An Appeal To Reason on the case of one Louis Van Gaal

NOTE: This article was originally written on December 21, 2015 and hasn’t been modified in any form.

The Appointment

There is no better place to begin than the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, announced prior to the beginning of the 2014 Rio World Cup. Upon his arrival, Louis Van Gaal discussed the nature of his appointment as a plan to rebuild the squad and implement a new way of playing that’s on par with the rest of Europe (think Barca and Bayern). In discussing expectations, Louis mentions the return to Champions League as the goal of his first season, and “maybe the Premier League by the third”. When asked if his system will permeate all levels of Manchester United football, LVG reiterates that his first 2 years will be dedicated to the first team and depending on the progress of that project, he’ll move to work on the rest of the teams in his third year.

Season One

LVG began his first season inheriting a 7th place squad and immediately made the following changes.

All prices are quoted in British Pounds Players ages added for context

Out

  • Alexander Buttner (26) — 4m
  • Rio Ferdinand (36) — Released
  • Frederico Macheda (23) — Free
  • Nemanja Vidic (33) — Free
  • Patrice Evra (31) — 1.2m
  • Bebe (24) — 2.4m
  • Shinji Kagawa (26) — Undisclosed
  • Tom Lawrence — Undisclosed
  • Danny Welbeck (24) — 16m
  • Darren Fletcher (30) — Free
  • Wilfried Zaha (23) — 3m
  • Anderson (26) — Free

In

  • Ander Herrera(26) — 29m
  • Luke Shaw(20) — 27m
  • Marcos Rojo (25) — 16m
  • Angel Di Maria (27) — 60m
  • Daley Blind (25) — 14m
  • Victor Valdes — Free
  • Radamel Falcao — Loan

Total money spent — 146m

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that our famous defensive unit had disappeared. To fill those gaps, LVG now had, Rafael, Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Phil Jones, Johnny Evans, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw.

With top 4 stated as the main objective of this particular season, I believe there were actually two objectives. If LVG had truly been tasked with redeveloping a “core” team that will take on his philosophy and serve as the foundation of future generations of football at Manchester United, that “core” had to be identified. Which players would be capable to serve as part of this group of players to which more players can be added over time to continue a steady flow of success at the club. In considering this objective, one might highlight certain factors that will influence the choice of this “core”.

  • Age — they have to be young enough to have more time left at the club to sustain success while passing on the torch to another generation in no time soon.
  • Talent — they had to have enough talent that can be sharpened by more technical knowledge and experience in the game.
  • Potential — they may not have peaked already, but there has to be signs that with further development, they’ll be of high value to the football desired by the club
  • Technical ability — given the nature of the new system to be implemented, these players had to have the right amount of technical ability to properly execute the system successfully and sustainably.

I believe over the course of the year, the players left on the first team roster were subjected to evaluation based on these criteria. Not necessarily openly, but by LVG and his staff. The idea being, they’d have to pick from this group who was “fit” to be a part of the core group that will bring the new era of dominance to Manchester United.

While this was going on, the team still had to strive for a top 4 finish, and although it wasn’t easy, after a poor start with Man U gaining only 13 point from their first 10 games, at the turn of the New Year, Man U will play 13 games, Won 10, Tied 1, and Lost 2. 6 of those wins came on the bounce before that tragic loss to Chelsea that saw a slight dip in form with Man U losing the next 2, before a win and 2 ties wrapped up the season. Despite the challenges, Man U finished the league 4th and Champions League was secure. At the end of this season, no doubt decisions had to be made. There were obvious deficiencies in the team that had to be rectified. The initial job of implementing a new system and building a core group of players was still at hand. Tough choices had to be made. I believe going into the summer, the idea was, players that didn’t well fit the criteria noted above, should be shown the door in favor of players that did. It was important that the building process be done on solid foundation.

Season Two

With the start of LVG’s second season came many changes. Angel DiMaria, the record signing of the previous season, had decided to ply his trade in France. Di Maria will not be the only departure however, as the manager opted for a wholesale changing of the guards that many still question to date.

Out

  • Ben Amos — Free
  • Tom Cleverly (25) — Free
  • Nani (29) — 4m
  • Robin Van Persie (30) — 4m
  • Rafael (25) — Undisclosed
  • Angel Di Maria (27) — 44m
  • Johnny Evans (27) — Undisclosed
  • Ander Lindegaard — Free
  • Javier Hernandez (27) — 12m

In

  • Memphis Depay (22) — 25m
  • Matteo Darmian (26) — 13m
  • Bastian Schweinsteiger (31) — 6m
  • Morgan Schneiderlin (25) — 25m
  • Sergio Romero — Free
  • Anthony Martial (19) — 36m

Total spent — 105m

I believe going into the second season, LVG would have been looking to put together that team on which further additions could be made to sustain success for Man United. This would be his time to start instilling the main ideas of his philosophy and putting it to work on a group of players that will remain at the club well after his departure. It was evident he didn’t find players to fill all the deficiencies as there were talks of signing a CB, and a more established ST than Martial, but both fell through by the close of the transfer window.

Taking a look at the players that were dispatched, none can convincingly be touted as fully fitting the criteria listed above. While some might have satisfied part of the criteria, none really checked on the boxes, at least not in my book. Kagawa probably could have, but he departed right after Moyes left. I have always thought he left simply because he came to play for SAF and there was no reason to not return to Dortmund where he’d had such a success and still had good friends.

