Ding, dong the witch is dead, the witch is dead, the witch is dead, etc. As United fans bask in the warmth of the Special One’s arrival, the Louis van Gaal era becomes something to be looked back on with disdain and dismissal. It’s easy now many fans have the manager they’ve always dreamed of, for van Gaal’s time at United to be remembered with the sort of fondness normally reserved for David Moyes, or the German Luftwaffe pilot who bombed Old Trafford during the war.
While it would be completely bonkers of me to try and pretend van Gaal’s time at United was a success, or that it wasn’t time for him to move or be moved on, the Dutchman does deserve a modicum of credit for the foundations he’s laid. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired he left David Moyes an ageing defence, but by-and-large a youthful squad that contained the likes of David De Gea, Chris Smalling, Rafael, Chicharito, Anderson, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Jonny Evans. There were enough players there the right side of 25 to give the belief that with one or two additions the squad would be strong enough to challenge for the next few years. The problem Moyes had, was that many of the aforementioned players had over-performed under Sir Alex and simply weren’t capable of delivering at the highest level unless other teammates carried them. Cleverley, Evans and Welbeck are more than likely never to lay eyes on another title winning medal, unless they join Leicester and their new teammates let them hold one. By the time Moyes left, the two big money signings he made– Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini would prove useful to his successor, while the one youth player he’d truly given a chance- Adnan Januzaj – flattered to deceive on a level not seen since a certain Italian teenager bagged a winner against Aston Villa in 2009.
Van Gaal came into a squad that needed strengthening and gutting in equal measure and he almost got it right on both fronts. Bringing in the likes of Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial helped improve the squad and the team while getting rid of players like Evans, Darren Fletcher and Anderson was a necessity that others managers may have been reluctant to carry out. Some signings didn’t work out though, the likes of Memphis, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger and to a lesser extent Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin have failed to deliver consistently enough to be deemed essential to the new manager. It’s bringing through youth players which has been van Gaal’s saving grace, regardless of how ‘lucky’ he’s been at times. Call me a cynic- or a realist, but I’ve never believed for one minute that van Gaal deliberately bought injury prone players, or ones not good enough, or sold players who were actually good enough, as part of some sort of masterplan to give youth a chance. It was more luck than design that saw the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Timothy Fosu-Mensah given a chance at United but it wasn’t a complete fluke.
Van Gaal was willing to see whether players like Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard and Will Keane could actually make the grade, players that had been around since the Ferguson era and never really looked like troubling the first team. The Dutchman may not have always handled his youngsters in the best way, subbing Fosu-Mensah and screaming at him from the Wembley touchline following a ridiculous harsh penalty decision was straight out of the ‘how to destroy a youngster’s confidence’ handbook – one that’s usually handed out to Arsenal fans. Moving Marcus Rashford to right back at Anfield before subbing him at half time was another decision that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Red Lion, or Swinging Sporran’s reserve side. Van Gaal made mistakes with his youngsters, just as he did with his signings but looking at what Mourinho’s taking over, there’s an argument to be made the squad is looking in a much better shape than it was two seasons ago.
David De Gea, Luke Shaw- injury permitting- Cameron Borthwick Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford could form the nucleus of the United side for the next five or six years. Had van Gaal not been willing to at least try to cover his failings by giving youth a chance then Mourinho would have a much bigger rebuilding job at hand and he may not have known the true talents of some of the youngsters at his disposal.
It’s hard when we look back at the awful football, the failure to capitalise on City’s poor season and the dreadful results against lower opposition to look at van Gaal’s Old Trafford tenure as anything but an abject failure. But when United line up against Leicester in next season’s Community Shield there’s a good chance at least some of the players representing the Reds that day will be there thanks to the slightly bonkers one, not just the Special One.