It’s only been 11 days since Manchester United lost the Premier League curtain raiser to Swansea at Old Trafford, however the team, and more importantly their manager has received widespread criticism after no wins from 3 games. Louis Van Gaal’s time at Bayern probably offers the best scope for comparison (similar type of club, similar circumstances surrounding his aims for the club, similar restructuring of the squad required). Van Gaal even made startlingly similar claims upon his inauguration at Bayern on 01 June 2009, boldly declaring ‘I want to make history here’. In May this year, Van Gaal stated to the world press that on his appointment at United that ‘together I’m sure we will make history’.
Van Gaal enjoyed a strong pre-season with Bayern, but drew both of their opening 2 league matches 1-1 (away to Hoffenheim, home to Werder Bremen) and lost his third game 2-1 away to Mainz. He then went on to win 3 matches on the bounce before dropping points in back to back games at the end of September, then a run of three draws at the start of November. This indifferent start nearly cost him his job. The team went on a run of 11 wins and 2 draws in the next 13 games. This was the run that propelled them to winning the title in the last week of the season.
At Bayern, Van Gaal also integrated (or attempted to) a number of new players, similar to what he is attempting now at United. So far, United have had four new signings (Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Angel Di Maria), whilst he has promoted no less than 8 young players from the reserves (Tyler Blacket, Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard, Nick Powell, Reece James, James Wilson, Andreas Perreira and Will Keane). Van Gaal came under criticism for a number of his new signings and academy players during the early months of his regime. Van Gaal persisted with his team and his methods. It took Bayern roughly 3 months before everything began to click. Interestingly, most of the players were considered mainstays for the team for the next few seasons. Here are the players that Van Gaal ushered into his squad during his first season at Bayern:
|Mario Gómez||Centre Forward|
|Arjen Robben||Right Wing|
|Anatoliy Tymoshchuk||Defensive Midfield|
|Danijel Pranjic||Central Midfield|
|Alexander Baumjohann||Attacking Midfield|
|Ivica Olic||Ivica Olic|
|Thomas Müller||Right Wing|
|Holger Badstuber||Centre Back|
One of the problems has no doubt been the much shorter pre-season than most clubs and managers would accept. Van Gaal also finds himself in a much more competitive league, with several serious contenders for top 4 and top 6 places. The Premier League is also a truly global league now, the Bundesliga wasn’t then (and isn’t now) on the same level in terms of media coverage. At Bayern he would certainly make national news on a daily basis, but at United he will make global news. A man of Van Gaal’s self belief and experience should be able to handle it, but it is certainly a step up that he will have to psychologically adapt to. Some may point to the World Cup and the pressure’s that comes with playing in that competition, however the tournament is short and sharp; the Premier League media machine can be unrelenting, unending and it grows ever more hyperbolic as the season reaches it crucial final weeks.
Will Van Gaal be a success? It’s hard to tell this early on. If it were most other managers (ala David Moyes) then the current start would be much more heavily scrutinised. Van Gaal has a record to boast (Sir Alex Ferguson had his Aberdeen pedigree behind him during his difficult early days at Old Trafford) which will afford him more leeway and time. Based on the first few weeks, finishing in the top 4 will be a massive achievement (and still possible), but it might be a case of waiting for next season. There are a lot of squad players that will need to be phased out over the next 3-4 transfer windows, and a similar number coming inbounds to replenish the squad. If that means that United are competitive again by 2016/17, then that’s probably a good deal all round. Whether their is the appetite and patience for Van Gaal to fully rebuild this squad however remains to be seen.
People will point to the loss of commercial deals and fair weather fans potentially staying at home if the malaise continues. If that is the case then surely a short term attitude is counter productive. The amount of money that has been invested in the last 6 weeks suggests that the board may have bought into Van Gaal’s vision and will give him the time to build his own squad. If United were to sack Van Gaal at some point this season then that would risk further turmoil in the dressing room, and a new manager wanting to build a different team in a different image, potentially costing further hundreds of millions. Despite United’s Chief Executive Ed Woodward making much of the clubs financial strength, particularly when it comes to breaking transfer records, it is unlikely that they can afford to write off £150m in transfers to change manager before the seasons end.