Louis van Gaal: Where it went wrong for Man Utd manager
Louis van Gaal called Manchester United "the biggest club in the world" when he was appointed in the summer of 2014 - the sort of bold statement a disillusioned fanbase longed to hear after the nightmare of David Moyes' tenure.
The 64-year-old Dutchman was meant to be the antidote to the Scot, who was out of his depth after succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. He was the big, brash personality who would embrace the scale and stature of the club. A perfect fit.
He was a figure of world standing having just taken the Netherlands to third place in the World Cup in Brazil - but it soon became clear his best days were behind him.
Van Gaal's sacking, despite United's first trophy since Ferguson's retirement in 2013 with Saturday's FA Cup win against Crystal Palace, was inevitable after a joyless, turgid season in which the run to Wembley was an exception not the rule.
The brief hope offered by a return to the top four and the Champions League after his first season was replaced by an exit from Europe's elite tournament at the group stage and a failure to reach the competition next season.
So how did an appointment that started with such hope and expectation end in disappointment and a tortuous journey to dismissal for a man regarded as one of the finest coaches of his generation?
Theatre of yawns
When Van Gaal admitted after a narrow FA Cup third-round win against Sheffield United at Old Trafford in January that he had been "very bored" during some games this season, how could he seriously expect supporters to be satisfied?
And what sort of message did it send out to United's owners the Glazers who, while detached, will have followed his every word? It could have been the opening line of a resignation speech. Hardly stuff fit for the 'theatre of dreams'.
|Premier League 2015-16 most passes backwards|
It did not get much more exciting - and while Van Gaal's blunt honesty was welcome he often veered so wildly off message as to antagonise supporters, who did not want ice cold water thrown over their aspirations.
He suggested some were living in the past and said after the final Premier League game of the season, a 3-1 win against Bournemouth: "The fans are expecting a lot but I think these expectations are much too high."
In PR terms the signals were all wrong - and Van Gaal was certainly not raising expectations on the pitch.
When United lost at home to Southampton on 23 January, it was the 11th consecutive home game in which they had failed to score in the first half.
Van Gaal's functional style of football, based on training-ground repetition aimed at defensive organisation and retaining possession, was accepted when he successfully fulfilled his first aim at United, namely to return the club to the Champions League.
He was afforded time and sympathy because there had to be a period of transition post-Moyes - but it went down like a lead balloon with United's fans when it became even more stodgy and dull in his second season.
They played more passes backwards, 3,222, than any other team in the Premier League and had a lowly 430 shots, including those blocked - a total that was only ahead of Stoke City, Norwich City, Newcastle United, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa.
Van Gaal's overall Premier League win rate was 51.3% with 39 wins from 76 games, edging out the 50% ratio of his predecessor Moyes, who won 17 of his 34 games. It was a short ration of victories - although most are now set against Ferguson's remarkable 65.2%, winning 528 of his 810 games in charge.
United's fans - as Van Gaal perhaps unwisely reminded them - may be living in the past to expect the hell-for-leather attacking style of the Ferguson era, but they rightly expected better from a coach who graduated from the Dutch school of "totaalvoetbal".
In Ferguson's final title-winning season in 2012-13, United scored 86 league goals. This season they scored just 49, down from 62 last season, which was a reduction on the 64 scored in what was regarded as a dour campaign under Moyes.
United's players also seemed stripped of spontaneity and gripped by fear of attempting the unexpected.
This was all at odds with the image, perhaps one from a more romantic and silver-tinged past, casting United as the great swashbucklers, willing to concede goals on the basis they would always score more than the opposition.
Van Gaal was not helped by carping from the sidelines from the so-called 'Class of '92' - even though he had one of its pupils, Ryan Giggs, at his side as assistant manager.
Giggs was a silent presence throughout Van Gaal's tenure, unlike some of his former colleagues, who cut the Dutchman none of the slack you suspect they would have afforded to their old team-mate.
Paul Scholes was at the forefront of the criticism on several occasions and said after the FA Cup win against Sheffield United: "The players looked bored themselves. There's no spirit, there's nobody having a go at each other, there's no smiling, no entertainment."
