How will a grand cast of characters come back from abject failure
We go again. Words made infamous last season by Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, but words that may well serve as a mantra for Manchester United supporters this summer.
We go again. A new era has begun at United, after the last new era turned out to be an abject failure of near hilarious proportions. With the impressive Louis van Gaal in charge, United will hope that they have appointed the right man, albeit twelve months too late, after David Moyes’s ill-fated attempt at leading the club into the post-Alex Ferguson future.
In retrospect, the decision by the United board to allow Ferguson to handpick his successor was irresponsible in the extreme. Seldom do great kings make great king-makers, and for all the astute judgment that Sir Alex had shown in assessing players over the years, he showed no such discernment when assessing the next leader of his club. Although Ferguson was said to see something of his younger self in his fellow Glaswegian, it is hard now to see what that something was, other than “Scottish.” David Moyes was, and presumably still is, a fine manager and by most accounts a lovely man. But there are many fine mangers and good men that are wholly unfit to manage one of the biggest sporting institutions on the planet. The job should never have been his, and he was hopelessly out of his depth from day one. It is not his fault that Ed Woodward—himself a rookie chief executive—failed embarrassingly in last summer’s transfer market, and indeed quite a few players embarrassed themselves with their performances last season as well. All told, the club spectacularly bungled one of the most crucial periods in its history, and United fans can only hope that van Gaal can rectify the damage that was done.
Only a few weeks into the job, van Gaal is already displaying a sense of authority and confidence in his own ideas of which his predecessor never seemed capable. Where Moyes tip-toed, van Gaal is stamping loudly. He has been vocal in his displeasure about the extent of the commercial obligations placed on the team during preseason, and on his first day at United’s Carrington training complex, he ordered trees planted and the pitch replaced, in order to improve training conditions. He has shown an unrelenting attention to detail and no hesitation in ruffling the feathers of the club suits; pre-set schedules and accommodation arrangements on the U.S. tour have been modified to meet his standards, and he has made it clear that he will not allow such an extensive, disruptive tour next summer. Such honesty and a refusal to tow the party line will no doubt be making some in United’s boardroom uncomfortable, but that is the price to be paid for a winner like van Gaal. He knows what he wants, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t get it.
On the playing side, LVG has gotten right down to shaking up the squad. Although only Luke Shaw and the very promising Ander Herrera have arrived so far, it looks likely that, after years of criminal underinvestment, the playing staff will receive further improvement in the coming weeks. There will be a few departures as well, with Marouane Fellaini’s transfer already being touted in the press. Like Moyes, Fellaini is better than what he showed at Old Trafford last season, but he is still out of his depth at the very top level. A change of shape has been implemented as well, with the new manager continuing with the 3-4-1-2 formation he used to great effect with the Netherlands at the World Cup.
Crucially, this allows van Gaal to play the delightful Juan Mata in his preferred position as a central playmaker, and it contains room for both the expected new captain Robin van Persie and highest earner Wayne Rooney. Not that Rooney should feel too confident about his place in the team. Van Gaal has made it clear that he only uses formations that best suit the players available (he does not believe that he has the specialist wingers required for a 4–3–3, which surely bemuses Ashley Young, Wilfried Zaha, Antonio Valencia, and Nani). A mid-season change of shape would not be surprising when Rooney has his annual baffling loss of form, or if someone like Adnan Januzaj or Shinji Kagawa does enough off the bench or in training to play themselves into the first XI.
After the sobering disappointment of last year, most sensible United fans will not expect miracles from LVG this season. Clearing out some of the dead wood from the squad, rebuilding the confidence of the players, getting the crowd at Old Trafford excited again, and a top-four finish will constitute a successful campaign. Maybe a cup win as well, but let’s not get too greedy.
Fortunately for United, at least two of the coveted Champions League places may be up for grabs. While Manchester City and Chelsea should be expected to be head and shoulders above the pack—the former are the reigning champions, and the latter have upgraded the first team in three or four positions and Mourinho’s teams almost always hit their peak in his second year—the other clubs in the mix can be dislodged. Arsenal have added another top class player in Alexis Sanchez, but are still on the hunt for an upgrade at the defensive midfield spot and an alternative to Olivier Giroud upfront. Liverpool played some of the most scintillating football in the league last year, and have brought in promising talent with the funds from the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. But as Spurs learned last year—and as United themselves learned in 2009—nothing replaces a world-class player, other than another world-class player.
With some vulnerability in the teams above them, a proven winner at the helm, and a squad undergoing a much-needed rejuvenation, there is reason for cautious optimism at Old Trafford. After the false dawn of the David Moyes era, United will be hoping that they now have the real thing on their hands. If nothing else, at least it can’t get much worse.