If reports are to be believed, it’s over. Louis Van Gaal’s disappointing two-year tenure as Manchester United boss is set to come to an end in the next few days-according to several reports-with the enigmatic Dutchman being replaced by the impressive but divisive Jose Mourinho. If the papers are to be believed, the deal has already been done, with the former Chelsea boss set to take charge at Old Trafford on a three-year deal. Although mere speculation at this stage, the smart money is on Mourinho being installed as United manager in the near future.
It’s fair to say that such reports have received a mixed reception from United fans. While no-one can dispute his record-Mourinho has proved consistently prolific at accumulating trophies-the man who started his coaching career under Bobby Robson at Barcelona is a controversial and outspoken figure who provokes confrontation wherever he goes. There is also understandable concern that Mourinho’s style doesn’t chime with the fluent, attacking football which the Old Trafford faithful were accustomed under Alex Ferguson. Mourinho’s football philosophy is best described as pragmatic, practical rather than excessively entertaining. Many fans will counter that it’s hard to serve up anything worse than some of the dire performances that have emanated from the Theatre of Nightmares this season.
There’s also a school of thought (rapidly diminishing it has to be said) that Van Gaal should be given more time to impose his ideas. However, with performances uninspiring at best and Van Gaal having spent a veritable fortune, it becomes difficult to sustain the argument. Despite Saturday’s FA Cup victory over Crystal Palace, it’s hard to view Van Gaal’s Old Trafford reign as anything other than a failure. While the FA Cup win was a timely boost for United’s increasingly deflated players, it doesn’t mask a deeply unsatisfactory few years for the club. Ever since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, the club has been mired in an unfamiliar state of mediocrity. David Moyes was unceremoniously removed after a disappointing ten-month stint, to be replaced by the seemingly dependable Van Gaal, but frankly United’s fortunes haven’t improved in the intervening period. All of which would be pardonable if the Dutchman hadn’t spent a fortune on a team that’s struggled to keep pace with England’s elite. He has, though, and that’s where the case for Van Gaal falls down irretrievably.
Although Saturday’s FA Cup win will be welcomed by United supporters, it’s too little too late for the beleaguered Dutchman. In a relatively mediocre season where Leicester won the Premier league and Tottenham finally mustered a serious challenge, all Van Gaal could deliver was fifth place and an FA Cup win for United. I didn’t see Saturday’s game, but I understand that it was a pretty drab affair. To be honest, I’ve rather lost interest in the FA Cup as a tournament. It’s just not the same competition now compared to my youth.
The FA Cup used to really mean something to fans. Outside of the league and European Cup, it was THE competition to win. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. The global ubiquity of the Premier League and economic importance of the Champions League has relegated the once great FA Cup to a subsidiary competition. Sad, but a sign of the times I’m afraid. History and tradition will always be important in sport, but the FA Cup has lost much of its former lustre. I can’t help but feel that the delirious manner in which United’s players celebrated Saturday’s win says more about the underachievement of recent years than the status of the competition.
The writing is on the wall for Van Gaal. It has been for some time. Whether Mourinho (or whoever succeeds him) can do any better remains to be seen. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the ghost of Alex Ferguson still haunts Old Trafford, providing his successors with an extremely difficult CV to emulate. When the bar is set so high by your predecessor, you have to fight to be judged on your own merits. It’s incredibly hard to assert your identity. Moyes and Van Gaal have suffered from the weight of this expectation as much as anything else. Is Mourinho the answer? The jury is still out. Although the Portuguese normally delivers, he tends to provoke along the way and his managerial spells, although trophy laden, are often tense and confrontational affairs. Sometimes, however, change is needed to renew an organisation. The long held suspicion among many fans was that while Mourinho had an impeccable record, he wasn’t the right fit for United. He probably still isn’t the right fit. But he’s not Van Gaal and that’s all that matters right now.