Of the team LVG had taken over after Moyes, the following experience first teamers were left. I have excluded the young players.

  • Wayne Rooney — 30
  • Chris Smalling — 26
  • Phil Jones — 23
  • Michael Carrick — 34
  • Ashley Young — 30
  • Juan Mata — 27
  • Maroune Fellaini — 26
  • Antonio Valencia — 30

I believe these players were relevant for their experience and ability to adapt to the new system. Phil Jones although questionable might have been deemed young enough and still having room to grow. There was no need to discard his “potential” so early on. So far in the second, we’re struggling to score goals, have hoarded possession more than any other team, haven’t won in the last 6 games, lost our last 3, out of the CL and out of the Capital One Cup. So why shouldn’t LVG be fired? Let’s look at the things that have been quoted as his errors.

He’s spent 250m

Yes, LVG has in fact laid out 250m in spend. However it’ll be unjust to use that as a criteria to judge his performance considering that the most expensive of those players bought, Angel Di Maria, is no longer at the club. Before leaving however, he had significant impact through his assists in our earlier games of the season, including a marvelous one for Mata against Liverpool. If his resale value is factored in, we’re down to 205m. Now some more perspective. This 205m was spent on 9 players across 4 different positions in the team. Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were already in talks and were simply sanctioned by LVG. Marcos Rojo’s influence has been marginal due to his inconsistency in the first team mostly related to injuries. Luke Shaw, after a relatively quiet debut season, was having an excellent second season before a broken leg against PSV put a halt to that. However, Memphis, Martial, Darmian, Basti, and Scheiderlin, all signed this summer, are almost constants on our teamsheet this season. These players are all new to the team and have played just about 7 months for Manchester United.

He’s had 18 month

Surely, LVG has been our manager for 18 months, but as I noted above, his first year was dedicated to getting us back to Champions League while evaluating the squad to assess viable players for the future. He hadn’t had any of these players at his helm prior to this and simply couldn’t make those judgments without putting them through their paces under his system. His second year is now under way, and he seems to have chosen those players that will serve as part of that core for the future. As much as we’d like to judge him as having had the team for 18months, we simply must admit that the first year has been non-consequential to the past 6 months given that majority 5 of our main starters, have only just joined the team.

Why did he get rid of so many players?

Part of LVG’s mission was to bring up more youth players to add to this “core” that will continue with the team and this new system. In having too many older players, chances afforded youth to hone their craft in real games would have been limited. Decisions pertinent to the future of the club had to be made, and if these youths were going to mature, they’d need playing time. The old players and those deemed “unfit” based on the earlier listed criteria had to be cast aside… for the good of the clubs future. Unfortunately, untimely injury has brought about introduction of too many youth players at the exact same time, when a more conservative introductory process was probably planned.

Why does the team look so dull and boring?

I believe part of the factors necessary for a highly functioning team will surely be learning to play together. Not only are 5 main players on the team new to the team, 3 of those 5 are completely new to the league. For some context, the currently prolific assister in Mesuit Ozil had a terrible first season having not had much experience in the Premier League. 6 months is surely not enough time for young players like Memphis and Martial to adapt to the league. Darmian falls in this category as well although he’s not quite as young.

Why didn’t he buy world class players?

I have no doubt that attempts were made to acquire the services of world class players. However it is well documented that interest in a player is not the only thing required to attain their signature.

Schweinsteiger is out of his prime

Admittedly Basti might not be playing at his finest form, however I believe the purchase of Basti was to help introduce a player familiar with LVG’s philosophy into a team in order to ease the transition for the players. Having a fellow player explain might aid the understanding. Also, Basti has been said to be serving as a mentor to some of the younger players, and I can’t think of a more ideal player for the younger guys to learn from.

Why can’t he just change tactics to win games?

I don’t think it’ll be helpful to the development of a new system of there is change simply to acquire a win here or there. The players must learn to work with the system and changing it just to get a win is detrimental to the process.

Conclusion

I am not oblivious to how boring our games have been this season. To me, it seems evident that the team hasn’t hit the “performing” stage and are maybe still “norming” and figuring out each others quirks as well as fully understanding this system they’ve been asked to play in. Also, we’ve been plagued with injuries at some very unfortunate times this season and that has no doubt hindered consistency in the development of the players, as a team and in terms of familiarity with the philosophy.

I believe we are in the middle of a rebuild and I personally don’t consider last year part of that rebuild. I think that was more evaluation and trying to return to the CL more than actually rebuilding the team. It seems evident that we’ve just now started building our core, given the number of young players with talent that we now have in the side. And that process simply doesn’t take 6 months to yield the desired fruits we seek. LVG also continues to mention he needs more players and I’m expecting some key signing in the next windows including a CB, RW and possibly a ST.

Surely we want wins now, but as discussed earlier, LVG only promised a Premier League trophy possibly by the third year. I think we are still on pace to do that even though the team doesn’t exactly look it. But with the points I’ve outlined above, I think it makes sense.

I just think we give it the rest of this season and see where we stand. It’s 17 games into the season and we’re not close to being done yet. We have enough games to gain points and still challenge for the title. We’re tied for 4th, 9 points off the top, and 3 points off 3rd. We’re surely not out of it by any stretch.