Managers come in a variety of forms. There are the Jose Mourninhos -- his achievements with Porto aside---who take an already capable squad and get the best out of them, youth development being secondary. Then there are the Pep Guardiolas and Alex Fergusons who would rather bring in youth, nurture them and assemble homegrown stars to blend in with the multi-millionaires they already have and challenge for top honours.
The likes of Claudio Ranieri and David Moyes go another way. They bring in lesser known players and forge a squad which can be the favourites’ bogey team if not challenge for the first prize.
When Manchester United announced the signing of Louis van Gaal in the summer of 2014, the club hierarchy and fans would have thought they were getting a man capable of playing the role of all three. A managerial hybrid if you will. Big enough to attract big names that the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ demands, experienced enough to have the instincts and take a Javier Hernandez (who almost quit football in Mexico before Ferguson signed him) type to the next level and bold enough to send in youth when no one expects it.
If Manchester United were to announce tomorrow that they have parted ways with LVG, it is unlikely many would be found reminiscing ‘the good times’.
A good win here or there would be outweighed by losses to literally all of them. The banners would be brought down—if there are any left of him at the Stretford End — swiftly.
Van Gaal made a lot of the number of injuries his team has had and how there is a ‘big problem every week’, but it is precisely these ‘problems’ that seem to have been the reason why he was in the dugout at press time.
There was a time when winning four games in a row was just another day at Old Trafford. Fans would scan the fixture calendar and look for Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea as the teams to beat in their quest for what would be just another title win. Under van Gaal the situation is something like ‘hmmm...maybe we can get a point at Swansea...hopefully we don’t lose at West Ham.’ How the mighty have fallen.
This is not to say that van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford as been a complete failure. At least, if one doesn’t gauge success by the amount of silverware won. The Dutchman has given debuts to 14 players and should even one of them go on to become a club great --- a Giggs or a Paul Scholes — the next manager, or managers, would be thankful.
Let’s get this out of the way: No manager was going to swoop in after Ferguson and carry on winning titles, such was the enormity of the task of succeeding him. Let’s also get it on record that the team he left lacked balance.
During his final years at United, Ferguson’s hand was forced into buying established players more than ever before due to the huge amount being spent by the likes of Chelsea, and more importantly, four miles away by Manchester City.
The importance of bringing in youth was put on hold to continue to compete at the highest level, so for every ageing Michael Carrick or Ryan Giggs, there was a player in the academy who no one knew about. Lack of chances meant many went unheard of, left for other teams or just passed the stage where they could be groomed into world class players. Paul Pogba, who left for Juventus in 2012, being the latest, and the one that stings the most.
Van Gaal came with a reputation for giving youth a chance, his CV at Ajax backing that claim. Of all his debutants at United, Marcus Rashford is the most notable. The circumstances in which he made his two-goal debut could make for a great story one day---being drafted into the team minutes before kick-off against Midtjylland in the Europa League due to an injury to another young player, Anthony Martial. At 18, Rashford has shown the maturity beyond his years and possesses the hunger that could see him go on but nurturing will be key.
Rashford scored twice against Arsenal on February 28, and the second of those was assisted by Jesse Lingaard, another one van Gaal invested time in. James Weir and Tim Fosu-Mensah were also given debuts to absorb the late Arsenal pressure.
The manager was adamant that he would not buy in the January window and instead give youth a chance. Rashford became United’s youngest-ever scorer in European football and the manager says he is to thank for it. One point to you, Sir.
Former United winger Lee Sharpe recently told a heart-warming tale from his time at the club. At the club’s training ground, Sharpe was observing the academy ‘kids’ with senior players like Peter Schmeichel and Steve Bruce. Bryan Robson, another one of the senior players, turned to the coach and asked “Who are you keeping, who are you letting go?”
“We’re keeping (David) Beckham, (Nicky) Butt, Neville (Phil and Gary), this lad, this lad, this lad’s going, and we’re not sure about the little red-head in midfield,” was the reply. That ‘little red-head’ turned out to be Scholes.
Perhaps we’ll hear a similar story about Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Lingaard or one of the others one day. Maybe the documentary will be called ‘The Class of 2016’.