“It’s over.” Louis Van Gaal’s words to a reporter at a London hotel on Sunday were as brief and brash as the Dutchman’s two-year tenure at Manchester United.
The bubbles hadn’t even gone flat in the club’s 12th FA Cup title when news came through that they would be appointing José Mourinho to take over as manager.
While the dust settles and Old Trafford makes way for “The Special One”, critics have already begun sticking in the knife. “Bland”, “prosaic” and “heavy-handed” are among the barbs being thrown at the man who guided United to their first piece of silverware in the post-Ferguson era.
It’s an undignified end to one of the most distinguished careers in managerial history.
When he first arrived at Carrington training ground, he said he had inherited a “broken” United. Demoralised after David Moyes’s ill-fated reign, Van Gaal was like an electric shock. His outspoken demeanour and eviscerating “evaluation sessions” took a while for the players to get used to. Arguably they still haven’t; there are reports of players not opening emails with match feedback and an intervention from Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick forced the manager to soften his approach.
Yet, the fact remains he brought them from bordering on mid-table mediocrity to a fourth-place finish last season and a return to European football.
This season saw them barely make waves in Europe and finish fifth in the league. An FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace, however, provided the team with fruits of their labour. This must surely be seen as an improvement on the previous season?
Were he to stay for the remainder of his contract, now with a consistent starting XI and the chance to hone young talent, United may have had to make more space on the trophy cabinet.
His win percentage was the lowest of his career (52.43%), but not far off his Barcelona stats (55.56%) where he led them to two La Ligas, one Copa del Rey and a UEFA Super Cup.
He also maintained the club’s standing as one of “the biggest in the world”. They remain the highest revenue-generating club from the Premier League, earning £395.2m, and that has partly lay with the boss’s ability to attract big names. Ángel Di María’s £59.7m signing broke the British transfer record and Radamel Falcao arrived with plaudits from Monaco. Even German Wold Cup-winner Bastian Schweinsteiger made the trip to the North West.
While these star signings fell well short of the mark, Van Gaal proved that a Sir Alex-less Manchester United was still the place to come and taste the English game.
Some Gaalacticos have been a masterstroke. Among the £250 spent, the versatile Daley Blind, a burgeoning Paul Scholes in the form of Ander Herrera and scoring sensation Anthony Martial have all shown to be worthy investments. What’s more, none of them have come close to peaking. Their performances will undoubtedly shape the team over the coming years (possibly decades).
One player who has significantly shaped the side is David de Gea. Without him, it is easy to imagine they would have fared significantly worse than fifth. With match winning saves against Watford and Everton, the goalkeeper has established himself as arguably the best in the world.
But rewind to last August, the Spaniard was Bernabéu-bound. Late paperwork was all that kept him at Old Trafford after a dramatic transfer collapse on Deadline Day. Then, in the space of 12 days, thanks to some passionate encouragement from Van Gaal, he signed a four-year contract. Losing de Gea would have been disastrous for United and the ability to keep hold of him, and for such a lengthy spell, highlights the level of respect Van Gaal earned at the club.
He should also be praised for finally solving the Rooney conundrum.
Fitness and age have resulted in many to question the captain’s place in the team. Finally, in their 120 minutes of need, Rooney led by example in a newfound midfield role. He showed great determination, characteristic during the age of Ferguson. His weaving run to set up Mata’s equaliser on Saturday shows he has a lot more to offer in this position and has given England manager Roy Hodgson quite the dilemma before the Euros.
The greatest legacy under Van Gaal is as Manchester United as Gary Neville singing “Glory Glory Man United”. When he took up the position in 2014, he insisted he would develop fresh blood over the long-term. Already, the signs are looking promising as seen by the remarkable rise of Marcus Rashford. The 18-year-old burst onto the scene in February, marking his debut with two goals in the Europa League and a further two goals against Arsenal in his first Premier League game.
“Rashford has been a breath of fresh air,” said former Red Devil Phil Neville, and similarly pleasing signs from Martial, Jesse Lingard, Paddy McNair and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson mean the Class of ’15/’16 could go a long way in the future.
It will be a shame to see Van Gaal go. While he may not have always brought the entertainment on the pitch, he most certainly provided plenty off of it. Who isn’t going to miss the Dutchman chanting his own name, or naming teams after fruity snacks, or going down like a sack of potatoes in front of the fourth official?
His results speak for themselves, and while they never reached the heady heights of Sir Alex, they did steady the ship, rocked by an unprepared Moyes.
Stubbornly following a philosophy, the Dutchman had all the hallmarks of Ferguson. Unfortunately, however, it seems to have been a case of the old-school not quite fitting with the times.
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