As he approaches the first serious test of his time at Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal insists that he expects the time and the money to finish the job at Manchester United.
Few managers are given both, and the £170 million Van Gaal has spent in his first three months at Old Trafford was supposed to produce immediate results for what is the only requirement of his first season in Manchester – to take United back into the Champions League. Van Gaal believes himself to be an exception.
“Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t have to come here – they asked me to,” he says, arguing that qualification for the Champions League would not necessarily be achieved in a single season. “It might not be at once. There is a trajectory and a process of three years. I have signed a three-year contract and, believe me, I shall finish that.”
His predecessor, David Moyes, was fired 10 months into a six-year deal after a 2-0 defeat at Sunday’s opponents, Everton, made it mathematically impossible that Manchester United would compete in this season’s Champions League.
Unlike Moyes, Van Gaal has made rapid changes to the personnel he inherited, and been rather luckier when it came to the fixture list. Of Manchester United’s opening six games under Moyes, five pitched them against clubs who had finished in the Premier League’s top 10 the season before. Thus far, the highest-placed team Van Gaal’s United have faced have been Swansea, who finished 12th. Half their matches have been against newly promoted sides.
Even this game against Everton, who last season won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1992, has favoured Van Gaal.
They have suddenly sprung defensive frailties, are missing their most creative midfielder, Kevin Mirallas, and are kicking off at noon after spending Thursday night flying the 2,300 miles that separate Krasnodar from Merseyside.
In one respect, Van Gaal has not been fortunate. Wayne Rooney’s reckless tackle on Stewart Downing deprived United of one of their principal sources of goals and one of the few obvious leaders. Darren Fletcher will lead the side while the captain of England and Manchester United serves his three-game ban.
“It is difficult to say anything about leaders,” Van Gaal says. “As you know, when I was coming to the club the big leaders were leaving – Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand. Also, leadership is a process; you don’t suddenly become a leader.”
Van Gaal added that the best leader of a football team he had ever worked with was Danny Blind, who captained his Ajax side to the European Cup. His son, Daley, might become a captain of Manchester United. “But he is still not a leader,” Van Gaal added. “He is in a process.”
Michael Carrick, who should be able to knit the centre of midfield together with Blind but has not played this season because of injury, is now training with the reserves. He, at least, might counter what his manager has identified as Manchester United’s greatest weakness: their inability to retain possession.
And yet, when the two sides line up at noon, the sight of Paddy McNair, the 19-year-old from Ballyclare, facing Romelu Lukaku will emphasise not just the romance of football but the injuries that have deprived United of three international centre-halves and the lack of planning at the heart of Van Gaal’s team. His fellow Dutchman Ruud Gullit remarked that he found it “astonishing such an experienced and successful manager could start a season at Manchester United without a couple of really strong central defenders.” .
It is something Van Gaal is all too well aware of. When asked if there was an outstanding team in this season’s Premier League, he talked of Chelsea and the “balance” of Jose Mourinho’s squad. “They are a balanced team and I am also looking for balance in my team,” he said.
“We have bought a certain type; a lot of creative, attacking players. It is for those types of players to not only make a goal but also to look at the rest of the defence and measure the risk of every pass they give. But we are improving. I am sorry to say it again, but it needs time.”Reuse content