Manchester United must show ambition when Louis van Gaal leaves
Though he's facing a great deal of criticism, manager Louis van Gaal may comfort himself with the thought that history will judge him, and that he has laid the foundations for Manchester United's next great team. This, after all, has been his most important task at the club from the day he was appointed in 2014 -- to step down after three years, leaving behind a squad bursting with both youth and talent. That seemed like a very sensible idea at the time, and is probably what Manchester City are planning with incoming coach Pep Guardiola. Yet the reality has turned out very different.
If we look at the ages of the players who form the core of United's squad, several of them are not particularly young. Marcos Rojo is 25. Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin are 26. Juan Mata is 27. Marouane Fellaini is 28. Each of these footballers are therefore meant to be nearing or at their peak, which is typically around 27.
Harsh as though it may seem, this "older guard" does not look strong enough to support the introduction of younger and more inconsistent players. This may be due in part to the tactical restrictions that have been placed upon them by Van Gaal. One wonders, for example, how well Leicester's Claudio Ranieri, Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino or West Ham's Slaven Bilic -- three of the outstanding coaches of this Premier League season -- would do with this same group of footballers.
This is an overlooked cost of the last three seasons at Old Trafford, each of which have arguably been far below par -- that the careers of good players do not develop as quickly as they should. When seeking professionals who have improved under Van Gaal's watch, we can point readily to Luke Shaw, who benefited from the Dutchman's tough words and equally robust fitness regime.
Yet there are few others who stand out -- and many have either stagnated or regressed. Anthony Martial, an exceptional talent, is presently treading water, often producing fine performances not because of Van Gaal's tactics but in spite of them. United's most gifted attacker, he is good enough to be played out wide, as he can be trusted to be dangerous from almost anywhere.
Ander Herrera has probably suffered the most from Van Gaal's tactical demands. Though the Spaniard was hailed upon his arrival as the solution to United's midfield problems, the months of being in and out of the lineup seem to have taken their toll. His work ethic is as impressive as ever, but the trend of so many of his recent games has been to see him charging about the pitch with little reward.
Under Van Gaal, he has apparently been made to sacrifice creativity for defensive industry. Looking at his statistics this season as compared with last year, his numbers are down in almost all the major categories. Per 90 minutes in the Premier League, he is completing fewer forward passes than he did last season (from 39.77 down to 33.05), completing passes at a lower rate (89 percent to 84 percent), having fewer shots, scoring fewer goals, and making fewer assists. He is intercepting the ball far less, and making slightly more tackles, which suggests that he is part of a team that is inviting the opposition onto it, more than imposing its will.
It is a curious feature of United's form this season that they have so much possession but are so unthreatening with it, a trend that seems to be getting progressively worse. This is all the more striking when it is noted that Leicester City, who have the lowest pass completion rate in the Premier League, are leading the division by five points. This is partly because Leicester attempt the killer pass while United all too often do not. In a league where the counter-attack is king, United's high pass completion rate is more a sign of timidity than dominance.
If Van Gaal is to leave a legacy at Manchester United, then it may be to put to bed the notion of the "transition manager," the manager who is appointed not to win trophies but to ensure that the one after him does. On reflection, perhaps Van Gaal was the beneficiary of unnecessarily low expectations from the moment he stepped through the door at Old Trafford, given the disastrous tenure of David Moyes.
The emphasis, whoever United appoint next, must be on giving someone the job whom the club can realistically see winning the title, whether or not they end up doing so. It is that urgency of ambition which should characterise a club like United, and which, in time, should have them looking something more like their old selves.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.