Van Gaaled

My mother once dated a man I didn’t much care for (sorry mom, if you are reading this.) Still, she was my mother, and I couldn’t really say anything while it was going on. When they finally split, I told her my sister and I had never much liked the gentleman. She said she knew and thanked us for not bringing it up.

My club is now employing a manager I don’t much care for. Thankfully, I’m under no such compunction against expressing my displeasure in real time. As a Manchester United supporter, I’m already despising the Louis van Gaal era. My only regret is not writing this three weeks ago when I originally planned to do so, because I hated the appointment before it became fashionable to do so (sometime between the 2nd and 4th goals Tuesday in Milton Keynes if you’re keeping track.)

Let me back up. I was never in favor of firing David Moyes, and certainly not doing so in-season. Even though it was clear Moyes was probably out of his depth, he had been thrust into an impossible situation. An aging, limited squad had been held together by a combination of shared history, willpower and Sir Alex Ferguson’s well-worn chewing gum.

Still, like any receding empire, it was decided that the club itself could not be in decline. It was only the manager that was the problem. Surely a team led by Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata couldn’t be all that bad could they?

Enter Dutch genius (just ask him, he’ll tell you) Van Gaal. Fresh off guiding Holland to a surprising 3rd place finish in this summer’s World Cup, Van Gaal was quite pleased with himself following his appointment as Old Trafford’s caretaker. (And really he didn’t guide so much as grab the wheel from the passenger seat and head into incoming traffic with his amateurish keeper mental games of subbing in Tim Krul to face Costa Rica’s shootout takers). The arrangement was assumed to be a shorter-term post until the legend Ryan Giggs was ready to assume full time control.

Still, the acquisition of the 62 (now 63) year-old Dutchman was intended to signal that “the grownups” were back in charge, implying that with a new “daddy” in place – rather than Moyes’ substitute teacher act – and maybe one or two signings, the club would quickly return to Champions League prominence before a graceful transition to “a true United Man.”

This choice represents a terrible misjudgment of the state of the squad and a lack of curiosity to dig beyond the official history of Van Gaal’s career. Worse it confuses past success with future results.

As the Class of 92 receded into the background, holes began to pop up all over the squad. In Sir Alex’s latter years, the transfer record was, to be kind, indifferent. For every Ronaldo and Rooney, there was a Ashley Young or Bebe. Those mistakes could be absorbed as long as the club could rely on homegrown talent.

Even if more recent vintages never reached the heights of the Beckham, Giggs, Butt, Neville and Scholes cadre, the late 90s and early aughts saw a string of international class players come through the ranks in the likes of John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown. But that pipeline has dried in recent years.

Against this backdrop, the number of true world class players dwindled as injuries and age sapped the ability from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The threadbare nature of the squad was cast into stark relief by Paul Scholes’ return to action late in the 2011-12 season. Both the desperation evidenced and the clear improvement he brought to the team were worrying signs.

However, despite all the indications that this was a team in need of full-scale refurbishment and no longer “one-player away,” first Moyes and now Van Gaal have dipped into the top end of the market. Certainly Angel Di Maria is a fine player and the best winger in the red half of Manchester since Ronaldo himself, but he can’t play center back. Or in defensive midfield. Or at fullback. In fact, he bolsters what is the one area of strength on the current roster.

Van Gaal’s supposed genius won’t save this squad either, as the legend has long outstripped reality as far as his reputation in concerned. Certainly he achieved wonderful success at Ajax in the 90s, but he did so with the players who formed the bulk of Holland’s great 1998 World Cup semifinal side. On the heels of that success, he has managed a succession of top clubs to some short term success before leaving in a fury of recriminations and infighting.

What is his track record of building or rebuilding a side? What good is the work he might do on the front if it is undone as part of the inevitable post-departure purge when his English sojourn ends?  The team is in in bad shape, but Van Gaal gives very little reason to believe he will leave the club in better condition than he found it.

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About Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife and daughter. He blogs about basketball at the HP Basketball Network, the #FancyStats Blog on the Washington Post and other sites. Follow him on twitter at @SethPartnow and on tumblr at sethpartnow.tumblr.com.
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