If Louis van Gaal does leave Manchester United this summer, his exit has become one prolonged tease. Every time the media talk him up as one game from the sack, Van Gaal pulls an overdue rabbit from the hat like a lazy freelance magician doing just enough tricks to keep the bailiffs from knocking on the door.
Four consecutive defeats in December brought Jose Mourinho within reported touching distance of Old Trafford. They were followed by a five-game unbeaten run culminating in victory at Anfield. In March, two draws and two defeats from fixtures against West Ham, West Brom and Liverpool (twice) was ended by the win at the Etihad. Limp defeat at White Hart Lane was immediately succeeded by FA Cup victory at West Ham. United’s season is still breathing. Three times it has received the necessary CPR.
The pre-game warnings to Van Gaal were of a tall, ungainly aerial presence aiming to do his side damage from long diagonal balls into the box. Yet in the battle of the battering rams, Andy Carroll lost out to Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian played at a level above miserable for the first time in months, scoring the eventual winner via a fortuitous deflection.
By the time Carroll impacted in a positive manner, assisting James Tomkins’ diving header, West Ham had run out of time. United survived a late onslaught through a mix of panic, fortune and David de Gea brilliance, but that has become par for the course. The last FA Cup game at the Boleyn Ground (you might have heard it mentioned once or twice) ended in deserved home defeat.
Fellaini may have been United’s most surprising performer, but those who shone brightest were again the youngest in show. Ian Wright this week claimed that young players had ‘fallen into Van Gaal’s lap’, but that’s a remarkably unfair assessment of the manager’s faith and patience in youth.
Against West Ham, it was Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah who represented for United’s Bright Young Things. The former opened the scoring with a supreme curled finish that contained shades of Dennis Bergkamp and a young Michael Owen, the perfect shape on the shot to leave Darren Randolph as helpless as a turtle on its back.
Meanwhile, Fosu-Mensah continues to put Matteo Darmian to shame. The Dutchman may be eight years Darmian’s junior and playing in an unfamiliar position, but he has acclimatised impressively to United’s right-back spot. That Totaalvoetbol education in Ajax’s academy is being put to good use.
And then there’s Anthony Martial, United’s senior junior. At just 20 and pushed out onto the left wing, Martial has still been United’s most creative player over the last three months. He is trusted more than Juan Mata on the right and Jesse Lingard centrally despite being three and seven years their junior and experiencing his first season in England. Martial has had 60 or more touches in a Premier League game on three occasions this season, and two of those have been United’s last two games (65 vs Everton, 67 vs Tottenham). His output and workload has been extraordinary for someone so young, and he’s getting better not worse.
‘Academy’ might just be a buzzword in Old Trafford this summer, given the identity of Van Gaal’s likely replacement. Manchester United’s history of producing their own talent may have waned since the Class of ‘92, but a working conveyor belt to take homegrown talent into the first team really does matter to supporters.
For all Van Gaal’s many mistakes, his use of the club’s academy talent has been admirable. This season alone, he has given competitive starts to nine young academy graduates: Jesse Lingard, Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Paddy McNair, Fosu-Mensah, James Wilson, Andreas Pereira, Joe Riley and Adnan Januzaj. Last season, Michael Keane, Saidy Janko, Reece James, Marnick Vermijl and Tyler Blackett can all be added to that list. Not all have and will make it at Old Trafford, but were at least afforded the opportunity.
The contrast with his reported replacement could not be greater. There are plenty of reasons for United supporters to be encouraged by Mourinho’s appointment, but the club’s young players may hold serious doubts. In his five years as Chelsea manager (over both spells), Mourinho handed starts to only five academy graduates: Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathan Ake, Sam Hutchinson, Andreas Christensen and Lenny Pidgeley. None of those were given significant time to settle in their new surroundings.
It would be silly to overrate this crop of Manchester United youngsters; Van Gaal has hardly established the Class of ‘16. Yet during a wretched season of lethargy and under-performance, there have at least been green shoots appearing among the dirt. There are relevant reservations about Mourinho’s propensity to stamp all over them. United’s youth must be served.