After the Champions League exit with defeat by Wolfsburg, the former England midfielder complained: "They spend £250m and can't qualify from a shocking group. It's more of a disaster when you're surprised. It was a shocking group."
He suffered another blow to his credibility when United dropped into the Europa League and were dumped out, deservedly, over two legs in the last 16 by arch-rivals Liverpool as they won 3-1 on aggregate.
|Manchester United in the Premier League|
|Goals per game||1.29||1.63||1.68||2.26|
|Total shots (inc blocks)||430||512||526||561|
|Shots (inc blocks) per game||11.32||13.5||13.8||14.8|
|Shots on target||144||180||183||213|
|Shots on target per game||3.79||4.74||4.82||5.61|
And even when they were presented with opportunity to secure a top-four place by winning their last two games they were not good enough to grasp that, conceding two late goals to lose 3-2 at West Ham.
Van Gaal often cut a remote figure from his players - especially during games. Did the sight of the stone-faced manager making notes on his trademark clipboard while never venturing near the technical area inhibit his players?
It was an image Van Gaal never shook off and was reflected in a United team that seemed regimented to the point of tedium, prompting fans to sing "attack, attack, attack" and "we're Man Utd, we want to attack" during a dull goalless draw at Crystal Palace in late October.
He made visiting Old Trafford and watching United a miserable experience - and after the torpor of Moyes, that was not sustainable.
Big personality, no presence
When the tall, ramrod-straight Van Gaal strode into Old Trafford, he was meant to be the anti-Moyes, the man with the concrete-clad confidence and a giant ego bordering on arrogance, accompanied by the impressive track record that made him a figure of authority more akin to Ferguson.
Van Gaal had plenty of big talk but little real presence - certainly not when it came to Old Trafford's technical area.
Whereas Ferguson would prowl his territory in the familiar black overcoat, intimidating players, officials and opponents alike - or simply relying on his glowering presence to have the desired effect - the Dutchman barely moved.
|Premier League record - Manchester United managers|
|Sir Alex Ferguson||810||528||168||114||65.2|
|Louis van Gaal||76||39||19||18||51.3|
No manager should ever be measured by his touchline animation, but Van Gaal expended more energy writing notes on his clipboard than he ever did offering advice to his players at close quarters during a game.
And when any member of the backroom staff - usually Giggs - was seen in the technical area, it was a surprise.
When Van Gaal threw himself to the floor dramatically in front of the fourth official to mimic a dive in the 3-2 win against Arsenal in February, many fans were elated at a public show of passion at last, but he virtually lectured himself in the aftermath. He could not connect with supporters or, on many occasions, his players.
Van Gaal seemed cocksure yet confused. He talked the talk and yet, when it came to carrying the courage of his convictions on to the pitch, he was found wanting. The man of iron will suddenly seemed uncertain, which was not in the script when he arrived.
The master coach delivered muddled thinking, never more obvious than when Nick Powell was called out of obscurity to replace Juan Mata with United chasing a result in Wolfsburg to stay in the Champions League.
He arrived as a firm advocate of a three-man defensive system but that went by the wayside - and while the FA Cup was won United spent much of the game with a collection of square pegs in round holes, not helped by injuries and Chris Smalling's sending-off admittedly.
Van Gaal rarely lived up to his reputation as the supreme strategist who won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995, took Bayern Munich to the final in 2010 and was only penalty kicks away from the World Cup final with the Netherlands in 2014.
Maybe, at 62 when he arrived and with his most recent experience at international level rather than with a club, Van Gaal simply came too late to the Premier League and was too fixed in his ways - or perhaps too stubborn - to adapt to the modern demands of England's top flight.
Desperate transfer dealings
If the Moyes era was instantly derailed by transfer indecision that saw unrealistic targets such as Real Madrid forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale pursued and others such as then Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas missed, United could not be accused of failing to back Van Gaal.
And yet United were not much further forward and no more pleasing on the eye, despite spending in the region of £258m during Van Gaal's tenure (although their net spend is less than half that figure).
Van Gaal, in tandem with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward showed no shortage of ambition, but it was a scattergun approach rather than structured strategy.
