Fear and loathing in high places for traditional giants

Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal

During one Manchester United game at their temporary home of Maine Road after Old Trafford had been bombed in 1941, Matt Busby overheard a director of the club, Harold Hardman, criticise the manager’s ongoing selection of Johnny Carey. “How he can keep picking him, God only knows,” Hardman said.

 Harold Hardman had won an Olympic gold medal for Great Britain as a footballer. He had once been on Everton’s books. A board today would welcome the views of a man with the football experience of Hardman. Busby had no interest in his views. “Never dare say anything like that to me again in front of people,” Busby told him at half-time in the toilets at Maine Road. At the next board meeting, Busby placed an item on the agenda – ‘Interference by Directors’. Busby won the argument. As Eamon Dunphy noted in A Strange Kind of Glory, his biography of Busby, “A crucial principle had been established.”

On his first day as Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers made it clear how he would work at the club. “It’s absolute madness if you are the manager of the club and someone else tells you to have that player. It doesn’t work. I’ve had total clarity with that from the guys so I’ve got confidence that will remain. It was for this reason that I didn’t want to be sat up there, say what I’ve said and then in three weeks’ time Louis van Gaal walks in the door.”

Rodgers’ rhetoric had little real meaning. If Busby established a timeless principle, Liverpool are in danger of reverting back to a tradition that has accompanied them during the 20 years they spent watching Manchester United dominate in England.

Football has changed in the years since Busby ruled Manchester United but the things that used to make clubs weak still make them weak today.

A manager will fail if good players are replaced by bad ones and a club can’t prosper without ruthlessness. United have found one way of ensuring good players arrive since the summer but in the nine months since the clubs last met in the Premier League, they have also demonstrated their decisiveness.

For Liverpool, there is once again the sense that they are slipping helplessly into crisis, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

By the time in 2012 that the Fenway Sports Group had decided that Brendan Rodgers was the man they wanted to lead their brave new management model, Louis van Gaal was not under consideration for any position and, in fact, he might never have been. Their discussions with Roberto Martinez foundered when he said that he wouldn’t work under a director of football. They moved on to Rodgers and by the time of his appointment had ruled out a director of football, but they still believed they could do things a different way.

FSG wanted a collegiate model which would have made Van Gaal, with his own ideas about power and control, a crazy appointment.

They would utilise the wisdom of crowds. The model would take precedence. FSG would never make the same mistakes they had made in 2011 when they bought the wrong players for too much money. Instead they would make even worse mistakes. “Your biggest expenditure line can’t be at the whim of one individual,” chief executive Ian Ayre has explained in outlining their approach to player recruitment. Liverpool weren’t going to be at the whim of one individual, they would instead be at the whim of several, a climate that can, when things go wrong, encourage politicking and face-saving, familiar conditions at the club over the past decade.

If Luis Suarez’s Liverpool was an Arabian stallion, the team this year, designed by the club’s transfer committee, is a camel.

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Last season, Liverpool and Manchester United swapped positions. Liverpool were the swashbuckling contenders who would score three goals if the opponents scored two – or six if they scored three – while United were the club with soul sickness, the one that was racked with self-doubt and a crippling paranoia. They were used to paranoia at Old Trafford, they weren’t used to it eating them up.

For 26 years, one man took care of the ruthlessness and the paranoia at Manchester United. Alex Ferguson ceded power and control to nobody. “If I lose control of all these multi-millionaires in my dressing room, I’m dead,” he told the Philosophical Society at Trinity in 2010. “And if they lose control, they’re dead. The manager is always the most important person at Manchester United.”

Ferguson set out to control the controllable and to control the uncontrollable too. During David Moyes’ season at United, it was said that they weren’t a sacking club. They had been once but during Ferguson’s time, they were not a sacking-of-managers club. Everybody else – assistants, captains, global superstars – had been ruthlessly discarded when their time was up.

Yet, like many great autocrats, Alex Ferguson was prone to sentimentality. If the subject was his own mythology, the stories of how he became the man he was, then he could lapse spectacularly. After his retirement we would learn that the belt he was beaten with as a child was among the objects he kept in his study. This fetishisation of his past continued when David Moyes was appointed as his successor.

“When Scots leave Scotland it tends to be for one reason only. To be successful. Scots don’t leave to escape the past,” Ferguson declared as he endorsed Moyes in his autobiography.

He shared some traits with Moyes, he explained, and his successor came from a good family. That wasn’t critical but “you like to see good foundations in someone appointed to such high office”.

As it was, nobody could doubt David Moyes’ integrity even as he struggled in such high office. He was, as Ryan Giggs said when he went to say farewell to the manager after his dismissal, “a good man”.

