MANCHESTER UNITED’s season continued to spiral out of control with a 2-0 Boxing Day defeat at Stoke City. Most managers start to develop siege mentality when results, media and supporters start to go against them and Louis van Gaal has certainly started to build the barricades. He may need strong fortification, though, for the signs are that United may be on the brink of making a change.
Game of the People just so happened to be staying at the same hotel as United’s most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, over the Christmas period. One resident remarked that Sir Alex would not have been in such relaxed mode if he had still been in the Old Trafford hot seat. Apparently, he was heading for Stoke after breakfast.
Sir Alex sat in the lounge of the seasonally-decorated hotel, reading and scanning messages on his mobile phone. We joked that he was probably receiving messages in search of support from the beleaguered Van Gaal.
He may just have recalled that during his early years at United, he benefitted from the patience of the club’s directors. It took Ferguson three years to win a trophy, six years to claim the league title. In between, plenty of money was spent, big names came and went and United struggled to live up to their fast-fading past.
Ferguson eventually created a benchmark that not only surpassed the legendary Matt Busby, but also made it nigh on impossible for any successor to live up to. David Moyes, and now van Gaal, have found it tough to fill Sir Alex’s shoes.
But if you examine the facts, van Gaal’s record compares very favourably with every past post-war manager’s first 56 league games.
He has won 28 of the 56, drawn 15 and lost 13. A total of 84 goals have been scored and 99 points accumulated. He has won 58.92% of points at stake during this period. Remove the past four games and van Gaal’s record tips 60%.
So why so much misery at Old Trafford? First of all, it’s always tough for a club that has become accustomed to winning to accept they have fallen from their pedestal. This will be the third season of decline if United do not pull their socks up. In the past, when football empires have started to crumble – Arsenal in the 1960s, Leeds in the 1980s, Liverpool in the past 20 years, there is a refusal to accept that the club is no longer the dominatur vis. United looked fairly well unbeatable from 1993 to 2013 and like Liverpool in the 1976-1990 period, it was difficult to see how it would end.
United are not only “hard to beat”, they’re also hard to watch
Not only are United currently less successful, but there is no joie de vivre in their play. Many clubs claim to have a culture of “playing good football”, but very few really mean it. United, however, have always been a club that likes to win by playing expansive football. Ferguson’s teams were, more often than not, entertaining. Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson were always attack-orientated. But van Gaal’s team, which someone remarked was “hard to beat”, are also “hard to watch” and to make matters worse, it is a method that is not working.
United do not sack managers often. Their post-war record is astonishing for such a large club, so when you hear that the gallows are being erected in the Old Trafford car park, you know something is seriously wrong. Van Gaal, if he knows his history (to quote a United song), will be aware that Sir Alex’s record after 56 games was worse than his.
The problem is that van Gaal is operating in a different, more cynical and more impatient era than Ferguson. Boards and owners – in pursuit of shareholder value – want instant results. Although this underlines the supposed shift in the culture of the game from a Game of the People to one that is presided over by dark-suited and largely anonymous businessmen in the US, Russia or the Middle East, the real problem is that an insatiable desire for success can only be minimally satisfied. There are too few prizes that represent “success” with a capital “s”. In other words, there will always been a lot of unhappy owners.
Van Gaal looks like a man who knows his time is coming to an end. He’s an experienced fellow who saw United as a swansong, a place to go out on a high. Sadly, for a man who has won the highest honours, his body language and incongruous behaviour may result in an indifferent end to a glittering career. He may have to seek closure elsewhere.
Manchester United’s managers after their first 56 league games
|P||W||D||L||F||A||Pts||Win %||Pts %|
|Sir Matt Busby||56||26||17||13||121||73||69||46.43||61.61|
|Louis van Gaal||56||28||15||13||84||53||99||50||58.93|
Note – Atkinson, Ferguson and van Gaal operated under three points for a win, the rest two for a win.