After all the crowing during the pre-season, the wave of momentum upon which Louis van Gaal surfed like a perfectly coiffured Adonis into Old Trafford has now crashed into the reef and receded back into the merciless depths. Van Gaal, spluttering and coughing up salt water, must now be frantically groping for a life preserver to stay afloat. The defeat to Swansea, the draw to Sunderland, and now an embarrassing 4-0 thrashing at the hands of League 1’s MK Dons in the Capital One Cup. The ‘Louis van Gaal always starts slowly’ excuses are already wearing thin; starting slowly is one thing, this almost looks like Manchester United have gone backwards.
Van Gaal, for all the trouble that currently surrounds him, is actually in a privileged position. Luckily, he’s following David Moyes, the man who Manchester United originally chose to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who floundered and was eventually put out of his misery. No doubt Moyes is quietly smiling to himself; the difficulties that the Dutch maestro is experiencing, in a way, partly excuses his own struggle at the helm, that maybe last season’s dismal campaign wasn’t all a result of his own shortcomings as manager. He even managed to beat Swansea on the opening day, even if it did all go downhill from there. But, returning to the point, van Gaal is still somewhat protected from sharing the jobless Moyes’ ultimate fate, and it’s because of Moyes himself. Looking back on the whole affair, it feels increasingly more like David Moyes was designed to be a patsy, a fall guy, that the club hierarchy knew that Ferguson’s immediate replacement would never be able to cope under the pressure and that there needed to be a sacrificial schmuck, someone whose downfall would alleviate the unendurable atmosphere enough for the real successor, who would come later. It certainly turned out that way, and van Gaal has come in as the hero to turn United’s post-Moyes fortunes around, instead of following on from Ferguson’s title-winning swansong. This, along with his glittering reputation, will mean he is allowed more time to succeed, that every individual failure will be lambasted with less fury, at least by the fans. Though the Moyes Buffer is a handy and hardy set of armour, it isn’t indestructible.
One chink in the barrier that David Moyes’ failure built has been formed by van Gaal’s own extensive transfer dealings so far this season. Moyes was criticised for not being assertive enough in the market, whereas van Gaal has spent, if not wisely, at least freely. The latest piece of business, securing the services of Real Madrid winger Angel di Maria, has taken United’s total summer expenditure to over £130 million. This is much more than they have ever spent in a single period. Consequentially, van Gaal has acquired, along with all the shiny new players, an added layer of expectation; yes, the squad needs some extensive refreshing but now that spending is at an all time high, a lack of quality playing staff cannot be relied on as an acceptable excuse for poor results. Moyes was perceived as being a hapless novice in this higher echelon of wheeler-dealing, that he couldn’t be trusted to cope amidst the big-money exchanges between the super-clubs. Van Gaal has managed the biggest clubs in Germany, Spain and Holland, he has a reputation for being at home in such lofty surrounds. He has been comfortable splashing the cash, so it all falls on him to astutely recruit in the relevant positions.
So, is Angel di Maria the type of player United need the most? After the shambolic defensive displays in their first three matches, the answer would appear to be a resounding ‘no’. Marcos Rojo’s acquisition goes some way to rectifying the defensive problems but one Argentinian defender, let alone an Argentinian winger, can’t resolve the issue completely. Another question mark over the Di Maria signing exists; where exactly does he fit into the current system? Van Gaal recently said that his use of the 3-4-1-2 was (at least when he used in with The Netherlands,) due to a lack of quality in the squad, forcing him to play that way. He has since persevered with it at United and what that says about his current team can be guessed at. Of course, the system has no traditional wingers, in fact no wingers to speak of at all, preferring attacking wing backs to provide the width. The three central defenders, ideally more mobile and comfortable on the ball, offer more options for passing out of defence up the middle of the park, making the central corridor the most obvious avenue through which to transition the ball. Where a player like Di Maria fits into that isn’t clear. He did play semi-regularly as a more central creator for Madrid last season, but where would that leave Juan Mata if he were to fill that role at United? It would also seem a strange waste of such a gifted attacker to play him as a wing back, largely clipping Angel’s wings, so to speak. He is undoubtedly a player of outstanding ability, and one that would improve any team in Europe. But Manchester United’s attack is arguably the one place that is needs no improvement, and £60 million on a player they don’t specifically require is a puzzling decision to make, no matter how good he is. Still, he’ll probably be a bigger success than Marouane Fellaini, David Moyes’ big signing, was in his first season.
The early poor results in the league, the questionable transfers, and the latest pantsing by lower league opposition have given van Gaal a baptism of fire in Manchester. He has the Moyes Buffer to absorb some of the blows, but it won’t protect him forever. A loss against promoted Burnley this weekend may well shatter it completely, but that surely can’t happen… can it?
The judging eyes of the world will be watching if it does.