Man United won't improve until off-field work of Ed Woodward improves
It seems a virtual certainty that Louis van Gaal will leave Manchester United at the end of this season, the second of three years on his contract. Whether his eventual replacement is Jose Mourinho, as everybody seems to expect, or a dark-horse candidate like Mauricio Pochettino, the Dutchman's era is almost over. It hasn't been a particularly successful reign, but that has a lot more to do with United as a club than with Van Gaal as a manager.
The entire point of hiring Louis Van Gaal was to give Manchester United time to get its house in order. It was understandable (if a bit shortsighted) that after decades of Alex Ferguson running the entire show, United were left with a major institutional power gap behind the scenes when he retired, a gap that was exacerbated when chief executive David Gill decided to leave at the same time.
The first attempt at filling that void went to Ferguson's handpicked successor, David Moyes. For all his faults, Moyes had a decade of experience occupying the same kind of role at Everton that Ferguson had held at United. He was the mast of Everton's universe for a decade; in that way (and in that way only) he was an understandable candidate to step into Ferguson's shoes. Only it didn't work. After decades of winning, United were not prepared to give Moyes a long leash to rebuild the club in his image, and Moyes was unable to keep his team's on-the-field performance high enough to complete, or even start, a rebuild.
That's the thing about being the center of a universe: When any one part goes wrong, there's only one place for the blame to go. And it rightfully fell on Moyes.
Van Gaal was seemingly a step in the right direction. Rather than try to replace Ferguson, United brought in a manager whose primary job was to get results on the field. Van Gaal had come off a World Cup qualification cycle with the Netherlands that saw him drag a particularly humdrum group into the tournament, even taking it to a third-place finish. It looks even more impressive in retrospect given that the Netherlands missed qualifying for an expanded Euro 2016 tournament altogether.
Van Gaal was supposed to do only part of what Ferguson did, which meant it was up to United -- specifically Ed Woodward, who had taken over for David Gill -- to fill in the rest. As the dollars have gotten bigger and the world has gotten smaller, the job of running a football club has gotten ever more complex, from transfers to scouting, from youth development to business development. Yet it's hard to see any improvements in United's operations behind the scenes.
The league's other rich clubs have put that money to use in ways that will eventually translate to the field. Whether it's Manchester City's gorgeous new academy, Chelsea's loan army or Arsenal going out and buying themselves an analytics company, all three are looking at leveraging their resources to find competitive edges. It doesn't always work, as Chelsea can attest to this season, but putting resources toward every edge possible is the way to give a club the best chance of success. Meanwhile, Woodward is tilting at Neymar-shaped windmills.
United's stated goal is to operate like Real Madrid, buying and selling players at the top of the market and being in the business of superstars. It's a great aspiration but ignores the fact that when Real Madrid buy a superstar, it's an addition to the six or seven they already have. The next superstar Manchester United purchase will be their first -- the ghost of Wayne Rooney doesn't count. From the Glazer family owners to Woodward, the people in the club's executive level have not shown any signs over the past three seasons that they have a plan for how to get United from here to there.
That incoherence, more than the manager, squad or anything else, is United's biggest hurdle. And it's rearing its head again as the board debates managerial candidates.
Pochettino is reportedly being touted as an alternative to Mourinho -- the same Pochettino who has made a point of excising any players who don't buy into his system. The same Pochettino who employs a high-energy and high-pace style, consequently demanding a young squad with which to execute it. The same Pochettino whose defense improved dramatically this season with two relatively inexpensive centre-backs, Toby Alderweireld and Kevin Wimmer, who slid seamlessly into his system, a trick that Manchester United has now failed at for three years.
Could Pochettino succeed at United? Sure, if he had a front office making a coordinated effort to mold the team into his image. But if they expect him to succeed with this squad and these players while Woodward is out chasing Thomas Muller's shadow? Not happening. Telling the world you want to be Real Madrid while thinking about hiring Pochettino is the opposite of a plan.
At least Mourinho makes sense in the same way Van Gaal did. He'd come in, demand some top-line changes to the squad and then drag results out of them kicking and screaming for a couple of years. Those results would almost certainly be better than the ones Van Gaal got but without a front-office makeover, United will be back here facing the same problems they have right now after Mourinho's usual two or three-year stint. Hiring a manager like Jose Mourinho papers over a lot of cracks better than Van Gaal does, but that doesn't make the cracks disappear.
As United's season winds down, all the attention will be on who succeeds Van Gaal on the sideline. But the truth is that Van Gaal's failures at United aren't nearly as bad as those of the men above him. Unless the planning and decision-making improve at United, and they use some of their massive resources to build an actual football operation, they're going to continue to struggle to compete the same way they have for the past three seasons.
Van Gaal might be a disappointment, but Woodward and the Manchester United front office have been a downright failure. Because of them, United are in little better shape than they were after Ferguson left. And until they either improve or are replaced, there's little to suggest it will change any time soon.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering European soccer, the U.S. Men's National Team and more. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.