Monday, 21 December 2015

Almost As Intense As the Time Peter Forgot How To Sit Down

After an extended period of this blog being dormant, it was always likely to take something big for that to change, something like, ooh, a potential change of manager at Manchester United?

The situation is, of course, fluid, but let's go back to Friday, December 5. An inebriated Ed Woodward (your daily reminder that, yes, the Chief Executive of Manchester United really is called Edward Woodward) takes Fleet Street's finest out for a few drinks, and proceeds to tell all concerned that Van Gaal is considered a "genius", that the job is his as long as he wants it, and doesn't rule out the option of his contract being extended beyond its current end in 2017. Yet a mere 4 games later, said press pack is practically baying for his blood, and seems convinced their view is shared at board level- without wishing to dwell on it, one has to re-iterate that, for reasons unknown, the media really don't like Louis Van Gaal. Want some evidence? Look at how most non-English managers get quoted during their press conferences, then read a report on a Van Gaal one. Journalists are usually kind enough to their subjects to tidy up the sort of minor grammatical, subtle errors they naturally make in a foreign language, a luxury that they don't afford Van Gaal. Anyway, moving on to the main question- will he actually be sacked? And who would replace him?

The Glazers are based in the USA and delegate the entirety of the day-to-day running of the club to Woodward (who works out of MUFC's commercial offices in London. Yes, really). There will be input from Sir Alex Ferguson (still trousering in excess of £2 million per annum from the club for a largely ceremonial ambassador role) and Sir Bobby Charlton (both of whom objected to the potential appointment of Jose Mourinho in 2013) and the 6 Glazers themselves (Malcolm having died in 2014), but the final decision will ultimately be Woodward's. He's a physics graduate with a background in mergers & acquisitions activity and not what one would normally call a "football man", so the current complaints about the playing style under Van Gaal will not bother him or the Glazers one iota, so long as the money keeps rolling in- remember back to 2014, when David Moyes was only sacked when Champions League football the following season became mathematically impossible. This is a board of cautious bean counters looking to protect their investment and dreaming of yet another new bumper TV deal, not a bunch of football fans wanting to be entertained every Saturday and dreaming of silverware in May.

The financial situation is key here. The headline figure of £250 million of spending under Van Gaal is technically accurate, however it tells far from the full story. A number of high earning, experienced players have been moved on from the club over the last 18 months, with the vast majority of new signings being young, on relatively low wages and with significant potential resale value, a point Van Gaal himself effectively admitted when announcing the signing of Anthony Martial. It's worth also noting that the Glazers were fully prepared to sell David De Gea to Real Madrid on transfer deadline day to leave United with only Sergio Romero and Sam Johnstone as senior goalkeepers, Van Gaal having effectively jettisoned Victor Valdes. In terms of the criteria given to him by the board, Van Gaal isn't actually failing- commercial revenue is ever increasing, the average age (and wage bill) of the squad is dramatically lower than it was when he took the job and a top 4 finish is still well within United's reach (it's far from inconceivable that one or more of the 4 teams currently above United in the league may not maintain that position) even, as seems overwhelmingly likely, without reinforcements arriving in January.

Which brings us to the question of, if he goes, who would replace him. The widely touted favourite (and, to go back to my earlier point, media darling) Jose Mourinho is of course now available. Well, sort of. Mourinho only signed a new 4 year contract with Chelsea in August- he'll be paid that contract in full until its expiry in 2019 or he takes another managerial role. Therefore, in order to appoint him now, the board (who would need to seek the approval of Ferguson and Charlton, who overlooked him in 2013) would need to pay up the remaining 18 months of Van Gaal's contract (just days after publicly signalling their willingness to extend it), offer Mourinho a better contract than his existing Chelsea one and no doubt agree to give Mourinho an expansive "transfer war chest", along with carte blanche to ignore the club's preference of signing (and developing) younger players with resale value. All of these actions simply do not tie in with the behaviour we have witnessed from the Glazers during their ownership of the club, a 10 year period during which they have taken over £1 billion out of the club.

Let's briefly also touch on another potential replacement, Ryan Giggs. What works in his favour is that he's already on the payroll, and has (briefly) done the job before. However, given his current role as Van Gaal's assistant, he's either being completely over-ruled and/or ignored by Van Gaal, or he's complicit in United's current playing style (or lack of it).

It's clear that there are serious issues at Manchester United right now. However, as much as Louis Van Gaal has erred (not that he'd ever admit it), it is important to remember the constraints under which he operates- the frankly larcenous nature of the Glazers' ownership of the club doesn't get anywhere near enough scrutiny. Which is, of course, exactly the way they want it, and allows them to sit back and watch as Van Gaal is portrayed as the scapegoat.

Personally? I'd rather stick with Van Gaal for now- in a stick or twist situation like this, the cautious play is generally preferred. At 64 he's not the long-term, legacy option- but then again, neither is Jose Mourinho (look through his career history- the drop-off of his teams in his 3rd year is staggering). The nature of the league this season is such that a credible finish is still very much achievable, maybe even a cup too. The summer of 2016 will see numerous changes in management at many of the top clubs, at which point, should one or both parties feel a change is required, they will both have the maximum number of options available


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