The Irish Times

Figures not adding up for Van Gaal as United continue to stagnate

Club have spent a fortune in recent years but progress is painfully slow

- Michael Walker

In the run-up to Tuesday night in Wolfsburg, it was noted that Manchester United’s previous nine matches had yielded eight goals. That’s eight in total, not eight from United.

No, United had got six in nine. The sequence read: 0-0, 0-0,0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 1-2, 0-0, 1-1, 0-0. The good old days, it wasn’t. Then along comes a five-goal thriller.

But having conceded two in nine – to Watford’s Troy Deeney and Leicester’s Jamie Vardy – Wolfsburg pushed in three in 90 minutes and pushed United out of the Champions League.

Goals and entertainm­ent added up to an early exit and that is not Louis van Gaal’s purpose.

After the wobble under David Moyes – some of which stemmed from within – Van Gaal’s remit was to bring authority, certainty and a Champions League place back to Old Trafford. To enable Van Gaal to do this, the club offered a level of spending unseen in its history.

And, sure, enough, Van Gaal took United back into the Champions League. This was his job.

United finished fourth in the Premier League, five points adrift of Arsenal in third, 17 points behind champions Chelsea, and those statistics are a reflection of the United team in LVG Season One. It was better than coming seventh under Moyes.

But it was neither scintillat­ing nor wholly convincing. United won one of their first five league games under Van Gaal and one of the last six. They scored fewer league goals than they had for a decade.

There were some good victories – at Arsenal and at Liverpool, at home to Manchester City.

But Moyes had a Champions League campaign to consider in his 10 months picking the side. Van Gaal didn’t. Manchester United had no European football last season and played only 44 matches – compared to the 53 in the Moyes season or the 60 under Alex Ferguson when the club reached the Champions League final in 2011.

‘‘ It is a complacent attitude which says that the fourth-best team in England should stroll to the top of a group

Re-order the squad

That’s a lot of extra time Van Gaal had last season. Time to coach, time to re-order the squad, time to get this season readied for a challenge.

Some of this has been done. Van Gaal has made 12 major signings in his three transfer windows in charge. He has let two of them – Ángel Di María and Radamel Falcao – depart, along with around 20 others from the squad he inherited. One of these, Javier Hernandez – sold to Bayer Leverkusen for £7.3 million (¤10 million) – could have been a useful figure in Wolfsburg.

That’s an overhaul of playing staff and it has come at a net cost of approximat­ely £170 million (¤235 million).

A methodical man, sure of his policy and philosophy, Van Gaal would expect himself to be making progress after this amount of time, work and expense. But it appears that, as with the red midfield, United are going sideways, not forwards.

Yet in the wake of Wolfsburg, Van Gaal stated: “The facts say we are better than last year.”

It’s not his strongest argument, though there might be something in Van Gaal’s assertion that Champions League Group B was not “an easy group”.

This, however, would require a rethink on his part – and others’ – about the true strength and quality of the Premier League.

It is a complacent attitude which says that the fourth-best team in England should stroll to the top of a group featuring the second-best team from Germany, the champions of Holland and the second-best team in Russia. It is an attitude based on false memory and a false interpreta­tion of what England witnesses in the Premier League week-in, week-out.

Confused with excellence

In the last three seasons in the Champions League England has supplied one semi-finalist. On a weekly basis there is entertainm­ent, but drama is too often confused with excellence.

Chris Smalling, for example, has garnered praise for his maturing play and John Stones is hailed for showing composure on the ball, but Smalling went missing in Wolfsburg and Stones has not been tested yet.

These are two of England’s – and the Premier League’s – stand-out defenders.

Maybe – given what we have seen at Old Trafford – Van Gaal distrusts drama and entertainm­ent for this reason, that it camouflage­s mediocrity.

And he might say it pre-dates his arrival in Manchester. Of the 16 Champions League finals this century, English clubs have won three. Best league in the world?

This is not to absolve Van Gaal. While the immediate focus is on defeat at Wolfsburg, the previous game, at home to PSV Eindhoven, was equally telling. It was one of those 0-0s and rightly caused a stir of concern.

PSV are reigning Dutch champions but such are the downgraded status and economics of the Eredivisie, that could not prevent PSV immediatel­y selling Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, their two best players. The latter went to Newcastle but Depay went directly to United and has now ended up in a team behind PSV.

Imagine if those two players had stayed another season in Eindhoven: United might have been out before Wolfsburg. It could be worse.

That’s no consolatio­n. Louis van Gaal has been in the building for 18 months. There has been a lot of talk, some action and a large fortune spent. There is the suggestion of energy, but the reality is otherwise. Manchester United look stagnant.

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: STUART FRANKLIN/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGES ?? Louis van Gaal says his team are better than last year but failure in the Champions League, allied to less than stellar displays domestical­ly, has put pressure on the Dutch man.
PHOTOGRAPH: STUART FRANKLIN/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGES Louis van Gaal says his team are better than last year but failure in the Champions League, allied to less than stellar displays domestical­ly, has put pressure on the Dutch man.
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