Manchester United are not a club that settles for second best. Last night’s appalling Champions League exit at the hands of Wolfsburg relegates United to just that. Thursday night football in the second tier of European football will not satisfy the appetite of their legions of fans both at home and abroad who have become accustomed to victory, to glory and to challenging at the highest level both at home and abroad.
It is those fans who have taken to backing up their chants of ‘attack, attack, attack’ with a chorus of boos to voice their disapproval at the lacklustre football on display and the stuttering results conjured up by manager Louis van Gaal. It’s a frustration that has been bubbling under for a while, but in recent weeks has come to the fore.
That puts the United hierarchy in a tricky position. They will be desperate to balance keeping the fans happy with showing trust and loyalty in the man they have backed to return to the club to the top of the game after the failure of the short-lived David Moyes era. Quite simply United are not a club who knows how to deal with this sort of problem. If tricky results, coupled with dissent from the fans, occurred at Chelsea or Real Madrid for example they would almost certainly pull the trigger and solve the problem by dismissing the manager without a second thought. United have breezed through for 26 years of success after success under Sir Alex Ferguson meaning these tough times simply didn’t occur.
But now the problems are mounting for the United board. Van Gaal has brought a pragmatic style which seems to fly in the face of the high-octane, all-out attack approach upon which the club have built their history and their success. The fans have been tolerant of that style while results were coming with it. A return to the Champions League was the target for Van Gaal’s first season and it was a target he met. But in this second season there is a will to see improvement and it isn’t evident. Drawn into a Champions League group which they should have eased through, elimination at the group stage is simply unacceptable and the blame for tame draws with CSKA Moscow and PSV Eindhoven fall squarely at the door of Van Gaal.
An obsession with statistics, with emphasis on control and domination of possession, is stifling the performances of some of the sides more creative players and is resulting is a desire to ensure they don’t lose games rather than going out trying to win them. It’s a cliché, but that isn’t ‘the United way’. They remain firmly in the Premier League title race, sitting fourth and just three points off the top, but it is fair to claim that had the club really played well this season, they would be clear at the top. Home draws with Newcastle and West Ham and away at Palace have damaged their title chances and stand out as games that the Ferguson United side would have won at a canter.
Wistfully looking back at past glory days is dangerous and frankly unhelpful but unfortunately for Van Gaal and United, the Ferguson era is the benchmark for the club. When you consider the side that won the Premier League in the Scot’s last season in charge and compare it to the current side, even with the hundreds of millions Van Gaal has spent, they have quite clearly gone backwards. That is a big headache for the Dutchman who still retains the unequivocal support of the United board.
But should he? The knives are certainly out. Large numbers of fans are unhappy with the performances and more recently the results. There are big name managers out of jobs, or soon to be available, and that will only serve to intensify the pressure. Carlo Ancelotti is one of the most successful managers in the history of European football. Three-time Champions league winner and former Premier League champion, the Italian had said he would always consider managing United. Ryan Giggs has been backed to step up from assistant, but with no top-level experience and his association with the Van Gaal reign, his appointment seems to be in doubt.
The one man who is in demand across the globe is former Barcelona great, and current Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola. With five league titles, two Champions Leagues and three FIFA World Club Cups to his name it’s easy to see why. But the appeal would surely run deeper for United. This is a man who instils an attack-based, high energy vigour to his sides – something that marries perfectly with the traditions of the Old Trafford club. His work developing young players at Barcelona will surely sit perfectly with the demands of the United hierarchy. But the noises coming out of the club are that should Guardiola leave Munich this summer they will not pursue his signature, content instead to throw more money Van Gaal’s way in the blind belief that it will come good in the end.
For a club of United’s standing in the game, should Guardiola become a free agent, to not be involved in the battle for his signature would be an incredible lack of judgment and an insult to their loyal fans. United have always attracted the best players and competed both financially and with the appeal of their illustrious history for the best talent across the globe. To pass up the opportunity to compete for the finest manager on the globe, possibly allowing him to drift into one of their Premier League rivals, would say everything about the dwindling state of United on the world stage. Manchester City are desperate for his signature and it may be that United don’t want to be in a position where they are knocked back by the Spaniard in favour of their big-spending cross-city rivals.
For Guardiola, it is still undecided whether or not he will be leaving Munich in the summer. Even if he did, he may well not take another job straight away bearing in mind he took a year out after leaving the Nou Camp. If United want to trust in Van Gaal for another year, they may well hope that Guardiola would be attracted by the possibility of taking over in 2017.
The Champions League elimination, coupled with the constant frustrations over playing style, has laid bare the flaws of the Van Gaal reign. Over £250million has been spent on the playing staff but the side look short on confidence, lacking verve and seem afraid of taking risks in possession for fear of losing. That recruitment has to be questioned as well. Big name and big money signings in Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Bastian Schweinsteiger to name but a few have all disappointed, while the sales of the likes of Robin Van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa look questionable especially as they have all gone on to perform better elsewhere. Will United really trust Van Gaal with another war chest?
United are facing a decision over their manager which could define the next decade of the club. Van Gaal is struggling to match the demands on either the playing style or the results. With the shadow of Guardiola looming large over Premier League managers, the stakes are high and ruthless decisions will be made. If United do not at least compete for his signature, whenever he becomes available, that would be a source of huge frustration to their fans. Allowing a manager of such pedigree to stroll in to take charge of a rival could set stuttering United back for a decade or more and extend the pain of the post-Ferguson era into torturous territory.