regular United starters for the Three Lions. It may be that Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, especially the former, are beginning to establish themselves, but both were identified by Ferguson, not Van Gaal. Even Shaw was identified by David Moyes before Van Gaal replaced the Scot, and Van Gaal only sanctioned the transfer. Who knows who he would have gone for if he had had the time himself?

Alex Ferguson, and before him Ron Atkinson, used to identify the best British talent, and when they saw someone who stood out, either someone already established or someone with extraordinary talent – Bryan Robson, Wayne Rooney – they went for him.

Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward have identified several positions where Manchester United needed strengthening. At right back, they could have gone for Nathaniel Clyne or Seamus Coleman, instead they opted for Matteo Darmian (who has had a very convincing start at Old Trafford, but that is not the point here).

As a winger Van Gaal put faith in his countryman Memphis Depay. He looks like a coming superstar. But Manchester United could have gone for Raheem Sterling. Recently, Van Gaal talked about Marouane Fellaini as his alternative striker this season. Most fans would probably want Ed Woodward to push hard for Harry Kane to partner Rooney up front.

Arsène Wenger once said that nationality meant nothing to him (even though the French majorities at Arsenal during Wenger’s reign suggests otherwise). With the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, a long list of quickly bought foreign stars disrupted the balance at Stamford Bridge between British and international players. At San Siro, fans often saw Internazionale play with eight or nine Argentinians.

But Manchester United used to be different. Like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Manchester United’s teams were always characterized by a strong core of national players – the best of them – and three of four foreign superstars. Rooney and Ronaldo, Ferdinand and Vidic, Neville and Evra. Before that, Keane and Veron, Cole and Cantona, Irwin and Stam.

Admittedly, Manchester United still have a core of English players – Rooney, Carrick, Young, Shaw, Smalling, Jones – but it is gradually being undermined by the influx of foreign players. One English player and ten foreign players is an imbalance worth problematizing.

Ed Woodward needs to step up his interest in Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and John Stones. If Manchester United’s ambition is to be among the very best, the club of course need the best players from around the globe. But Manchester United also need to maintain their English identity and tradition for balance, and in order to do that they need the best British players.

Van Gaal and Ferguson both made their names by promoting youth. Van Gaal’s Ajax may even have inspired Ferguson to promote the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Neville, and Giggs. Perhaps it is time for Ferguson’s nationally balanced teams to inspire Van Gaal?

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5 Comments

  1. Muko September 1, 2015
    • Kevin September 1, 2015
      • Bishopville Red September 2, 2015
  2. Frill Artist September 1, 2015
  3. Henk Ribberink September 1, 2015

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