At the start of this season Manchester United had vast, romantic notions of returning to their “rightful” place as Premier League royalty. But the season has unfolded more along the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy than one of romance with Louis van Gaal as the noble, but flawed, protagonist.
But it hasn’t turned out that way that the Red Devils faithful had hoped.
Thus far, mediocrity (on the heels of another tepid performance at Old Trafford, this time against Sheffield United), not glory is what Manchester United have achieved this year. Van Gaal’s year has been stuck in a perpetual state of injury woes, poor organization and a general underperformance that has left the club outside of the top four of the table, looking in — not to mention an early and embarrassing exit from the UEFA Champions League.
To make matters worse, Jose Mourinho made it clear almost with 24 hours of being sacked by Chelsea that he didn’t need a sabbatical to clear his head and actually wouldn’t mind taking over the reins at Manchester United as soon as possible. Even more distressing to van Gaal is that there is now speculation that the philosopher himself, Pep Guardiola, wouldn’t be opposed to donning the Red Devils’ colors if the circumstances were right.
But to place the blame of Manchester United’s disappointing year(s) on van Gaal would be a poor reading of history and let the two great culprits – Sir Alex Ferguson and Ed Woodward off the hook.
Sir Alex Ferguson, England’s greatest manager, always found ways to win and to do so in a dramatic, perfectly timed fashion. From somehow willing Steve Bruce to volley not one but two quality headers into the back of the next in the waning moments of the 1993 victory over Sheffield Wednesday to claim the Premier League title, to reaching the mountain top in 1999 with a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich and a UEFA Champions League title, Ferguson always found a way to win. As the win over Sheffield Wednesday showed, the man also had an uncanny sense of timing. And nowhere was that amazing sense of timing more important that Ferguson’s decision to leave Manchester United when he did.
In analyzing Manchester United’s run to the 2012-13 Premier League title, its clear that a major overhaul of the roster would need to happen in the near future. The team finished top of the league riding on the backs of a world-class, but rapidly aging squad. Robin van Persie was magisterial that year, knocking in a league-leading 26 goals and turning in a year that was one of the world’s absolute best. However, this is the same van Persie who had spent a good chunk of his career up until that point on the trainer’s table, and was rapidly approaching age 30. It was clear that a decline in his performance would come as soon as the following season.
Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs proved that you can defeat Father Time (at least temporarily) by turning back the clock and having some of their best years ever that season. Other United stalwarts such as Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra were already on the wrong side of the bell curve of their careers. Additionally, players like Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young, who were supposed to carry the United torch when their elders went out to pasture, demonstrated over the course of the season that they weren’t going to be able to pick up the slack from the likes of the aging Giggs and Scholes. Any objective look at the end of United’s 2012-13 season clearly showed that without multiple and major upgrades, the team was highly unlikely to repeat their 2012-13 successes.
Shortly after Ferguson announced his retirement at the end of the 2012-2013 season, Ed Woodward swiftly hired Ferguson’s heir apparent, David Moyes. Moyes was given a healthy budget and was expected to seamlessly continue Ferguson’s champion-like ways. But the problems were evident almost immediately and Moyes, through a combination of his own missteps as well as the sheer size of the task in front of him, was (predictably) unable to remake United’s aging roster in a single summer transfer window. Additionally, Moyes tried to implement his own sense of tactics that differed greatly from Ferguson’s. Moyes’ different tactics meant that he needed a different collection of players that could implement those tactics.
Instead of giving Moyes the time he needed, Woodward kicked him to the curb in 11 months after what became an utterly predictable and disappointing year for Manchester United.
Now Woodward is on the verge of doing the same thing with van Gaal. The Dutchman came in with very different tactics than Moyes, which means he needed to buy very different players that fit his system. Additionally, 11 months was not enough time for Moyes to restock the depleted roster left by Ferguson.
Woodward and the rest of the Red Devils’ faithful are seriously mistaken if they think Mourinho, Guardiola or anyone else will come marching in like Henry V and save the day and bring a torrent of trophies to Old Trafford’s trophy cabinet. Mourinho inherited the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and a Real Madrid roster that was stacked and ready to compete for the Champions League cup on day one. Chelsea needed direction and focus more than a bevy of new players. Guardiola inherited a Barcelona team that was ripe to go on a run for the ages. Bayern Munich may not have had quite the roster that Barcelona did, but they were still arguably the best team on paper when Guardiola took over. The common theme here is that both revered managers inherited squads that needed tweaks and revisions, not wholesale rebuilding. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Manchester United squad left to van Gaal.
What is needed to make Old Trafford awash in the glorious sounds of “Glory Glory Man United” again is not a hero, but more time. Give van Gaal at least until the end of next season, if not longer, to see if he can win a trophy for the Red Devils and finish in a UEFA Champions League qualification spot.
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