Comment: Louis Van Gaal struggled at start of Bayern reign, but Manchester United's problems run deeper and Premier League is less forgiving

The Premier League punishes bad starts more ruthlessly than the Bundesliga

Click to follow
The Independent Football

When Louis van Gaal finally left Bayern Munich in April 2011, Uli Hoeness, then the club’s general manager, summed up the rift that developed between the club’s hierarchy and its single-minded Dutch coach. “It all started,” he said, “with that shit about the goalkeepers”.

In his second, and final, season at the club, Van Gaal had dropped his veteran goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt for the young and untested Thomas Kraft, who struggled to cope. The club had already lined up the signing of Manuel Neuer and were mystified that Van Gaal did not recognise that Butt was supposed to see out the season until Neuer arrived.

It was all the more confusing given that over a year earlier Van Gaal had brought in Butt at the expense of Michael Rensing, then a bright young prospect tipped to be an international. That had also annoyed the Bayern hierarchy, who saw Rensing as the future, but Van Gaal had subsequently been proved right as Bayern recovered from a slow start to win the Bundesliga and the German Cup, as well as reaching the Champions League final.

Switching Butt for Rensing is one of the decisions that most Bayern watchers recall as fundamental to the change in fortunes. The turnaround that followed has been much cited by Van Gaal as a reason for Manchester United’s supporters not to panic at their dismal start to the season. The problem is, things are already worse than five years ago in Munich.


David Moyes had a better points haul from his first five United games than Van Gaal, and Moyes’ team faced Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in that period last season. Sunday’s 5-3 defeat to Leicester City was the first time since 1984 that United had lost a game having had a two-goal advantage. Five points from five games is their worst start to a Premier League season.

Of the five teams United have played so far, three were promoted from the Championship and the other two finished 12th and 14th last season. United could hardly have had an easier start. As for the Bayern example five years earlier, the two seasons are not comparable.

Van Gaal inherited a Bayern team that had lost out on the 2008-09 Bundesliga title by just two points to Wolfsburg, who themselves slumped to eighth the next season. Over the course of the 2009-10 Bundesliga season, Bayern lost just four games. United have already suffered two defeats. There just was not the scale of domestic competition he now faces.

After three games of the 2009-10 Bundesliga season under Van Gaal, Bayern were 14th and without a win. They drew with Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen in their first two games and then lost to Mainz, prompting Van Gaal to bring in Butt. They won their next two games, the first of them against Wolfsburg, and were fifth in the table with eight points after five games.

They then beat Nuremberg and lost away to Hamburg on 26 September, dropping to seventh. From that point, Bayern did not lose again until 20 March, an incredible 19 games unbeaten, including 13 wins. Their run to the Champions League final demonstrated how good a side they were, but on the domestic front there was no comparison. Van Gaal is in a much more competitive league this time around.


Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal with Angel Di Maria, his most expensive signing

Van Gaal’s 2009-10 season at Bayern is rightly seen as a vindication of his ability and his much-vaunted “philosophy” but it is applicable to one particular club in one country, in one moment in time. The challenges United face, in spite of their £151m summer investment, are much more wide-ranging. The Premier League punishes bad starts a lot more ruthlessly than the Bundesliga was ever likely to punish Bayern.

The runners-up to Bayern that season were Schalke who, the following season, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. They also dropped from second to a 14th-place finish in the Bundesliga in 2010-11. Third in 2009-10 were Werder Bremen who also saw a spectacular fall-off in results in the 2010-11 season, dropping to 13th. There was no Manchester City or Chelsea equivalent that year for Van Gaal. Borussia Dortmund were still a work in progress and finished fifth.

No one expects Van Gaal to deliver the league and Cup Double in his first season, as he did at Bayern. A Champions League place would be regarded as acceptable. Equally, the foundations he left at Bayern, as the architect of the squad, and the style of play that has made them into such a formidable force, are as important as what he won that season. But looking on the Bayern experience as evidence that United will simply come good is as unreliable as one of those penalty area lunges by Rafael da Silva.

The United manager does not seem to know his best centre-half pairing, or indeed whether he wants to play three at the back again, having abandoned it against Queen’s Park Rangers earlier this month on the basis he did not the players to do it. Chris Smalling’s return to fitness at the weekend meant that he had the necessary personnel to revert to a trio, he just chose not to.

The promotion of Tyler Blackett, the 20-year-old academy centre-back who was sent off against Leicester, is admirable in its intention, given how few young English players get a chance at the top clubs. There is clearly a decent player there, if United are prepared to work with him. Yet he has been introduced into a defence where there does not appear to be a senior centre-half, much less one of the great pairings that have been the bedrock of United’s success.

Tyler Blackett


It is hardly the ideal circumstances in which to learn. It was not that long ago Blackett was playing on the left side of midfield for the club’s Under-21s. When he was on loan at Birmingham City last season, Lee Clark substituted him after 24 minutes of a 4-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. He is that raw.

As Van Gaal attempts to shape his remarkable attacking options, while trying to shut a defensive back door that flaps open at a mild breeze, Chelsea are already eight points away. The consolation is that City and Arsenal have been less consistent. United play City and Chelsea within the space of seven days at the end of next month, by which time Van Gaal’s side will have to be ready.

That will be the moment when Van Gaal will indicate whether he can turn United around this season rather than next. Either way, the task of restoring Bayern  in 2009 looks relatively straightforward  set alongside United’s current  problems. It certainly goes deeper than changing a  goalkeeper and  seeing off Wolfsburg.