LONDON – Make no mistake, the Manchester United faithful have lost hope and patience with Louis van Gaal.
Once a manager has no credibility with the vast majority of supporters it is a near impossible task to turn things around.
The 3-2 defeat by Wolfsburg, which saw a premature end to United’s Champions League dreams, was the final nail in van Gaal’s coffin. Forget that United is a respectable fourth in the Premier League — when a manager has spent £350 million on 13 players and he says “we look better without the ball than with it,” the fat lady has sung.
Of the players van Gaal has brought in and remain, Marcos Rojo, Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastien Schweinsteiger have yet to convince. Angel di Maria was bought from Real Madrid for £60 million and sold to PSG for £44 million after one season even though the Argentine has the pace and cunning United so obviously lacks.
In its last 10 matches United has been involved in five goal-less draws. The players are bored with the Dutchman’s pragmatic, defensive tactics, while his team selection and substitutions against Wolfsburg were baffling and bemusing. He took off the excellent Juan Mata and replaced the playmaker with Nick Powell, whose previous appearance for United was 16 month ago.
To play more than half the game against Wolfsburg, which United had to win, with rookie fullbacks Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick, who have just 59 minutes of experience between them, was inexplicable, naive and just plain wrong.
Van Gaal’s training routines are, according to a reliable source, repetitive and boring — much like United’s on-field displays some would say. Apparently, van Gaal uses fringe players and reserves to play like United’s next opponent most days building up to a match — goodness knows who performed the role of Wolfsburg’s superb Julian Draxler in training.
The Glaziers, who own United, will be asking the same questions as the fans. The USA-based billionaires care deeply about the club . . . about its present and its future. They will have discussed whether van Gaal is the right manager to take United forward and going out of the Champions League and dropping into the Europa League was not what the Americans expected, especially after such heavy investment.
United is still well-placed to win the Premier League, but the supporters are, as much as anything, fed up with a side that is lacking in creativity, a team which has six players behind the ball even against lowly opposition at home. United is crying out for the personalities or leaders who were a hallmark of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Sacking a manager is far easier said than done and it would be hugely embarrassing to dismiss van Gaal after firing Ferguson’s successor David Moyes. But the Glaziers have never shirked from ruthlessness when they feel it is needed, though there would have to be a realistic, viable, better and immediately available alternative to van Gaal for a replacement to be brought in now.
Top managers tend not to change clubs during the season, so in December owners are basically left with those who, for whatever reason, are out of work. Liverpool struck gold with Jurgen Klopp, which leaves a short list of one: Carlo Ancelotti.
The Italian is a proven winner, having won domestic titles with AC Milan, Chelsea and PSG plus the Champions League with Milan and Real Madrid.
United fans would welcome Ancelotti, whose warm personality is a stark contrast to van Gaal’s regimental image. They would also prefer the positive, attacking style Ancelotti would bring, having given up on van Gaal’s safety first approach which is centered on stopping the opposition from scoring.
United players refused to speak to the media after the defeat in Wolfsburg, no doubt aware that their true thoughts would be critical of the manager. The loss may not signal the end for van Gaal, but the growing tide of frustration among players and fans will not have escaped the Glaziers.
Van Gaal’s contract ends next summer, and despite reports that United wants him to stay on, the Champions League knockout has surely changed any such thoughts the owners may have had in this respect.
The fans can see no progress, or worse, any sign of progress, under van Gaal. If any good can come out of being the only English club heading out of the Champions League, it would be van Gaal realizing that he must return to the traditions of this great club and loosen the reins on the players.
Breath should not be held. In the meantime, Thursday night football beckons for United.
Reversal of fortune: One club searching for a new manager is Swansea City, which sacked Garry Monk after 22 months in charge. Last season, Monk led Swansea to eighth place with a club record total of points. That was then; one win in its last 11 Premier League matches saw chairman Huw Jenkins pull the trigger on his manager.
Something clearly has gone wrong at Swansea and inevitably the manager took the blame. This season, Monk has been unable to get the response needed from the players and in a results-based industry there is usually only one way out for the chairman. Monk has looked a desolate figure during recent games, probably knowing his time was up.
Swansea has, perhaps, been a victim of its own success. As players’ salaries have tripled, the absolute desire and self-motivation has been lacking in some. Word is the players were not too happy with Monk’s coaching team, notably assistant manager Pep Clotet, but they were all sacked too.
During his 11 years as player, captain and manager, Monk was extremely popular and his dismissal was done with the heaviest of hearts. With Swansea one point off the relegation zone Jenkins could not let his heart rule his head.
Earlier this year Monk, 36, was being spoken of as a future England manager. It is a remarkable fall from grace, but Monk will return because being sacked is part of the job of a football manager.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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