2. The Rooney delusion
Van Gaal used to argue that Danny Blind, who led Ajax’s 1995 Champions League-winning side, was his greatest captain. His thinking changed and he then argued that Wayne Rooney had replaced the Dutchman in the pecking order. Yet however positive an influence the Englishman has proved off the field, the issue has been how little impact he has made on it, as well as the consequences of Van Gaal’s faith in a declining figure.
The 64-year-old decided last summer that his captain would be United’s main striker but, apart from a flurry of goals in January, Rooney’s drought and lack of dynamism were reasons why their football has been so ponderous and his team so impotent. Moreover, in placing added emphasis on Rooney, United were rendered short-staffed in attack.
It is hard to claim Van Gaal was wrong to dispense with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie. But James Wilson was afforded too few chances before being loaned out and Javier Hernandez was told he only had a “1 percent” chance of starting and was offloaded to Bayer Leverkusen, where the ever-sharp Mexican proved far more prolific than Rooney.
Van Gaal got lucky when Rashford’s emergence provided him with a more threatening alternative as United’s main striker, but their end-of-season renaissance when the teenager was leading the line was still not enough to get them into the Champions League. Much of the damage had been done before he debuted in February.
3. Man management
Listen to Van Gaal and he portrays himself as the caring, sharing type with what he terms “a total human being principle.” He consulted his players, he claimed, and listened when Rooney and Michael Carrick brought their concerns to him. Yet while Van Gaal argued he is no dictator, others would be more inclined to disagree.
Those who fall out of favour are exiled unceremoniously, as Van Persie, Hernandez, Di Maria and Rafael da Silva have noted in some veiled and not-so-veiled comments since their departures. His rhetoric can be reckless and some of his summer criticisms of David De Gea and Marcos Rojo were undiplomatic, to say the least, while Darren Fletcher was named vice-captain and then demoted last season. Victor Valdes was bombed out, accused of refusing to play for the reserves, deprived of a squad number or a place on the preseason tour.
Still more — Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Ashley Young, to name but three — have spent spells out of the team when few could understand their exclusion. Bold decision-making can be justified by results and performances, but the sure touch Van Gaal demonstrated with the Netherlands in the World Cup deserted him at times in his reign at Old Trafford. Treating players poorly can rile not just them, but their friends in the dressing room.
The headline statistic is that Van Gaal has spent around £285 million. He has also recouped more than £100m. United required investment after Sir Alex Ferguson left a group in need of regeneration and Moyes only made two senior signings, and if Falcao was the most disastrous recruit, plenty of others ranked as disappointments, to varying degrees. United must have hoped for more from Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Bastian Schweinsteiger. In contrast, Martial and Daley Blind may rank as the only genuine successes.
Yet if many blame executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, it is worth remembering that Van Gaal has been afforded more freedom in the transfer market than many of his counterparts elsewhere. The choices have been his, and thus the mistakes. He has complained about a lack of pace on the flanks, but after selling the speedy Di Maria, Depay has not justified Van Gaal’s billing as the greatest talent of his generation.
While his sales have been damaging, with Di Maria and Hernandez doing well elsewhere and Danny Welbeck scoring the goal that knocked United out of last season’s FA Cup, the most damning element is the number itself. United have spent £285m, and any manager who thinks he will not be judged on that figure is being naive. Having spent £285m, it is indisputable the team ought to be rather better than they are.
5. Unrest in the crowd
It was telling that when Van Gaal took the microphone for his end-of-season address to the Old Trafford crowd after the Bournemouth game, there were some boos. He may not fully realise it himself, but he is a deeply unpopular figure.
The style of football contributed. So did United’s results. Having finished fourth last season, they slipped to fifth this one. They exited the Champions League ignominiously and the Europa League embarrassingly, given that they were eliminated by Liverpool. They regressed. They did so with Van Gaal complaining their fans’ expectations were too high as United trailed by 15 points behind champions Leicester.
Van Gaal’s failings have come at a cost. United are both a club and a business. A remarkably robust business, too, given the way they posted revenues of £395.2m in a year in which they were not in Europe, a sum that will swell to over £500m in the current financial year. Yet missing out on Champions League football will deprive United of at least £40m next season and it bodes badly for both the footballing and financial sides of the club when the supporters are so visibly and vocally unhappy.
The image that attracts sponsors involves attacking football, silverware and unity. Van Gaal has struggled to deliver on all fronts.