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It says much about the way Manchester United’s season went that in the aftermath of their FA Cup win on Saturday, even the much anticipated (and, wanted, and, now confirmed) news that Louis van Gaal was about to be relieved of his duties and replaced by Jose Mourinho was greeted with a mixed reaction.
There was something decidedly undignified about the way Van Gaal was forced to navigate the post-match press conference, unable to enjoy the moment of success without dealing with intense speculation over his future. How the Mourinho news came about barely matters but it was far from an ideal situation for United’s owners and board members, who hardly covered themselves in glory when dispensing with David Moyes a little over two years ago.
The harshest reality is that Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford was up regardless of the result against Crystal Palace. Contemporary testimonials, the effective obituaries of his spell in Manchester, are hardly likely to be kind - and not just because of his difficult relationship with journalists. The Dutchman’s persistence with a ‘philosophy’ that for one reason or another hasn’t worked is the biggest reason - the man himself would be likely to suggest it in fact has worked, and that the FA Cup win is a testament to that.
But Van Gaal has had two years to get that groove perfected, a long enough time, and nowhere is the effect of his management better personified than in Chris Smalling. Back in August 2014, when United kicked off their Premier League campaign against Swansea City, it was clear that the team were instructed to move the ball quickly. It was too quick for the comfort of certain players, Smalling notably included, and the consequence was erratic form for a number of months. And so Van Gaal became more conservative, and Smalling’s form improved. There was a regression around the winter of this season and while the England defender recovered from that to end the campaign fairly well, there remains a question mark over his capability to be the man who commands a position at the heart of the United defence, not least because of the occasional rush of blood which was evident once again at Wembley.
Van Gaal’s tenure hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster but as this column has observed before, there are a number of complicated problems at United and the easiest solution, as it always is in football, is to replace the manager. And so, when the time comes for that to occur, hyperbole takes over and things are made to look more dramatic to intensify the blame game and identify one chief culprit. The manager is to blame for the brand of football that only sees enjoyment through the individual flashes of inspiration and he is to blame for the size and composition of the squad which appeared to cost United in their pursuit of greater glory than that which they achieved.
Whether Jose Mourinho is the right person to bring back the entertainment on the pitch remains to be seen. His Real Madrid spell is a positive indicator, as was the first five or six months of the 2014/15 season at Chelsea, but traditionally Mourinho is at least as pragmatic as Van Gaal. United were top of the league last November but pressure was already intensifying on the manager because of the style of football.
That said, Mourinho is the right choice. The only choice, really, and a decision United had forced themselves into. It does not appear to be a knee jerk one, because the club failed to reach the Champions League. And yet to delay the decision by six months, when it was clear to all that change was needed at Christmas, does remain a concern for supporters about those in charge. As does the capability of players to effectively down tools as they did in the defeats to Norwich City and Stoke City in December which were a low point in the club’s history. The board waited while Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti were headhunted by other clubs and so, with change inevitable, and Mourinho available, the timing of the decision becomes questionable. Not because it happened, but because it could and should have happened six months ago.
The future of Ryan Giggs will be up for discussion and rightly so. The Welshman will be perfectly entitled to feel aggrieved and being passed by, after it was intimated throughout the reign of Van Gaal that he was being groomed for the manager’s role. What does that say about the confidence Giggs should have in the trustworthiness of the owner’s word?
Alongside Mourinho, Giggs was pretty much the bookies’ favourite to get the job for some time, but if we are to consider how upset the legendary former winger is, we should also take some time to acknowledge the seriousness of his capabilities. The most positive thing to be taken from his spell as an assistant is that we don’t yet know what, exactly, he’s made of, though that could be taken as a negative. Football is littered with coaches with great reputations. If the best that can be said for Giggs is that nobody knows what to expect from him as a manager, and if he is generously absolved of any contribution to the dour football served up in the last three seasons, then it is only fair to ask what he has done. Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Carlos Querioz and Rene Meulensteen all enjoyed lofty reputations as assistant managers, enjoying the kind of praise which is notable by its absence when it comes to Giggs. And still, given the promises that were made public two years ago, he will feel upset, and that is understandable.
And that is pretty much the overriding feeling of events at United over the last few days. There is the euphoria of the Cup, and the optimism that accompanies the acquisition of arguably the greatest coach in the modern game, and yet with it is a melancholic sadness that so much of it could have been avoided. Perhaps it is the inevitability of further change. Or the uncertainty of knowing just how unpredictable Mourinho will be - will this be the three year rollercoaster cycle United fans are used to observing as neutrals, or will his public coveting of the job be enough for the man to change his ways?
As for Van Gaal, well, it’s difficult to see how even the passing of time will reflect kindly on his time in charge at United. He was likeable, he was blunt and took no nonsense from the press, preferring to make statements and speak literally than tow the party line. That was refreshing up to a certain point, but supporters want to see results; and the most entertaining moments of the ‘Orange’ era were undeniably found off the pitch.
Perhaps Van Gaal’s biggest fault was his persistence with some players who simply are not capable of elevating United into the position they were in three years ago. That will be a problem for the new manager now; one that will become clear to supporters, if it wasn’t already. But that will come too late to influence any kind of perception of Van Gaal’s time at United which is best summarised by the tone of the mood surrounding his exit - bittersweet and underwhelming.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.