Manchester United notched up another win over ten-man Sunderland – but Ralph Ellis says the moment of truth is arriving for Louis van Gaal’s quest to put the club back into the Champions League.
Back in the summer, before they had even kicked a ball at the World Cup let alone reported for pre-season training, I got given the task of serialising a book about Louis van Gaal.
It was a biography of the man who was about to become Manchester United manager, written by a Dutch journalist, translated very poorly into English, and needed quite a lot of adapting to turn it into even a half decent read.
It involved a week’s research too, making calls to various people in Holland, to fill in some of the gaps that the book, which seemed to have been based largely on Dutch newspaper cuttings, had left.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know a lot about van Gaal. Obviously I knew his record at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich among others. But not a lot about the man, and by the end of seven days what shone through was the black and white way he divided opinion.
Some thought he was a genius, with the power to make ordinary footballers into legends. Just as many – including one of my heroes Johann Cruyff – cast him as an arrogant fool who constantly fell out with his most talented players.
More than six months into his tenure at Old Trafford I still can’t decide which is right. I’m still not sure whether Manchester United are currently in the top four of the Premier League, and on a run of just two defeats in 19, because of their manager or in spite of him.
That’s why I’m still inclined to think that the 1.910/11 on offer for United to return to the Champions League next season under van Gaal’s leadership by achieving a top four finish is a bet to lay rather than to back.
United spent around £150million last summer on a collection of world class players, and yet none of them seem to be delivering. Angel di Maria is so much a shadow of the Real Madrid star who cost £60million that he got hooked at half time against Sunderland. Falcao’s number was up not long after. Ander Herrera isn’t trusted with a regular place in the team, ditto Juan Mata.
If the measure of a coach is that he improves players, van Gaal seems to be taking stellar stars in the opposite direction. Robin van Persie has gone from World Cup winner to Mr Anonymous with one goal from open play in nine games. Wayne Rooney, arguably England’s best centre forward, has been converted into a pretty average midfield man.
The best of it all was the manager moaning last week that he didn’t have a 20 goals a season striker in his squad. Yet it’s only two years ago that Rooney’s 27 left him second in the Golden Boot award to Van Persie’s 30, while Falcao once plundered a record 36 in a year for Atletico Madrid.
With so much talent in the team United will inevitably dig out results against the lower sides and that’s why they are so high in the table. But there comes a point when you need performances as well as graft, and that point is arriving now.
After Wednesday’s trip to Newcastle, and even there it might not be so simple to justify being 2.021/1 favourites, United have a sequence of Premier League fixtures pitting them against Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.
No team can play badly and get results forever, and van Gaal’s side might just be reaching the point where reality bites. Then we’ll see exactly how divisive the man can be.