You would struggle to find anyone inside Old Trafford claiming that 2014/15 was a rip-roaring success for Manchester United. It was a remedial campaign, a ship slowly steered away from the iceberg. After the David Moyes era lurched the club, however briefly, into disarray, Louis van Gaal’s first role was that of fixer.
“Now, I know for a club of this stature that finishing fourth in the Premier League is not something to celebrate, but I hope you will agree that it is a step in the right direction to getting this club back to competing at the highest level, both domestically and in European competition,” was Van Gaal’s end-of-season assessment, reflecting the mood of United supporters. Nothing to celebrate, nothing to weep over. Onwards and upwards.
This gradual, sustainable approach was always Van Gaal’s preferred method at Old Trafford; he would rebuild the wall rather than plugging the numerous holes. Re-taking their place at European football’s top table was United’s sole ambition last season. Their top four place was celebrated, but largely with relief.
The coming season should see United mount a title challenge and embark on a run in Europe. By the end of 2016/17, the club’s hierarchy will expect the Premier League trophy to be lifted. That four-year wait for the title would represent United’s joint-longest drought in the PL era.
Having simultaneously cleared up after Moyes’ sorry mess and thus lifted morale, Van Gaal’s next task was to address the shortfall left by the Scotsman’s own predecessor. Few dared to take Alex Ferguson’s name in vain during his final years prior to abdication, but there is no doubt that he played his own significant role in United’s recent decline.
For far too long there been a small pile of fluff, twigs and bits of old paper where Manchester United’s central midfield should be. Phil Jones, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley started a combined 38 league matches in midfield during 2013/14 under Moyes and Ryan Giggs. That is an embarrassment for a club of United’s financial muscle.
That is why Van Gaal was only too happy to reveal his summer priority back in May. Eleven different players (Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria, Adnan Januzaj, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Cleverley and Fletcher) appeared in central midfield in the league last season, a combination of injuries and poor performance leaving him almost continuously scrabbling around for an answer that just wasn’t there.
“No.6 is a key player, yes,” Van Gaal said when discussing transfer targets. “You have seen this season, for example, because Michael Carrick is injured and I don’t have another, I have to play with Ander Herrera there. He did it very well, but it is not his speciality. I have played Wayne Rooney there also, but it is not his favoured position. That is why it is a key role, but I cannot discuss other positions because then I show too much.”
Since then, Van Gaal has found not one but two solutions to his problem, finally rectifying a problem seven years in the making. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin aren’t the perfect additions and neither would trouble a current world XI, but they represent a significant upgrade. The cliché may dictate that ‘attack wins games and defence wins titles’ but, for Van Gaal, the answer lies in the middle of the two. United have not become instant title favourites, but addressing such an obvious Achilles’ heel gives them a notable lift.
Crucially too, United have done their business early. After the farce of summer 2013, in which fake Spanish lawyers and missed minimum release fees played their parts in a comedy of errors, Ed Woodward has responded with a display of, wait for it…professionalism.
As Andi Thomas wrote recently, United have finally hit on competence; for so long with Woodward, that seemed like an unattainable ambition. Whilst other clubs have browsed the shelves, Van Gaal is already pacing towards the check-out.
However, there is another positive aspect to United’s summer. Almost as important as United’s transfer action is the ruthless streak demonstrated by Van Gaal with regards to his existing squad, crucially lacking under Moyes.
“It shall be a rough summer for some of the players but I think a club like Manchester United has to be like that,” Van Gaal said in May. He has stayed emphatically true to that word.
The biggest casualty is Robin van Persie, unveiled by Fenerbache on Tuesday. I wrote last season on how it felt the Dutchman was slipping sadly into the night, but Van Persie was given a forceful shove in the right direction by his manager. “It is true because I cannot deny it,” Van Gaal said in February. “Robin van Persie cannot deny it, Falcao cannot deny it and Rooney – but he is not playing there so much anymore. But we cannot deny that at this moment we don’t have a striker who scores 20 goals in the season.” Two of those three are no longer part of the squad.
Rafael and Victor Valdes have received similar treatment, both left out of United’s pre-season USA tour. “Now we are together again and he brings me another chance in my life,” said Valdes in January – let’s hope the Spaniard didn’t grow too attached. Similarly, Fellaini and Young were two of United’s best performers last season, and yet both are likely to be fringe figures given the club’s new recruits. This is no time for sentimentality, however tough that may appear.
“I was paid to keep winning, that was my job, so I was ruthless,” said Ferguson the month after retiring. “I’m not going to deny that. You have to have a strong personality when you’re leading people. And I’ve got a pretty strong personality. I never doubted myself. Even in the dark days when I first joined Manchester United, I knew that what I was doing was completely right.”
It is this same willingness to make the big decisions that led United to Van Gaal’s door. Van Persie, Rafael, Valdes and possibly even Angel Di Maria may all fall by the Old Trafford wayside, but the manager only has the greater good as his focus. His side look more like title challengers with each passing week. To tweak the Charlie Chaplin quote, the Premier League is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it.
“The Bavarian attitude to life suits me perfectly,” Manchester United’s manager famously said in his first Bayern Munich press conference. “Bayern’s motto is ‘Mia san mia,’ ‘We are who we are’ and I am who I am: confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative.”
Louis van Gaal came to Manchester to make history, not friends. Twelve months after his arrival, we are finally seeing the Iron Tulip in his natural habitat.