Sunday night at Old Trafford. As the United supporting hordes around the world checked for updates on whether Louis van Gaal has been sacked, the area outside the stadium was empty, with the neon red ‘Manchester United’ overlooking the forecourt and dominant across the west Manchester skies. A day earlier, fans had trudged home dejected after a sixth game without a win.
Suddenly there was a loud buzzer, then a loudspeaker announcement.
“Get off the statue!” said a voice in a gruff accent. Two fans had clambered up to the Holy Trinity statue of George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton. Perhaps they were so frustrated at United’s lack of goals – only 10 at Old Trafford in eight league games all season – that they wanted to touch three goal-scoring former European footballers of the year as compensation. They quickly climbed down.
The club’s priorities then and now…
These are deeply uncertain times at Manchester United. At the start of December, journalists were briefed on the current state of affairs at the club. United were firmly behind van Gaal and were prepared to back him with another £200 million in the transfer market.
The club briefed that a left back was a priority to help cover for the injured Luke Shaw, the manager had set his sights on a central defender. A striker would be a dream for fans, but United knew that rivals are unlikely to relinquish a top goalscorer in January. Premier League clubs are wealthier than ever, they don’t need to sell. Besides, United’s goal-shy side are hardly attractive to the gold standard, Neymar-class players the fans court.
I understand that, but it’s still Manchester United,” ex-United and Uruguayan international Diego Forlan (below) told me last week, still hugely appealing to footballers.
Out of the top four
How United saw the picture at the start of the month and how they see it now is much changed. Elimination from the Champions League and three successive defeats since has seen the mood shift markedly.
Never mind seeing out the remaining 17 months on his contract, Van Gaal will be fortunate to see out 2015 as United manager.
At the start of the month, the club were concerned about a lack of goals. As December closes, they’re concerned about the slump on the field and need to decide whether to sack their manager.
It’s not how they wanted it to be, they liked the idea of longevity and promoting from within, of Ryan Giggs (below) succeeding van Gaal, but the absolute priority is what happens on the pitch and what’s happening isn’t enough. United are playing badly, not scoring and not winning.
The fans have had enough too. The vast majority want van Gaal out. They don’t want to hound him, that’s not their style. Even David Moyes couldn’t believe the support he received from fans as his side fell apart in 2014.
They are tired of the turgid football under a man they had such high hopes for. They hoped he had the personality to push change through and he did that, though expectations were not met. Aside from a spring flurry of superb football and excellent results against arch rivals, the best-resourced team in world football are languishing.
Having initially warmed to van Gaal with his imperfect English, his idiosyncrasies and remarks about tipping your hats and eating at his favourite Chinese restaurant – the mood has changed.
They admired him for promoting youth, for being clear thinking and decisive – though you could counter in hindsight that selling players like Javier Hernandez was an error – but all that is secondary if the football played by the first team is dire. And it is.
That’s what fans pay good money to see, but highlights are so few, there’s weariness brought about by the sleep-inducing football and demand for change.
Despite what you may read to the contrary from players who can hardly say anything else, many of the players have diminished confidence in their manager too. They think they train too hard, with too much repetition, that they have too many meetings at what has become an unhappy training ground.
Van Gaal knows the confidence in his team has nose-dived. There was the air of sadness of a defeated man as he told journalists after the latest defeat that he used to be a good manager. He doesn’t want to retire after a spectacular career on a low by being sacked, but he’s the boss and his squad of very talented players are failing badly.
The Dutchman has to think he’s the man for the job. If he doesn’t then who does? But he’s under crushing pressure.
After Saturday’s defeat at home to Norwich, he said that the way out was: To show your professional attitude. That’s the only way you get that back. We have to evaluate what we have done today and how we prepared that match. We will evaluate what we have done to make it better against Stoke. Then we have to play within two days against Chelsea.
So 2,529 United fans (it would have been a bigger allocation had United fans behaved better on previous visits) will travel to the Potteries on Boxing Day morning in an atmosphere of great uncertainty.
Yes way, Jose
Van Gaal is not stupid. He knows football managers who don’t win football matches lose their jobs. He knows he’s holding onto his by a thread.
And all the while, Jose Mourinho (above) waits in the wings. He’d be a popular choice with fans right now. Carlo Ancelotti would have been too before he was appointed at Bayern Munich. Ditto Pep Guardiola, but United felt the latter two’s next career steps had been decided.
Mourinho worked under Van Gaal at Barça, when the Dutchman nurtured his ability by putting him in charge of scouting opponents. It’s fundamental to the practice of both coaches – know as much about your opponents as possible, whereas Guardiola prefers to focus on his own team.
Van Gaal entrusted the same role to Ryan Giggs; the man he thought would become his successor at Old Trafford in 2017. Giggs wants the job and those who know him well are convinced he’s got what it takes to be a top manager, but with United in free-fall, the club might decide it’s too much too soon and go for experience.