Saturday, May 28, 2016
Van Gaal was lost in translation
So said Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward two years ago.
The stentorian Dutchman left the sport this week on a bitter-sweet note. Having said repeatedly his family do not want him to continue, it seems he has completed his last coaching role, although we may see him again as a technical consultant in Holland.
He won the F.A. Cup in his final match but received his P45 in the evening via a press leak. Overall his Old Trafford reign goes down as a failure but the club thought they had hired a man to bring the good times back.
Manchester United have faced the expected baggage of criticism for a sloppy dismissal but in truth there was little they could do to stop the news escaping through some nook and cranny of the fortress of Old Trafford.
The same criticism was levelled at the club in the wake of David Moyes' firing, but reading between the lines it appears Van Gaal knew his fate well before the F.A. Cup Final and probably the dye was cast the loss at West Ham ended hopes of Champions League qualification.
Chief Executive Ed Woodward officially told his manager he would not be required next season on the Sunday after their F.A. Cup win the day before, but the news had filtered out the night before.
At least Van Gaal did not suffer the indignity of being sacked four games before the end of the campaign, as happened to Moyes.
Van Gaal's choppy ride with the Red Devils never found a prolonged stretch of smooth water to sail in and suffered from constant rumblings of discontent from supporters and pundits, not least former Old Trafford star Paul Scholes, who persistently stuck the knife in on Sky TV.
This is the same Paul Scholes who said in 2014 on the occasion of Van Gaal's appointment that, "Manchester United fans and myself cannot wait for Louis Van Gaal to get the job started. Van Gaal seems to have the Midas touch."
Scholes then did not take long to notice a pattern of inconsistent form, a stark lack of rapport with the press and above all a soporific playing style jarringly out of keeping with the club's traditions.
A slew of damning statistics show his side kept the ball more than any other team in the Premier League and played it backwards more than anyone too while netting fewer goals than any United team since 1990.
His win ratio of 52.43% was the lowest of the eight coaching positions he has held in his career. In failing to make the Champions League next season, the Dutchman had also cost the club £22.5 million in payments from Adidas.
In this case at least, the stats do not lie.
Finishing fourth and fifth is not the end of the world or most teams but for a club as big as Manchester United is clearly not good enough. If the coach of Barcelona or Real Madrid guide their club to second place they are routinely given the heave-ho.
Van Gaal may contend he had a three-year plan to rebuild the club and he should get some sympathy for that argument.
But the question of how to accommodate the universally accepted need for managers to be given time to put things right and the big clubs' demand for instant returns is a conundrum with no obvious solution. So what happens in practice is more of a lottery than a well-executed plan, with everyone hoping the new man in charge will limp over the line and avoid the chop during the unsteady opening spell before improving in his second season.
Two seasons seems to be the maximum allotted to a new appointment who is not fulfilling expectations.
Van Gaal certainly had structure to his three-year plan but a combination of factors cut his reign short, the last of which was the sudden availability of Jose Mourinho.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford might have made the step up to the first team with applause under Van Gaal but what happened to Eredivisie top scorer and £25 million capture Memphis Depay, hailed by France Football last year as the best young player in the world?
Midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger also faded into the background, while Adnan Januzaj was loaned out at the start of the season and Javier Hernandez let go, leaving United's striking options clearly depleted.
The existing squad needs another overhaul, despite the £262 shelled out during Van Gaal's tenure.
Few fans will miss the Dutchman's authoritarian leadership and lacklustre football. The consensus amongst the Red Devils supporters was that they did not want another season of somnolent passing with few injections of pace and precious few shots on goal.
So after an initial excitement that a big name in continental football was finally coming to England and was all set to revive a club suffering from a prolonged post-Fergie hangover, a depressing acknowledgement set in that the miracle worker was stuck in his ways and ploughing a road to nowhere. Even those who defended the Dutchman on the back of his illustrious record - he arrived with titles won with Ajax, AZ, Barcelona and Bayern Munich - ran out of excuses as the lacklustre first season dragged into a second anodyne one with a heap of frustration but precious little excitement.
The players were also respectful and cooperative, until frustration with the manager finally blew up in the changing rooms last month away at Tottenham, where Van Gaal had harshly criticised Rashford at half-time.
For the second half, Van Gaal made a bizarre choice to replace the young striker with lightweight winger Ashley Young, United collapsed mentally and lost 3-0, shipping three goals in six minutes.
Only in flashes did United adopt a high-speed, higher-risk playing style but when it brought rewards and pleased the crowd, the following match would invariably feature a regression to the insipid keep-the-ball-at-all-costs system.
Van Gaal cannot complain of bad luck. He had a vast transfer budget and an evaporating competition in the form of imploding Chelsea and stuttering Arsenal and Manchester City.
The club's hierarchy must shoulder the blame too for a second unsuccessful appointment following Sir Alex Ferguson's reign. In appointing Van Gaal they felt they had brought discipline and reliability back to a club which was fraying at the seems under David Moyes.