United’s descent into sentimentality was not their only problem in the summer of Moyes’ appointment. Ed Woodward had succeeded David Gill and, like his counterpart at Liverpool Ian Ayre, he struggled to close deals for players. Moyes’ hesitancy added to the drift. Their failure to strengthen the squad was a problem as was Moyes’ essential decency as it became clear that decency wasn’t a necessary trait in somebody holding high office.

As United struggled, Liverpool thrived thanks to the ruthlessness and decisiveness of two men: Luis Suarez and John W Henry.

In the summer of Moyes’ appointment, Liverpool had their own problems. Suarez wanted to leave and it seemed inevitable that he would, despite flowery statements of defiance from Rodgers.

“The environment that we’re creating is that the star will always be the team. We want to have top players here but if for whatever reason we don’t, we will always know we can rely on the team and each other,” the manager said.

Suarez went public with his complaints after the club had blocked his move to Arsenal.

“Last year I had the opportunity to move to a big European club and I stayed on the understanding that if we failed to qualify for the Champions League the following season I’d be allowed to go,” he said before the start of the 2013/’14 season. “I gave absolutely everything last season but it was not enough to give us a top-four finish – now all I want is for Liverpool to honour our agreement.”

Suarez claimed he had received a promise from his manager. “I spoke with Brendan Rodgers several times and he told me: ‘Stay another season, and you have my word if we don’t make it then I will personally make sure that you can leave.’ Liverpool is a club with a reputation for doing things the right way. I just want them to abide by the promises made last season.”

Promises might have been made, the team might have been preparing to become the star but John Henry saw it differently. “We are not going to sell Luis,” Henry told The Guardian. “For all the top clubs it’s extremely important [not to sell to a rival] but especially for Liverpool because we’re not in Europe this year and have not been in the Champions League for a while. To sell to a rival for those positions, or one of them, would be ludicrous . . . It’s a football reason. It’s not about finances. That’s why at this point, so late in the window, with everyone who’s already moved or isn’t moving, we can’t replace him. So for football reasons we can’t sell, and especially to Arsenal.”

In December of last year, Suarez extended his contract at Liverpool until 2018. “It’s nice because when you extend your contract, you extend it because you want to stay here for the future,” Suarez said, although it was reported that a release clause of £70m also formed part of the new deal.

While Liverpool celebrated, United acted decisively in the January transfer window. They had been aware since late August that Juan Mata could be allowed to leave Chelsea but, anxious that they could be coaxed into a conversation about selling Wayne Rooney, they resisted contacting Chelsea.

In January, Woodward made the deal happen and it was seen as a triumph even if reports again stressed that United had never talked directly with Chelsea in case they were mesmerised and ended up selling Rooney.

Daniel Taylor in The Guardian reported that “Chelsea indicated again they wanted to talk and would even let Mata travel to Manchester to take his medical. Except Woodward knew, again, that Rooney would crop up and potentially kibosh the whole deal. ‘He couldn’t risk it,’ according to one source. So he sat tight, while Mata and the relevant agents went to work behind the scenes. Then Mourinho went public that Mata could leave and that was always going to speed up the process. Finally, the deal was closed on Saturday.”

United had Mata and in February, Rooney also signed a new contract. Moyes was planning for the future but United were beginning to feel there wasn’t one.

The manager had a six-year contract and he understood that had some weight. “The reason I went to United was because I thought I was joining a club that would give me time,” he said in an interview after his dismissal. “That was the big thing. I didn’t want to change anything immediately. I wanted to take my time working out what I thought was needed.”

But the Glazers and Woodward also thought they knew what was needed. United had been knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich and 11 days later, Moyes returned to Goodison Park. There was another defeat and in the aftermath, journalists established from a United source that Moyes was facing dismissal. United had attempted to follow Ferguson with a man who came endorsed by Ferguson but there was no more scope for sentimentality.

United went to the other extreme. Moyes heard the rumours before he was contacted by the club. When Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail spoke to him within an hour of the story appearing on Twitter, Moyes refused to believe it. “There’s no way you guys would know before me,” Lawton reported Moyes as saying. “This is Manchester United we’re talking about.”

This was Manchester United and it was rediscovering its ruthlessness. Moyes was gone and within days it was reported Van Gaal was the favourite to take over.

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There would have been a time when United’s misfortune provided Liverpool with their only consolation in a season but last season was not that time. They had no need of comfort as they pursued the title and even as they stuttered and fell against Chelsea and Crystal Palace, they could take encouragement from the season.

Rodgers had played his part. Suarez led the team but Rodgers played to their strengths. Liverpool couldn’t defend so he would make sure they emphasised attack.

Yet in challenging for the title, Liverpool had also surrendered to myth. Rodgers was hailed as the architect and he was always eager to talk about his methods, even as some pointed out that this was a team that played on the counter-attack which played to Suarez’s strengths.

