How has Louis van Gaal has laid a solid platform for Jose Mourinho?
Manchester United have probably entered the most tumultuous phase in the club’s history in recent times. Over 25 years of stability, under the watchful gaze of Sir Alex Ferguson have belied the calm before the storm. Since Ferguson’s retirement, United have changed managers four times over three years and the new manager Jose Mourinho is a man used to courting controversies and has the entire football world polarised regarding opinions about him. He has inherited a United side that underachieved massively last season and he has been tasked with reviving United’s falling fortunes.
During these tumultuous phases and for a club that is as hungry for success as United, time is of the essence for Mourinho. Sir Alex had time on his side when he started out, as United were not regular title challengers back then. Over the years, he has transformed United into a powerful enterprise driven by a winning mentality. Since his retirement, the United hierarchy have not been able to come up with an adequate replacement, who can continue the winning tradition and ensure a smooth transition into the post-Ferguson era.
Jose Mourinho does not fit the bill as United manager for many fans and pundits alike. However, he has shown time and again, that he is a proven winner. Tasked with bringing back the aura around Manchester United which bred their success, the self-proclaimed special one can thank former manager Louis Van Gaal for a decent spine in United’s roster, bolstered by youth from the academy, which needs a few additions and a few tactical tweaks to make it formidable.
The tough task of rebuilding a squad bereft of confidence
After a disastrous spell under David Moyes, experienced Dutchman Louis Van Gaal was asked to steady the ship and steer it to calmer waters. Under Moyes, United finished a lowly seventh and he was sacked before he completed a full season in charge. Van Gaal had enjoyed a fantastic World Cup campaign with the Netherlands and had presided over the Oranje’s unexpected third place finish. The relative overachievement of the Dutch, including a stunning dismantling of the reigning World Champions Spain, had United fans expectedly excited, and there was a foreboding of better things to come.
Van Gaal’s reign began with a flurry of activity. It was obvious that only a manager of Ferguson’s calibre could have won the league with an ageing team with very few best-in-class players. United needed a number of signings to overhaul every department and start from scratch. Thus began an enormous level of participation in the transfer market, in the summer of 2014. Van Gaal green-lighted the signings of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, to bolster the defence and midfield, which had looked especially rickety in the latter stages of Moyes’ reign. Shaw was an exciting talent, one of the best-left backs in the league and his tender age meant he would serve for years to come, filling the massive void left by the departure of Patrice Evra.
However, everyone associated with Manchester United knew they needed a marquee signing, a big name player or two to really regain lost momentum and aura. In came Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, two of the best-known players in the world, who were genuinely world class and made sure United made a statement. Everyone realised United were not going to rebuild patiently. The club demanded instant success and a return to their old dominating self, at the very outset. Di Maria and Falcao would ensure United became the fearful unit they once were, under Sir Alex.
But it was not to be as Di Maria faded away after a scintillating start and Falcao looked a shade of his self that had terrorised defences across Europe with his marksmanship. Di Maria’s failure in part was due to his inability to fit into Van Gaal’s tactical philosophy. The rigorous positional discipline enforced by Van Gaal meant that Di Maria’s creativity was stifled and he looked nervous and off the pace in such a setup. Falcao showed glimpses of his former self but it was evident to one and all that the knee injury which had sidelined him for much of the 2013/14 season had taken a lot out of him, both physically and mentally. He looked off the pace for the most part and was rarely used in the latter stages of the season.
United put up an impressive title surge in the first part of 2015, where a run of successive victories, saw them challenging Chelsea for the title. However, they faded out and lost the plot as the race to the finishing line arrived. After a disastrous run of results, United finished in 4th, achieving the bare minimum objective of qualifying for the Champions League.
The following season saw further reinforcements in the form of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, both of whom would add much-needed steel to the midfield. The addition of Memphis Depay meant United would not be lacking in creativity in the final third and Matteo Darmian was brought in to make United more active down the flanks, something that had been lacking in the previous season.
However, out-dated tactics and a refusal to switch to a more attacking mindset meant Van Gaal’s side dropped crucial points during the season to teams from the lower half of the table and they finished 5th. Even glory in the FA cup proved futile as Van Gaal had not done enough to keep his job.
A solid platform for Mourinho
Post the sacking of Van Gaal United have gone hell for leather and acquired a proven winner in Jose Mourinho. While the jury is out on many of his antics, and with many United fans sceptical about whether he fits the club’s philosophy, Mourinho’s ability to win trophies is unmatched and beyond doubt. Tasked with a huge restructuring job and with little time on his hands, Mourinho will be thankful to Van Gaal for a few things at least.
Van Gaal created a decent spine for the team and cleared a lot of deadwood from the Ferguson era. The likes of Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera are standard midfielders, who would be assets for any Premier League team. Luke Shaw is one of the most promising young players in the league, and if handled right, he can be one of the best in the world in his position. Chris Smalling improved in leaps and bounds during Van Gaal’s reign and the commanding centre-back will be a key part of Mourinho’s plans.
Van Gaal also blooded a number of players from the academy, a key part of the United culture, and they can do a good job for Mourinho in times to come. The likes of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Axel Tuanzebe are bright prospects and if Mourinho uses them wisely, they will go on to serve United appreciably in the coming years. Probably Van Gaal’s greatest success was the emergence of Marcus Rashford, who at the tender age of 18, wowed the world with his skills. The lanky forward enjoyed a dream start to his United career and will play a huge rule if Mourinho is to be successful at Old Trafford.
Mourinho still has a huge job to do, but his job will be limited largely to changing the way United play and bringing back the winning mentality. He has inherited a much better team than Van Gaal, and the Dutchman deserves due credit to that end.