Louis van Gaal is under immense pressure going into Manchester United’s FA Cup tie at Shrewsbury, but Mark Holmes warns there are problems other than the manager at Old Trafford.
Not for the first time this season it is being reported that Van Gaal is facing a defining week at United, who also face FC Midtjylland in the second leg of their Europa League tie later this week, but how many of the club’s problems are the fault of the Dutchman?
Style of play
No one style of play guarantees results, of course, but there is a strong feeling that Van Gaal’s rigid approach to management has held back United.
A report over the weekend claimed the Dutchman makes an example of any player that shoots first time and misses, such is his emphasis on retaining possession. His style of football has been described as “sideways, possession, boring football” by Paul Scholes.
It is a statement certainly backed up by statistics. United have had more average possession than any other team in the Premier League this season, yet only seven teams have managed less shots per game. Perhaps even more tellingly, only six teams have attempted less dribbles per game.
No team has spent a greater portion of their games in the opposition’s final third than United, but players appear reluctant to take on a man or risk a difficult pass, making them too easy to defend against.
Scholes said: “I was lucky enough to play with players that you would give them the ball and they can beat five men and ram the ball in the top corner, players who can beat people, quick players, I just don’t see that in this team.”
Major clubs are rarely afforded too much sympathy amid injury crises, but there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Van Gaal has been hamstrung as much by absent players as he has any of the points above.
Luke Shaw was United’s best player before breaking his leg in September, while Van Gaal has recently lost Wayne Rooney to injury just as he had finally begun to find some form. It has been a recurring theme throughout the campaign, with Donald Love the latest player promoted from the academy in recent weeks. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has made 11 appearances, such have been United’s problems at the back in particular.
Is United’s struggle to open up defences down to a safety-first approach from Van Gaal or merely a lack of flair players within the squad?
Van Gaal himself has regularly spoken about the need to add more “speed and creativity” to his ranks, of course, suggesting he feels at least some frustration regarding the club’s recruitment methods.
They have spent more than £250million since Van Gaal took over at Old Trafford, but both Harry Redknapp and Steve Coppell have questioned in the past 24 hours whether the manager was the driving force behind the signings. As is often the case, it is difficult to say with any certainty who should be held most accountable for the failures of several acquisitions.
It is safe to assume, however, that several individuals to have played a role in United’s transfer dealings over the past three seasons will still be at the club once Van Gaal has departed.
As if to ram home the point above, it is well worth remembering that United signed only Marouane Fellaini in the summer that saw Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill replaced by David Moyes and Ed Woodward.
The club has taken yet more steps forward in the commercial world under the stewardship of Woodward and are expected to be confirmed as the world’s richest club within 12 months, but they have made a succession of disastrous decisions on the football front.
The appointment of Moyes went exactly as well as many people had warned it would, but neither Woodward nor any of the Glazer family have a history in football. They simply took the advice of Ferguson.
Now, as they consider possible replacements for Van Gaal, it would appear only Jose Mourinho and Ryan Giggs are being considered. According to claims by United fanzine Red Issue on Sunday night, Woodward favours Giggs for marketing purposes, while Ferguson too would prefer the 42-year-old to be appointed having become frustrated at his loss of influence at the club.
There doesn’t appear to be a single decision maker at Old Trafford that can be trusted. Woodward makes every decision with finances in mind, as proved by him cutting the Academy and scouting budgets, while Ferguson is seemingly looking after only his own interests. The fact that Giggs is seemingly the only alternative to Mourinho says a lot.
Getting rid of Van Gaal may solve one problem, but can the United board be trusted not to create another?
Class of 92 influence
It is certainly not hard to believe that United’s consideration of Giggs as their next manager is with finances in mind. Mourinho’s abrasive nature makes him a risky man to have in charge from a sponsorship point of view, but Giggs would be a marketer’s dream.
However, it is very difficult to make a case for him being the right man to oversee the major rebuilding job at United. Given he has been No.2 during two disappointing regimes and has only four games’ worth of experience as a manager, it is quite frankly astounding that he is even been mentioned in the same breath as the job.
The Class of 92, though, still exert an incredible influence over the club. Woodward, as mentioned, is keen to tap into their marketing potential; Ferguson wants one of his old lackeys in charge to regain some control; the media fawn over Scholes and co – and the fans listen.
Much of what Scholes has said in the media this season has been right, but Van Gaal also had a point when suggesting the 41-year-old has helped create a “very negative atmosphere”. His honesty may well be a breath of fresh air to many, but Scholes’ criticism of United is rather unique in a world where former players continue to toe a company line.
It wouldn’t have happened during Ferguson’s reign and nor would it happen were Giggs to take charge, but United have allowed Van Gaal to be undermined by their own legends in the press. Yet they will no doubt jump at the chance of handing Scholes the coaching job he apparently craves when Van Gaal departs, such is their obsession with the Class of 92.
But then what do you expect of a club now more interested in selling merchandise than winning football matches?