“I’ve seen lots of stuff written about how I’ve changed, which is totally not true,” Rodgers told Sports Illustrated in April. “What has changed has been the speed of the game, the understanding of our game, the understanding of the philosophy amongst the players and their intelligence around it has improved and that’s what has helped us to where we are.”

He was also ready to offer advice. “Tottenham were a team maybe looking to challenge for the league this season. They spent £100-odd million on a group that was set up to challenge,” he said ahead of the game against Spurs last season.

When Van Gaal arrived in the summer, Rodgers, taking a fatherly role, warned him about the intensity of the Premier League. “I think the competition will probably take him by surprise and that’s from foreign managers I have spoken to over the years.”

By that stage, Suarez had left for Barcelona but Rodgers didn’t see that as a difficulty. Before the opening game of this season, he was asked if Suarez would be missed. “No, not really. I think we had a star player who was part of the collective. Luis had a great talent but the team was the important thing.”

The players Liverpool had signed to replace him would take their place gradually. “It’s not a new team, it’s an evolving team.” On Friday, as he provided a list of reasons for Liverpool’s slump this season, Rodgers had a different view. “We are virtually starting again.”

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The role change of last season has not been reversed, although Liverpool may be the club with the soul sickness. United have won their last five league games but if they spent money and formed a useful connection with Jorge Mendes, they have relied on the players who predate Van Gaal to provide the platform. They have won without being convincing and would be vulnerable today if Liverpool had the heart to expose those vulnerabilities.

United spent £170m in the summer as they decided that there was no long-term plan in football that couldn’t be jeopardised by a disastrous short-term, but even then they have struggled. Van Gaal said the problems came from switching from an instinctive style to his which requires players to use their intelligence.

In Van Gaal, United have a manager who knows what he wants and has a record that suggests he knows how to get it.

Last week, he had to deal with criticism from Gary Neville and Paul Scholes but he dismissed the words from the Class of ’92 while he allowed himself a gentle exercise in ruthlessness when he took Paddy McNair off before half-time in last Monday’s game against Southampton and explained afterwards that the player had no confidence.

This is the Van Gaal of parody, the man who knows his own mind to such an extent that he cannot comprehend how anybody could be so dumb as to think differently. Yet he may be what the club needed after it threatened to fragment in the first season post-Ferguson.

Van Gaal is a man who understands about power and control and believes that the manager is always the most important person at a football club, especially if the manager is Louis Van Gaal.

* * * * *

If Liverpool seemed unprepared for the inevitability of Suarez’s departure, they also appeared to be shocked by another great inevitability: time. Their failure to plan adequately for Steven Gerrard’s decline suggests that a club that was supposed to pay great heed to analytics and would take a competitive advantage as a result of their analysis of metrics, forgot to look at a calendar.

There is merit in the idea that Gerrard remains Liverpool’s best midfielder, but this is a condemnation of all the others at the club, not praise for a player who demonstrated again on Tuesday night against Basel that, unless he is standing over a free-kick, he can no longer influence games to a meaningful extent.

Gerrard’s influence has been so great over the past ten years that Liverpool needed to ensure they had a replacement of some stature. Instead they gambled that Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, Emre Can or some combination of them, could provide an answer.

They spent £130m in the summer, including £25m on Adam Lallana – a “terrific young talent,” Rodgers said of someone who is a month older than Sergio Aguero.

Liverpool’s transfer committee is under as much examination as Rodgers. These are collective failures but the manager can’t be excused as he has provided little evidence that he would have signed better players.

Yet the committee has not provided the wisdom of crowds but, instead, has allowed Liverpool to revert to politicking. Rodgers might not have wanted Mario Balotelli but the way to demonstrate that was to refuse to take him and, from a position of strength last summer, demand a striker he wanted or resign.

Liverpool’s limp exit from the Champions League last week was in keeping with their approach to the competition.

As Rodgers rested players for the game in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, an exercise which ultimately had no real purpose except to reveal the limitation of their ambitions, it was tempting to wonder why they wanted to be in the Champions League in the first place.

On Friday, Rodgers again pointed out that he had less time to spend on coaching this season, adding it to the reasons for their poor season.

If there are great and noble traditions at Liverpool, there are precedents too for stasis and ineptitude. This, after all, is a club which in the last 20 years has appointed joint-managers, ignoring all available evidence of how football works.

These are different times with different owners but Liverpool is in danger of embracing unwelcome traditions. Rodgers has portrayed himself as a prisoner of circumstances, such as the injury to Daniel Sturridge, and the perils of success.

The manager’s supporters take issue with the idea that Suarez was the sole reason for Liverpool’s title challenge, but Suarez looks like he was the main source of ruthlessness and leadership.

These are the qualities Liverpool need to find from somewhere at Old Trafford and for the rest of the season. If they return to the era of confusion and indecision, it will be no consolation that they have been there so many times before.