For a club like Manchester United, that for years prided itself on rising above the managerial merry-go-round that seems to characterise modern football, another season at the Theatre of Dreams has descended into farce.
Front of stage sat Louis van Gaal, brandishing the FA Cup like a man clutching desperately on to a piece of flotsam in a raging ocean.
Back of stage, the plots to dethrone him spread across the web like wildfire. The journalists tasked with reporting the capture of the first trophy in the post-Ferguson years became aware that there was a far bigger story brewing here. What should have been Van Gaal’s moment of triumph, swiftly became his last act.
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In the midst of such events, it’s worth casting one’s mind back to the summer of 2014. After a season of dour disappointment under David Moyes, the arrival of Van Gaal was trumpeted as being the catalyst to restore Manchester United to its former glories.
Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, spoke of Van Gaal’s track record of “incredible, attacking football”. Reading the words now, they almost seem like a cruel joke at the expense of Manchester United fans.
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The statistics are particularly damning. Despite topping the Premier League for average possession, only three teams created fewer chances than Manchester United. The side scored a lowly 49 goals this season, the fewest goals scored by a United side since 1989-90.
Out of Date Football
One could go on quoting statistics, but really they are unnecessary for anyone who sat through the dross that was routinely served up at Old Trafford this season. As the year wore on the cries of “attack, attack, attack” from the home fans became increasingly desperate.
Van Gaal’s style of football was one of sterile domination, defined by a constant lateral circulation of the football. While Leicester City rewrote the record books with a breathless counter-attacking brand of football, Manchester United forsook these fast transitions between defence and attack in favour of a meticulous diet of controlled possession. Keeping the ball ceased to be a means to an end, but became the end in itself. To watch Manchester United this season was to bear witness to possession for possession’s sake.
The suspicion began to grow that Van Gaal was a manager past his sell by date, who seemed increasingly out of touch with the demands of the Premier League.
For all his record of success at his previous clubs, the magic seemed to have run dry. Player seemed stifled by his tactical straitjacket, as innovation and spontaneity were replaced by a rigid set of instructions. Players were told when to pass, where to move, and even when to shoot. They started to resemble automatons, unable, or, more specifically, not allowed, to think for themselves.
Van Gaal’s much vaunted philosophy seemed to be the source of the team’s problems rather than the solution to them.
Woodward and the United board seemed desperate to give their man every chance to succeed, but by the time the end came there cannot have been many Manchester United fans clamouring for one more year of Van Gaal and his particular brand of football. As the final chapter came to its conclusion, it seemed that the only person not surprised by Van Gaal’s sacking was the man himself.
“Which manager can do what I have done” he asked the assembled media as he displayed the FA Cup trophy. His critics might well be entitled to query what exactly he had achieved. Was it spending a quarter of a billion pounds in the transfer market, only to get knocked out of a distinctly average Champions League group and finish outside the top four?
In the corridors of power in Old Trafford they finally came to believe someone else could do better. So as Van Gaal exits stage left, the familiar pantomime villain Jose Mourinho arrives to claim the prize he has coveted for so long. A new act is beginning at the Theatre of Dreams, and it promises to be anything but dull.
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