Despite the negative factors, the Dutchman did have a knack of winning enough must-win games to dodge the much-predicted axe after dismal exits from the Champions League, Europa League and League Cup left his tenure on a tightrope.
This curious survival strategy lasted almost two seasons and unravelled for good only when his side threw away a 2-1 lead to West Ham in their last away match of the season and thereby missed out on next season's Champions League on goal difference.
That result loaded the firing gun for Ed Woodward. Man Utd had a ready-made excuse to dispense with their head coach after that fixture. A quick call to Jose Mourinho was enough to confirm their direction of travel.
It is tempting to think his future hinged on what turned out to be a violence-scarred trip to East London, but in all probability the decision to swap him for Mourinho was taken early in 2016, not long after Chelsea axed The Special One.
Had Mourinho not been unexpectedly unemployed, it is probable the board would have planned on another season of Van Gaal but would have seriously considered swapping him for Ryan Giggs in the event of failing to make the Champions League.
Giggs has cut a bizarre figure on the bench glued to the Dutchman apparently for moral support but with stifled body language. The Welshman was one of United's most exciting entertainers so must have been hurt at having to acquiesce to such lifeless football and a lack of crowd-pleasing.
Van Gaal never spoke a language the fans or press understood and rarely if ever left his seat on the bench, in stark contrast to Alex Ferguson. Curiously for a Dutchman, his English is not very fluent and it is hard to think of a less co-operative manager at a press conference.
We know the Dutch are blunt but Van Gaal was bludgeoning as well. Even in Holland he is colloquially known as 'Hitler'!
Personally I found his stubbornness with the hacks refreshing: The press should know their place and frequently do not appreciate what goes on inside a football club nor accurately reflect the public's mood.
When asked by an American journalist what it meant to him to have won the pre-season tournament the International Champions Cup in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, he answered perfectly truthfully, "Nothing."
Van Gaal's sarcastic tribute to his "friends of the press" in his final conference was also a wry echo of his "adios amigos de la prensa" swansong to the Spanish media when leaving Barcelona in 2000.
If this is Van Gaal's last post in the sport, he can give himself the satisfaction of ending on a high note. Winning league championships in Germany, Spain and with two clubs in his native Netherlands is enough to earn him in a place in the rank of greatest club managers, but his European Cup triumph with Ajax in 1995 will live long in the memory.
His side were overflowing with youthful home-grown talent and won the cup with a gorgeous possession-based game. They were the most impressive Dutch team on the international stage since the Oranje who dazzled the World Cup in 1974.
Ajax 1995 European Cup Winners:
Edwin Van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Danny Blind, Frank De Boer (c), Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf (sub Nwankwo Kanu), Edgar Davids, Jari Litmanen (sub Patrick Kluivert), Finidi George, Ronald De Boer, Marc Overmars.
With the exception of Blind, none of those players stayed in Amsterdam forever. Their stock was too high. In his own mind, Van Gaal must have dreamed of replicating that wonderful team again, which might explain his persistence with a possession at all costs game at Old Trafford.
Another explanation might be that the 3-5-2 he used with the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup did not work when he tried it at Old Trafford so he reverted to the comfort of his old passing game with four at the back and often only one up front.
Perhaps he tried too hard to replicate that Dutch side with his hopes pinned on Angel di Maria in the Arjen Robben role for Oranje, but the Argentine's form and motivation diminished rapidly after a traumatic burglary.
It is thus a little lazy however to accuse Van Gaal of having no Plan B, a charge always leveled by watchers wise after the event. Perhaps the players were not up to his ideas or he did not have enough ones of top quality, or maybe there was a lack of team spirit for whatever reason.
Nobody is really sure, but it seems Van Gaal's clear instructions were delivered in such a strong manner that some creative players felt shackled by what they felt were strict commands and as a result were afraid of using imagination when it was required.
Previously he had spoken about Dutch players' refreshing desire to have an opinion, in contrast to other nationalities following the boss's orders.
"We Dutch think our philosophy can win the game," he explained. "In England they are not used to that. That is why it is taking much more time here." The cultural clash is probably the key to explaining United falling short under him. If his 'no pasaran' attitude to the press is anything to go by, his personality felt alien to the players and so they reverted to following what they thought were orders and hoping for the best.
Van Gaal's leaving statement, still on the Manchester United website, reads too much like that of a script he was asked to sign, with its ubiquitously scattered praise and claim that he had always wanted to coach in England, a country whose football he conspicuously criticised and avoided for years.
From his utterance that what he most liked about England was Chinese food and its restaurants' wine lists to his surreal press conferences and strange persistence with unattractive football at England's largest club, his long-awaited English experience was ultimately a let-down.
It was a murmuring exit to a great opera of a career in football but he had disappointed before, such as in his first stint in charge of the Netherlands, his second spell at Barcelona or his final season at Bayern Munich.
Van Gaal's place in coaching history remains secure, not only for his triumphs in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands and for winning the European Cup with Ajax but also for mentoring a string of top coaches including Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Philip Cocu, Danny Blind, Luis Enrique and Ronald Koeman.
(C) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile