Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal does not get the luxury of time that was given to his predecessors

It is curious to note that even in the 1950s there was still a premium placed on clubs developing their own players rather than buying those of other clubs

Sam Wallace
Tuesday 01 September 2015 07:50
Louis van Gaal is a super-coach whose only concern should be winning games for United
Louis van Gaal is a super-coach whose only concern should be winning games for United

"By eschewing the dangerous policy of going into the transfer market whenever a weakness develops and giving their chances instead to many local citizens on the Club’s books they have made it likely that this club spirit will persist, since the Club today is a Manchester one not in name only but in fact as far as most of its players are concerned." - Leader in The Manchester Guardian, 28 April 1952

Forty-one years was the longest period Manchester United had gone in their history without the league championship so one can forgive what was then the local paper for the effusiveness with which it greeted the first of Sir Matt Busby’s five titles. It had taken him seven years to do it which, another 41 years on from 1952 was roughly the same period Sir Alex Ferguson had required to build the first of his Premier League-winning teams.

It is curious to note that even in the 1950s there was still a premium placed on clubs developing their own players rather than buying those of other clubs. The British transfer record was broken seven times between Busby’s appointment and his first league title, rising from £15,500 in 1947 to £34,500 in 1951 and never once was it United who broke it – although the club did grant Busby seven years’ grace, something that his modern-day successor would never get.

If there was an inflation converter for managerial lifespans you could imagine those seven years from 1945 and, then for Ferguson from 1986, would convert into around two seasons in 2015 money – and there can be no complaints at that from the man who now sits where Busby once did.

Louis van Gaal is of a generation of European super-coaches who specialise in the fine margins of success at the elite end of the game. They are appointed to make the key strategic decisions in the competition between the handful of ultra-wealthy institutions in club football who boast roughly equivalent resources. The super-coach is not asked to immerse himself in the details of overhauling scouting or rebuilding the academy. Someone else does that.

We are beyond the age of the club builder, of the seven-year programme. The super-coach is paid to decide which of the €50m players available suits his team best, and how to deploy his squad of 23-plus internationals over a season. The old uncertainties beyond the pitch that once had to be factored into the job are gone. The Victorian stadiums have been rebuilt, the broadcast revenues climb inexorably higher. The elite 21st-century manager is judged almost exclusively on the terms by which he achieves success on the pitch.

It is by these standards, in a timeframe compressed accordingly from what was afforded to the two greatest managers at United, that it is hard to see where Van Gaal is taking the club. He was brought in to fine-tune the near-perfect football machine that ruled the English game for more than two decades, not rebuild it.

Busby recovered the club from its exile from a bombed-out Old Trafford to champions in seven years. Ferguson guided United back from the chronic decline that bottomed out in the 1970s. The corporate behemoth that is United in 2015 – jacked up on vast commercial revenues from football’s new markets – should, by rights, face meaningful competition from only about eight clubs the world over.

Yet Van Gaal has already lost three times in little more than 12 months to Swansea City, a club which has an annual wage bill of just a few million more than the fee United paid to sign Angel Di Maria last summer. This confirms football’s wonderful refusal to conform always to the balance sheet, but it is an awkward reality for United’s famous manager.

His next game after the international break against Liverpool will take the United manager to 51 games in charge, the same number his predecessor David Moyes lasted in the job. They are both level on 27 wins and have win rates that differ by 1 per cent. The signing of Anthony Martial will take Van Gaal’s United’s spending close to £270m, more than four times the £65m Moyes spent.

If Busby and Ferguson were given seven years to win a title at a club that had then a recent record for being unsuccessful, then again we pose the question: what is the equivalent consideration for the United manager of 2015 with the club’s vast resources and a recent past dominating the English game? It took 51 games for the club to sack Moyes, which felt at the time like the right decision. The delicate question facing United this season will be judging the Van Gaal tipping point.

For the second summer, after Radamel Falcao last year, Van Gaal finds himself signing a striker in the last 48 hours of the transfer window. He has a defensive midfielder, Daley Blind, at centre-back and, it seems, likely to stay there even when Phil Jones returns from injury. The defensive record was the strong point of a stuttering start to the season, although it did not look that way on Sunday.

Adnan Januzaj went from being left out of the match-day squad against Spurs on the first day of the season to being a starter against Aston Villa and the three subsequent games, to now being dispatched on loan. When United chased the game against Swansea it was notable that, for all the money spent since Van Gaal arrived, five of the XI who finished the match pre-dated his time at the club. Let’s not even get started on the David De Gea saga.

These are the details but the bigger picture really is quite simple. The allies of Van Gaal will say that judgement is coming too soon but the terms of engagement have changed in the modern game. A seemingly limitless transfer budget and United’s fully fledged, modern super-club status have seen to that. These days a United manager can have everything he wants, apart from the time that was once afforded to his famous predecessors. They, after all, were tasked with building a club. Van Gaal has only been asked to build a team.

Wenger wants window shut. Did he feel that way in 2011?

You can see what Arsène Wenger is getting at when he says the transfer window should shut before the season begins. “At the start of the season everybody should be committed,” he said this month, “not half in, half out.” Although he has not always been as committed himself.

He was so committed to the squad that he had built in the summer of 2011 that after losing 8-2 to Manchester United on 28 August he signed Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and Yossi Benayoun on deadline day. Last year Danny Welbeck arrived for £16m on the final day of the window. Who knows? He might even surprise us all today.

Fans would like Mourinho to trust his Chelsea youngsters

The obvious reaction to Chelsea’s poor start to the season has been the club stepping up their attempts to sign more players. Yet, for all their success in recent years, my bet is that many match-going supporters would accept a season without a trophy if it meant that the likes of the home-grown players Ruben Loftus-Cheek and a few other youngsters, like Kenedy and Kurt Zouma, were given a chance. You have to wonder whether Jose Mourinho feels the same.

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