When Manchester United hired David Moyes to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, it was always going to be a tough job. Several senior pros at the club were the wrong side of thirty and no new golden generation of young players appeared to be coming through the youth system. The squad needed reshaping; buying in fresh players and discarding any deadwood as Sir Alex had done so efficiently in the past.
However, Moyes and Chief Executive Ed Woodward emphatically failed to secure any deals at the start of the transfer window. Players were linked, interest was declared, with the club giving their best impression of Old Gill from the Simpsons, they couldn’t get the reinforcements they clearly needed. At the end of the summer window they were only able to sign Marouane Fellaini on deadline day, and though it’s easy to say in hindsight, he was not the player they needed in the midfield.
The addition of Juan Mata from Chelsea for a club record fee signalled a possible move in the right direction, but Moyes seemed reluctant to implement a system to accommodate the Spaniard. It seemed bizarre to spend such money on a player then not play him in a manner which he would thrive in and improve the team.
The major problem though was a lack of leadership throughout the club. The Chief Executive could not perform in the transfer market in the way his predecessor David Gill had for the previous decade. Moyes struggled to motivate the players and appeared to almost be intimidated by his surroundings; lacking the courage to make bold, dynamic decisions to create a team that he could call his own. Lastly, none of the players seemed to want to take any responsibility for their performances. Senior figures Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and club stalwart Ryan Giggs all in the final year of their contracts when David Moyes arrived, went missing. The four most senior players at the club all seemed resigned to moving on and appeared to have lost the motivation to drive the team out their rut. This all culminated in a disastrous season for United and David Moyes being handed his P45.
But, if you asked any manager if they would rather be the manager to replace Ferguson, or the man to replace Ferguson’s successor, I’m sure most would chose the latter. Expectations have been lowered, lessons will have been learnt, and players will have moved on. This has given Louis van Gaal the perfect platform to spark the life back into the club.
Van Gaal, off the back of leading the Netherlands to a third place finish in the World Cup, has a CV that ranks as high as anyone’s in the game. He’s a man of strong opinions, and isn’t scared of telling the people what’s what. He won’t be afraid of lighting rockets near his player’s posteriors at Old Trafford, a managerial trait that the players seemingly missed last season. A stern disciplinarian; the 62 year-old will whip them into shape, and get rid of anyone who can’t meet his standards.
It is unfair to characterise Van Gaal as just a strict taskmaster. A man of tactics, he played through the ‘Total Football’ era of Dutch football in the 70’s. His sides in the past played a free flowing 4-3-3, enabling players to move interchangeably between positions. This was his preferred formation with Holland until injury to key midfielder Kevin Strootman led to the team playing 3-5-2, involving wing-backs and an attacking playmaker behind the strikers. The system to some extent did work. Against Spain, they were able to exploit the large gaps in the defence. However, Holland lacked width without wingers and struggled to break down more defensively minded teams.
From what has been seen so far in pre-season Louis van Gaal looks set to play this formation at Manchester United. Unlike what Moyes had tried at the club, he appears to have found a formation that will get the best out of the key players in that formation. Mata plays in a central role; Rooney and Van Persie are both up front together; new signing Ander Herrera in has been a revelation in centre midfield alongside Darren Fletcher. The three centre halves will give them safety in numbers when defending, which will be key until they can add reinforcements in this position after losing Vidic and Ferdinand.
The club appear to have learnt how to deal in the transfer market. Getting their business done early, the Red Devils made key signings early in the window by bringing in Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw. Considering they comically failed in their pursuit of Herrera last summer, Ed Woodward will be pleased to be have made what appears to be an astute signing. Shaw has been brought in to replace Evra, and will be hoping he can progress and become a fixture in the side for the next decade.
Van Gaal will hope now the likes of Evra and Vidic have moved on that the new elder statesmen in the team can step up to a leadership position at the club. The Dutchman has decided on Wayne Rooney as club captain, but there are leaders in the Old Trafford pack to help supplement the Englishman’s leadership skills. Robin van Persie captained Holland under Van Gaal last summer and has experience captaining at club level with Arsenal. Darren Fletcher has captained the team in some of their pre-season games also, so they should be fine in that respect.
One major benefit of having Van Gaal is he doesn’t just have experience, he has the experience of working with clubs like Manchester United. Having previously been in charge of Ajax and Barcelona, he has been at clubs with a strong focus of bringing through young players and playing technical, free flowing football. At Bayern Munich, he performed at a club which was the biggest in the country. The rest of the nation may loath it, but Manchester United are the powerhouses of English football and even after last season that isn’t going to change.
Given the lowered expectations around Old Trafford and Louis van Gaal’s ability to get his teams to play how he likes them I think he can restore some pride to the Manchester United faithful. Can they mount a title challenge? It will be tough and their squad still needs improving, especially in defensive positions. Then again, no one really expected Liverpool to challenge for the title last season, and without European football to distract them, the Red Devils might find themselves back in the upper echelons of the Premier League if some of the teams above them struggle to repeat the feats of last time out.
When Ferguson left, the house of Manchester United was falling apart. Moyes couldn’t rebuild the structure and eventually all that was left was the foundations. So now Van Gaal is the tenant, he can rebuild it again and either take up residence long term or move it on to a suitable occupier in a few years.