Man United better off missing top four, if it rids them of Louis van Gaal

first_imgFor Manchester United, Tuesday’s defeat at West Ham felt emblematic. There was befuddlement then unexpected hope as United came from behind to go 2-1 up, followed by disappointment as West Ham scored two late goals.United came oddly close to winning, and yet it was hard to make any sort of case that they’d deserved to: West Ham had 20 shots to United’s three.But that’s been the way throughout Louis van Gaal’s reign: even in the odd moments of optimism, it’s been very hard to see any underlying trends that might suggest a bright future. United had the chance to take charge of the race for fourth, and they squandered it.A win at Upton Park and victory over Bournemouth at home on Sunday would have secured Champions League football next season and, almost as significantly, would have denied it to Manchester City. As it is, City, given their superior goal-difference, now only have to draw at Swansea to be sure of fourth.Even if United had the satisfaction of making Pep Guardiola play in the Europa League, there would have been questions about the future of Louis van Gaal. Those questions will come all the louder with a fifth-place finish (or worse, given West Ham and Southampton are both within range).And questions about Van Gaal mean the shadow of Jose Mourinho once again falls over the discussion. His succession seemed in December almost a fait accompli, as Van Gaal reportedly offered his resignation, but even as United continue to tread water it feels decreasingly likely with each passing day.The suggestion last week that Mourinho had been asked about taking over in the summer of 2017, when Van Gaal’s contract expires, was baffling (which is not to say it was untrue; much of what Ed Woodward does is baffling).The seeming determination of Woodward to allow Van Gaal to see out his contract is admirable in some respects, but it makes no sense. Van Gaal risks being left as a lame duck, with players effectively waiting out time until he leaves: for every Jupp Heynckes, winning the treble at Bayern after his departure had been confirmed, there are dozens who falter, as even Sir Alex Ferguson did when he announced his retirement in 2001 before reversing his decision.And besides, if Mourinho is the right man for 2017, why is he not the right man now? Why make him twiddle his thumbs for a year? Why risk him finding another job he fancies in the interim? Every decision Van Gaal made would be considered through the lens of what Mourinho would make of it. It’s not as though Van Gaal’s tenure has been hugely popular or that he has been an overwhelming success. It’s true he may bring the FA Cup – maybe even a top-four finish – and that he’s promoted young talent that may in time provide the nucleus of something remarkable, and it may be that history looks kindly on his reign, just as Bayern eventually became grateful for the foundations he’d left.But ask whether the signs of progress are obvious, whether he has engaged the crowd, whether he seems as dynamic and progressive as, say Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, and the answer is no. And even if it’s accepted that there is development, which is questionable, what will carrying it on for another year achieve? Will Van Gaal find another couple of Marcus Rashfords or Timothy Fosu-Mensahs?Will his process be any better understood? Will the young players he has blooded grow sufficiently under his leadership to justify what would inevitably be seen as a placeholder season, much as this season has been at City, where Manuel Pellegrini operated for a long time before the formal announcement with the knowledge that he would be replaced in the summer.The implication is that the board remains divided on whether Mourinho really is the right man. The suggestion since December has been that Ferguson, Bobby Charlton and the Class of 92 all favour Ryan Giggs, while the more business-oriented side of the board – many of them from the US – favour Mourinho. It’s a story that has dragged on so long that every twitch, ever cough, is analysed for meaning. Lurching one way then the other to such an extent that it has come to seem probable that United’s hierarchy don’t yet know what is going on. Van Gaal’s own position has wavered from speaking with confidence of being involved next season, to saying it’s up to the board, to insisting he only ever wanted two years anyway.His involvement in planning for United’s summer tour offered the strongest hint that he will still be at Old Trafford next season, while the fact that the highly promising 18-year-old midfield Renato Sanches, a client of Mourinho’s agent Pedro Mendes and a United target, has chosen to join Bayern seemed significant. United insisted they had pulled out of a deal in February, which implies that Van Gaal is still being given control of transfer policy, which in turn implies that at least some at United still saw him in February as being in charge next season.It always seemed a little odd that the choice had apparently become a binary one: Giggs or Mourinho, as though there were no other managers worthy of consideration.There may not have been anything unusual about Mauricio Pochettino having lunch with Ferguson this week, and he has now signed his new deal at White Hart Lane, but it can’t have harmed negotiations to hint to Mourinho, however briefly, that he is not the only option. But talk of options presupposes than there will be a vacancy. It’s absurd that such matters should hang on a point or two, perhaps on a refereeing error a defensive mistake or a forward’s moment of brilliance, but it does seem less likely that Van Gaal would be allowed to carry on after a fifth-place finish.There is a sense in which, from a political point of view at least, missing out on the Champions League and winning the FA Cup is the ideal solution. There is due cause to terminate Van Gaal’s contract without seeming indecisive, but the 64-year-old can still go out with dignity and a trophy. If he stays the fear is another season of frustration and drift.—last_img

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