The clouds looming above Old Trafford these days seem undecided. They just can’t make up their minds if they should open the floodgates, or if they should evaporate and let the sun start shining again.
Each time an opening into the paradise of Top 4 can be felt, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United blow their chance. Recently, although the chronology was inverted, they only managed a draw against a Vardy-less Leicester team thus dropping two vital points, only for them to see Manchester City drop all three points against Southampton immediately after their own disappointing match. This has happened many a time this season. And as everybody knows, missing points are felt so much more intensely the closer you get to the final match day.
With only three games remaining, the chances of a Champions League spot look more and more out of Van Gaal’s reach, and that scenario would probably initiate the opening of the floodgates.
But the sunshine may in fact also still break through the clouds. One thing is certain: Manchester United are still in the hunt for a trophy this season. The FA Cup trophy can be in the horizon, and chances are – on paper at least – pretty good to win it. Crystal Palace at Wembley sounds manageable, but these cup-ties have a history of their own in terms of Davids cheating Goliaths. And as already mentioned, it is not impossible for Manchester United to actually break into Top 4. A Manchester City defeat at Arsenal would play the ball into United’s own court again.
But does all this matter if we turn our attention toward the main reason for the undecidedness of the clouds looming above Old Trafford, that is, the question of who will be in charge at Old Trafford next season? At one point, or, perhaps rather several points, during this season it seemed certain that Van Gaal would be released after the season. Champions League elimination after the group stages, losing in Denmark to FC Midtjylland, several drab (and goalless) performances in the league etc. Now there are signs pointing in the opposite direction, though. Signs such as the FA Cup Final at Wembley, the chance of Top 4, and, not least, glimpses of a kind of soccer that almost reminds one of the good old days under Sir Alex Ferguson – that is, speedy, attacking football with great emphasis on width. But only glimpses. And only few of them to be honest. West Ham away in the FA Cup, Crystal Palace at home in the league. The first fifteen minutes at home against Leicester, but then a collapse into the old Van Gaal mischiefs of sideways anti-penetration and anti-urgency soccer. And a couple of good results (but no spectacular soccer) such as away wins against Manchester City and Liverpool.
But perhaps we forget the most important reason for the possibility of Van Gaal actually remaining in Manchester for one more year and thus seeing out his initial three-year contract: his success with integrating a series of young (academy) players into the first team. Apart from the few glimpses of attacking and fluid soccer, the possible, yet increasingly unlikely Top 4 spot, and the chance of a trophy at Wembley, the sense of optimism surrounding Old Trafford these weeks mostly has to do with the future that some of these young players seem to promise the Old Trafford faithful. Not since 1995 when Sir Alex Ferguson introduced The Class of ’92 has there been a more talented group of youngsters at Old Trafford. The expensive buy Anthony Martial has been worth the money, and everybody seems to agree that he is a future world-class player. Jesse Lingard, whom Alex Ferguson predicted would come good when reaching the age of 22, has got his breakthrough this season. Teenage sensation Marcus Rashford took his chance when he got it, and even though one should always be careful with players so young and with so few games under their belt, it also seems as if fans and experts are sure of his ability to stay on top. The label ‘future world class’ has also been heard about Rashford already. Manchester United’s three front men are thus aged 20, 22 and 18. But there are more examples if we move further back the pitch. Late in the season, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, a fellow Dutch to Van Gaal, broke into the team and impressed everybody with a series of assured performances at both left, right and center back. Before him, it was Guillermo Varela from Uruguay who played impressively well at right back, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson copied him at left back.
So, who will be in charge at Old Trafford next season? It is a tough question to answer. Perhaps it is only Ed Woodward and Manchester United’s board who know the answer to that question. Maybe even they don’t know the answer. But if that is the case, they will soon have to make up their mind. Will a Top 4 spot save Van Gaal from being released a year too soon? Will a FA Cup trophy be enough to save him? How much impact will his success with the youngsters have on the board’s decision? Can the endless list of injuries – a truly horrible list, and a list including Luke Shaw who was showing signs in the beginning of the season of challenging David de Gea as Manchester United’s most valuable player – help the Iron Tulips case?
Personally, I will refrain from making too bold claims. When Manchester United appointed David Moyes, I went with the nostalgics and proclaimed that the signing made sense. Well, it didn’t. When Van Gaal replaced Moyes, I said the same thing. It made sense. Van Gaal had what Moyes didn’t have: a record of trophies. He even emulated Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of youth development. And, perhaps most importantly, he shared with Sir Alex the unbelievable triumph of leading an underdog to the title (AZ Alkmaar, Aberdeen). What could go wrong? Well, as the last two seasons and hundreds of millions of dollars later have shown, a lot has actually been going wrong. Regression instead of progression table-wise. Regression instead of progression soccer-wise. A list of buys not worth the money (Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo, Radamel Falcao). A list of talented players not developing (Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira, James Wilson).
But there are signs of progress and signs warranting optimism. If some of the most promising talents are not being given a chance, others have been developing, some even with explosive pace. And if some buys have been disappointing, others have been impressive. Daley Blind’s development as a central defender this season is one example. Martial’s introduction to the Premier League is a fairy tale. The discovery of Rashford could be a new “Patrick Kluivert” by Van Gaal. And isn’t there signs of these youngsters beginning to influence the soccer style of Manchester United in the right direction? If so, and bearing in mind the history of Manchester United, wouldn’t it be too rash to invite José Mourinho into the hot seat at Old Trafford and risk destroying the youth development by Warren Joyce, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, and Louis van Gaal? Will Manchester United’s board be willing to miss out on yet another Champions League season in order to see what Van Gaal can actually do with these kids next season?
As I said, I will refrain from making any bold statements. Too often too many experts have too many opinions. In the end, it will be Ed Woodward and Manchester United’s board who will make the decision. We will soon learn what they decide. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the rest of the season – and congratulate Leicester with their miraculous title.
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