Louis van Gaal has been panned mercilessly for some of his decisions at Manchester United, but the axed manager did get some things right at Old Trafford…
Case for the defence:
United were too slow and ponderous in attack but Van Gaal had rather more success in defence, despite some injuries and high-profile departures.
Van Gaal’s arrival coincided with the exit of three-quarters of one of the finest defensive units the Premier League has seen. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand left before the new manager was appointed, while Patrice Evra reacted to Luke Shaw’s arrival by joining Juventus. Shoring up United’s defence became Van Gaal’s most urgent priority, though the Dutchman did so conservatively. The pursuit of Shaw began long before Van Gaal arrived, making Marcos Rojo the only recruit identified by the new manager to bolster his defensive ranks.
Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were all given the opportunity to step up to more senior roles. Van Gaal certainly experimented – both by choice and necessity due to injuries – with 13 different centre-back pairings being tested by November of his first season in charge. United switched from a back four to a three and back again, with the Red Devils having to be grateful for the consistent brilliance of David de Gea while Van Gaal searched for the right formula in front of their goalkeeper.
Only Smalling really grasped his opportunity. Perhaps the timing is a coincidence but the former Fulham and Maidstone centre-back has thrived under Van Gaal to become one of the country’s finest defenders. Under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, Smalling was prone to some staggering lapses in concentration, while United’s opponents would quite obviously back off him in possession, safe in the knowledge that he’d probably return it to them. Many United fans wanted Smalling axed following his mindless red card in last season’s derby defeat at City, but since then, the 26-year-old has flourished into the Red Devils’ rock, deservedly captaining Van Gaal’s men on a number of occasions.
Goals conceded by Man Utd over the past 4 Premier League seasons:
2012/13: 43 pic.twitter.com/PsEWtSdjje
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 23, 2016
Van Gaal again ignored the clamour to sign a top-class centre-half last summer, instead opting to shift central midfielder Daley Blind back to partner Smalling. With neither physical presence nor pace, the Holland international seemed destined only to be a stop gap, but Van Gaal groomed a successful partnership that few were optimistic would ever work. Again, De Gea has had to bail out his team-mates on more occasions than anyone connected with United might have liked, but Van Gaal’s side conceded the joint-fewest number of goals in the Premier League this season, eight fewer than Ferguson’s title-winning side of 2012/13 which featured Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra.
Moving on from Fergie:
Ferguson may have retired in 2013 but his shadow hung over Old Trafford for a year while the former manager’s candidate sat in his throne. Moyes, whose only qualification for the job seemed to be that like his predecessor he was a Glaswegian, was never going to be a strong enough character to drag United beyond the Ferguson era. United needed a break from the past and Van Gaal, a confident figure with a CV to back up his brashness, offered that.
Ferguson’s power waned gradually throughout Van Gaal’s reign. Of course, though a new direction was required, that does not mean the club chose the right path. As Ferguson’s influence shifted to Ed Woodward, a chief executive who excels in the commercial arena but seemingly lost in the football environment, the need for United to adopt the director of football model became clear. Jose Mourinho’s appointment presumably means Woodward will resist calls for a more experienced link between himself and the manager, though some will suggest that agent Jorge Mendes has already filled that role.
51.3% – Louis van Gaal won 51.3% of league matches as Man Utd manager; only Sir Alex Ferguson (60.4%) & Ernest Mangall (54.2%) won more. Out
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 23, 2016
United’s youth traditions continued
Van Gaal’s record of promoting youth at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich fitted well with United’s pedigree in developing young talent and the axed manager can add the names of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Thomas Muller.
It might be said that Van Gaal stumbled across Rashford and Lingard, as well as others like Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Rashford is certainly unlikely to have been given such a prominent role had Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Will Keane not all been injured at the same time and James Wilson hadn’t been shipped out on loan to Brighton. But Van Gaal opted to give FA Cup final matchwinner Lingard his senior debut in the manager’s first Premier League match in charge of the club.
The win over Arsenal at Old Trafford in February will be remembered as one of the highlights of Van Gaal’s reign – for reasons other than the manager’s uncharacteristic touchline theatrics. The title-chasing Gunners were outclassed and out-thought by an almost second-string United side, with Rashford, Fosu-Mensah and James Weir all making their Premier League debuts for a side also featuring fellow youth-team graduates Lingard, Guillermo Varela and Adnan Januzaj.
Many have raised concerns that Mourinho will undo a lot of Van Gaal’s good work with United’s young players, though the new manager has shown that he is willing to give youngsters a chance providing they meet his high standards. Raphael Varane, Davide Santon and Kurt Zouma were all promoted by the Portuguese to his first-teams at Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea respectively. Hardly evidence to completely counter the concerns, but it shows that the likes of Rashford and Fosu-Mensah should not be discouraged by Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal’s recruitment record at Old Trafford was, at best, mixed. Angel Di Maria was a disaster though the soft-centered Argentinian should shoulder most of the blame for that. The same can be said of Memphis Depay, while it was not until he arrived in Manchester that we discovered that Radamel Falcao had been completely robbed of his ability by injury. Fitness issues have also seen Bastian Schweinsteiger contribute little, while Morgan Schneiderlin seemingly failed to convince the manager he was worthy of a first XI place.
Shaw and Blind have been successful signings, but Anthony Martial is undoubtedly the biggest hit and the most satisfying given the reaction to the Frenchman’s signing towards the end of last summer.
Martial became the world’s most expensive teenager when he signed late in the window for a fee that could rise to £58million if the Frenchman meets a range of criteria over the duration of his contract. If the former Monaco forward does achieve those targets, United will be delighted to stump up the full amount.
Let's remember the time Mirror Sport labelled Anthony Martial a "waste of money"
How wrong they were. pic.twitter.com/v4SBxExSaS
— United Updates (@UpdatesAtUnited) February 10, 2016
Martial quickly silenced the critics, and his goalscoring debut against Liverpool endeared him immediately to the Old Trafford crowd. Since then, he’s netted 11 goals in 31 appearances, usually as a left-winger, and has established himself as one of the Premier League’s most exciting talents. Van Gaal has to take credit for United’s willingness to splurge on the youngster, despite the criticism the transfer provoked.
It could have been worse…
United fans may have grown tired of Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ but two years with the Dutchman was still more bearable than life under Moyes.
Van Gaal ultimately failed but he still delivered better Premier League finishes than Moyes and, of course, the club’s first FA Cup triumph for 12 years. There were also highlights to be found in United’s individual encounters against their biggest rivals, with Van Gaal inspiring four league wins over Liverpool and two over both Arsenal and City.
Yes, those memories may have been tainted by some turgid home defeats and countless goalless first halves at Old Trafford. But it could have been worse, and it was under Moyes.