As Brendan Rodgers thinks upon his Liverpool career after being sacked the Sunday evening before last he must wonder how it could have gone all so differently, more specifically his failure in trying to awake one of England’s greatest football clubs from its slumber.
There were glimmers of success for Rodgers at Merseyside red (that one is for Pro Evolution fans) and a whole collection of ifs, buts and maybes, the pinnacle of which was that title challenge of 2013/2014 where Liverpool came so close to obtaining their holy grail, the Premier League title, until they quite literally ‘slipped’ up. While Rodgers leaves under a shadow of failure, a look across to another major city of the North West of England and a certain Dutchman is steadily rebuilding another great footballing empire.
Before they were torn to shreds by Arsenal on Sunday before last Manchester United sat top of the Premier League table. That in itself is a measure of the job that Van Gaal has done at United. Van Gaal has completed the core objective for any new manager: he has improved the team. Cast your mind back to the squad he inherited and look at the Manchester United squad of today and you can quite easily see the difference; simply put; this squad is better.
A quick note on that squad he inherited. The lack of ability, youthful edge and the lack of creative capability was not just down to David Moyes, but also Sir Alex Ferguson. That squad had been on decline for a few years, even classy stop gaps such as Robin Van Persie could not halt the demise. Most importantly, the squad Van Gaal inherited was one thing above all, average. The ageing centre back duo of Nemanja Vidić (though he had already agreed to join Inter in the summer) and Rio Ferdinand were way past their best in the Premier League. Either side of them you had the useless Alexander Büttner, the impetuous Rafael whose growth as a right back was somewhat stunted and Patrice Evra whose legs could not keep up with the pace of the Premier League.
In front of the crumbling defence the amount of deadwood was extraordinary. The midfield was filled with players who just weren’t good enough to wear the famous red jersey or players who had shown glimmers of ability but failed in their attempts to find any consistency; Anderson, Tom Cleverley, Nani, Shinji Kagawa, Federico Macheda, Wilfried Zaha are all examples of this. While the likes of Danny Welbeck, Darren Fletcher and Javier Hernández were always ‘good’ but never ‘great’ players.
In comparison with the Manchester United of today the difference is there for everyone to see. You still have David de Gea who on top form can rival Manuel Neuer for being the best keeper in the world. In front of the young Spanish keeper you have Chris Smalling playing the best he has ever done while Luke Shaw (before his injury) and Matteo Darmian look like a pair of full backs who having being playing at Old Trafford and in the Premier League for years. A partner for Chris Smalling may still be needed as Phil Jones looks still incapable of playing regularly at centre back while Daley Blind is more suited to a holding role in midfield.
In front of the defence Van Gaal has added not only experience but more importantly quality to the midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger brings a wealth of experience and is quite simply a winner, proven in vast medal collection for both club and country. Van Gaal has seemingly re-energised Michael Carrick who seems to ooze class more than ever despite his age while Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera both have a vast amount of ability and seem like they are now settled into life in Manchester. Ashley Young under Van Gaal’s management seems to have regained his form that he had when he first came to Manchester United.
Furthermore, an early inspection of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial would see them as good players but have the potential to be wonderful players who could light up the Premier League for years to come. In addition, though having a slow start this season, Wayne Rooney seems to have relished Van Gaal’s decision at the start of last season to give the England Captain the armband at Manchester United.
While he has hasn’t won a trophy in his short time at Manchester United, Van Gaal has brought back Champions League football instantly. You only have to look at how it long took Liverpool to get back into that competition after falling down the pecking order (in addition to going through three managers and hundreds of millions of pounds to get there) to realise how good a job the former Bayern Munich manager has done. The return of Champions League football is an achievement in itself but (from early signs this season) to qualify for the competition in back to back seasons would be an even better achievement.
Van Gaal has brought not only Champions League football back to Old Trafford but also that aura; that sense of you are playing Manchester United, we are better than you. This is in stark contrast to the 2013/2014. I vividly remember both Manchester City and Liverpool playing at Old Trafford that season and it was not a question of whether United’s two old rivals were going to win at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, instead a question of how many goals were they going to win by. That feeling has long gone. Van Gaal is rebuilding the walls and repairing the siege towers as Old Trafford is slowly becoming a fortress once again.
Something else that Van Gaal has brought to Manchester United is his own character. He possesses the charisma, know how, experience and confidence to deal with being the manager of one of the world’s greatest football clubs. It’s obvious in a quick comparsion between Van Gaal and his predecessor David Moyes. In many press conferences Moyes looked like a rabbit in the headlights as the former Everton manager seemed scared and frightened even when talking about his own team, the pinnacle of which was the infamous remarks he made after losing 3-0 at home to Manchester City about how the red side half of Manchester should aim to be more like the blue half: footballing blasphemy.
In contrast, Van Gaal’s press conferences are eccentric and over the top, he seems to enjoy and relish being the main man at Old Trafford, he seems to love being the ‘leader’. In addition, Van Gaal has showed that ruthless side he is famous for (just ask Rivaldo) in various actions, one of which was the sale of his former Dutch captain Robin Van Persie. Van Persie’s sell by date at Old Trafford had certainly passed. In contrast, Moyes didn’t get rid of the old deadwood, he tried to convert them. The most notorious example was when he showed seasoned winners Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand videos on Phil Jagielka (who has never won a trophy) showing them ‘how to defend’; unsurprisingly it did not go down well.
Instead, Moyes should have got rid of the two old centre backs who were no longer at their best, but he instead he took the ‘safer’ option which would have disastrous effects as United suffered from defensive errors all season. Unlike Moyes, Van Gaal has the character to deal with the pressure and expectation at Manchester United.
This article is not turning a blind eye to the errors and mistakes during Van Gaal’s reign at the helm at Manchester United. The former Netherlands manager has not waved his Ajax and Barcelona moulded wand that has suddenly brought success. Firstly, his reign has come at a cost, he has already spent over £200 million on players, a vast sum of money in only three transfer windows. Additionally, he has made mistakes. His use and general tactical deployment of Angel Di Maria was both confusing and senseless, it made little use of a winger who on his day is one of the best in the world.
While transfer errors have ranged from the signing of Falcao (he did not make the bigger mistake of buying the Colombian striker, take note Jose) to not buying another striker as back up to Martial and Rooney or a left back in the transfer window just gone, which meant he has had to play Ashley Young there, who seemed lost playing in a unfamiliar position against Arsenal on the weekend before last. Moreover, sometimes Van Gaal makes weird tactical decisions like the pairing of Carrick and Schweinsteiger against Arsenal, he should have gone with one or two younger pairs of legs in central midfield to deal with Arsenal’s energy and buzz.
Furthermore, his reliance on 3-5-2 as a formation in the early stages of last season didn’t work; it seems the 3-5-2 formation which focuses on the use of wing backs and an outnumbering in central midfield is the formation least suited to the Premier League and no manager has ever mastered it in the English top flight.
However, all things considered, Van Gaal is re-building the red empire in Manchester. The main building blocks are now in place for the greatest English football club to rise again; the club itself seems to have regained that aura it so disastrously lost in the 2013/2014 season. Old Trafford is slowly becoming a fortress again, Manchester United are once more playing in the Champions League, and there is a sense of togetherness at the club compared to the fractious era under David Moyes. The tutoring of Ryan Giggs by Van Gaal is a clear master apprentice scheme for the future and the squad itself possesses experience, quality and a real potential to develop even further.
A close inspection at what has changed and gone on since the eccentric man from Amsterdam has been at the helm comes with a realisation that Louis van Gaal is doing a pretty good job at Manchester United Football Club.