Angel di Maria was signed for a British record £59.7m from Real Madrid shortly after Van Gaal's arrival but never settled, looked out of sorts and was eventually sold to Paris St-Germain for a loss. He arrived as the man to elevate United from the dour Moyes days but ended as a player of no fixed position.
There were successes but nowhere near enough to save Van Gaal.
Luke Shaw, the 20-year-old England left-back, looked certain to fulfil the promise that persuaded United to pay £27m to Southampton in summer 2014 until he broke his leg against PSV Eindhoven earlier this season, while £36m France striker Anthony Martial is a world-class forward in the making.
Glance elsewhere, though, and you have a collection of names looking good on paper but not on the pitch, failing to address the serious issues that have held United back.
Van Gaal needed pace and drive in midfield to complement steady anchor Michael Carrick, but instead got Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, world-class in his day but now a 31-year-old, slow-motion advert for Bayern Munich's wisdom in knowing when to sell a legend.
The likes of Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin were in and out like some form of Van Gaal hokey-cokey.
Daley Blind, a trusted figure from Van Gaal's latter spell with the Netherlands, was solid but not spectacular following his arrival from Ajax for £13.8m.
And what of the outgoings?
Van Gaal, in his defence, attempted to balance the books in the summer and an outlay of almost £90m was offset by about £70m being clawed back from sales, such as Di Maria to PSG for £44m, Nani and Robin van Persie to Fenerbahce for about £8m, Jonny Evans to West Brom for £6m and the departure of Javier Hernandez to Bayer Leverkusen in a £7.3m deal.
Van Persie was past his best and was he hustled out of the door very unceremoniously by the man he was once so close to.
He never produced enough in Turkey to suggest Van Gaal was wrong but the same could be not said for Hernandez, who was the Bundesliga's fourth top scorer, behind Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller, with 17 goals in 25 games.
Van Gaal packed off Adnan Januzaj on loan to Borussia Dortmund but the 21-year-old Belgian was sent back after making no impression. James Wilson spent the season on loan at Brighton.
Van Gaal, for all his manoeuvring in the markets, also chose to ignore a glaring flaw in United's defence where, England international Smalling apart, they were short of class and, in the case of Phil Jones and Rojo, prone to injury.
United did declare an interest in Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos in the summer but failed to detect they were being played like a fiddle by the 30-year-old Spain World Cup winner, who led them on until predictably signing a new deal at the Bernabeu.
United's defensive record was equal best in the Premier League with Spurs with only 35 goals conceded in 38 games but to twist an old political phrase, Van Gaal never made any attempt to repair the roof when the sun was shining. A high-class, experienced central defender was essential but never acquired.
Lack of success in the transfer market has been United's trademark since the departures of Ferguson and former chief executive David Gill. Van Gaal, like Moyes before him, has picked up the tab.
In defence of Van Gaal
Van Gaal's departure was also shaped by some circumstances beyond his control - and he has not had enough credit for the way he stabilised United from the chaos of Moyes' 10-month reign and restored them to the top four in 2015.
The brilliance of Ferguson's management in his final season in 2013 covered a multitude of cracks in the Old Trafford facade.
He dragged a squad requiring serious renewal over the line for his 13th and final Premier League title almost by the sheer force of his will and the turbo-charge provided by the signing of Van Persie.
Moyes reduced spirits, so Van Gaal had repairs to carry out and his work behind the scenes was well regarded by those in power. It was results, the most important currency of all, where he failed to give long-term value.
He should also be given plus points for his willingness to blood youngsters. France forward Antony Martial, 20, will be a star and a snip at £36m and while Marcus Rashford was almost played by default when he scored twice on his debut in the Europa League against Midtjylland after Martial was injured in the warm-up, the 18-year-old thrived under Van Gaal.
Jesse Lingard was trusted and repaid with the FA Cup final winner, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah also won Van Gaal's faith.
The Dutchman also suffered bad luck with injuries. In that crucial Wolfsburg game he was without Wayne Rooney, Schneiderlin, Shaw, Jones, Rojo, Herrera, Antonio Valencia and Paddy McNair - although his decision to give a first start to 22-year-old right-back Guillermo Varela was highly dubious and he barely featured after.
So while Van Gaal, in large part, has been the architect of his own demise, other factors worked against him. It was never, in the final reckoning, going to be enough to save him.