Any Manchester United fans dreaming of ruthless clear-outs and a zero-tolerance policy to egos under Louis van Gaal have been left disappointed, writes Squawka’s Greg Johnson.
After a season of trial-and-error dithering from David Moyes, the news that the “Iron Tulip” himself, Louis van Gaal, would be arriving at Manchester United to clean up the post-Ferguson mess whetted the appetites of fans dreaming of ruthless clear-outs and a zero-tolerance policy to egos. They’re still waiting.
Wayne Rooney, whose form now appears to have dipped after another one of his purple patches earlier in the season, seems to be treated as a permanent, mandatory feature of the Dutchman’s team selections, while the injury-ravaged duo of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao continue to be trusted in leading an attacking line they’ve often struggled to keep up with, let alone break through.
The club’s former record signing, Juan Mata, has been crammed into ill-fitting midfield positions so deep that he has at times drowned in the sort of congested, central combat and space-limiting physicality that he has never looked built for. Rather than playing as an incisive, mobile platform for through-balls between the lines, his passing abilities have been diverted to the job of a stifled, sideways-looking ball-hog when tasked with sitting back.
Meanwhile, the lesser star, yet more more suitable midfield option, Ander Herrera has been shunted into the benched role of understudy, where he has done well to foster a cult following of sorts from the stands through his numerous, exciting cameos. Even his feats as a substitute, coming on to score a vital goal against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup, as well as laying on assists and snatching the momentum from opponents with his tackling and interceptions, haven’t been enough to win him starts against the likes of Cambridge United and Burnley.
Instead, with United struggling for traction at times through the middle, Van Gaal has continued to try and improve his side’s chances by attempting to shoe-horn as many big reputations into the team as possible, sometimes to the point whereby a single defensive midfielder – Daley Blind, Michael Carrick and, before his move to West Brom in January, Darren Fletcher – has been left to guard the back-line single-handedly.
Meanwhile, his opponents for the top four and beyond are making the kind of personnel calls he was once famous for.
Brendan Rodgers has had his own struggles at times against deferring to the biggest names on his squad list, but he has also proven himself adept at putting the team first over individuals, with Mario Balotelli, Steven Gerrard and even Luis Suarez, through suspension rather than design, all having been treated as secondary concerns after the state of his team.
Liverpool’s £35 million striker, Andy Carroll, was given relatively short shrift by the Northern Irishman, who was allowed to leave for West Ham after failing to fit into his vision of how football should be played at Anfield.
Chelsea were similarly keen to move Mata on, with United proving themselves to be desperate and willing patsies with regards to part-funding Jose Mourinho’s remodelling job in 2014. The Spaniard didn’t fit into the Portuguese’s plans for the Blues and became an isolated figure at the club, with his popularity with the Stamford Bridge faithful and two Player of the Year awards doing little to dent his former manager’s resolve over keeping him to one side.
Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson was famously an excellent dispatcher of unwanted talent, be it through his drastic sell-off of Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes to make way for the likes of David Beckham and Paul Scholes, or when it became clear Ruud van Nistelrooy and Beckham had lived out their usefulness to him.
Van Gaal has already ditched a few bits of deadwood from his squad in Anderson, Bebe, Alexander Buttner and Shinji Kagawa during his first few months in charge, but when it comes to the players who are left behind, and who he has to blend into a working team, he has appeared stuck on reputation rather than form.
The mix has too often seemed too rich, with not enough selfless movement or industry to lift the obvious glamour of United’s so-called “Gaalacticos”, especially with statistics going against both his continued selection of many of his big names, especially in the makeshift roles and positions they have been crowbarred into at times.
With a top four place by no means a certainty, Van Gaal would do well to begin living up to his reputation as a severe and decisive sorter of dilettantes and doers.