In the aftermath of Manchester United’s drab 0-0 draw at home against West Ham in the Premier League yesterday afternoon, the Old Trafford faithful could be forgiven for feeling uneasy upon hearing news that their club is not interested in signing Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola when his contract expires at the end of the season.
Saturday’s stalemate marked the fifth occasion on which United have failed to score in their last 10 matches and the Red Devils have only netted a total of seven goals in that sequence. On a day when both Chelsea and Manchester City lost, United missed a big opportunity to gain an edge in the title race but the performance is made more concerning owing to the manner in which it fits into a broader pattern of underachievement under manager Louis van Gaal.
It has been stated that the Dutchman’s possession-oriented philosophy runs counter to the more expansive, attacking style with which the club became synonymous under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, for instance, noted that Opta recorded United as having made the lowest number of forward passes in the Premier League this season, as well as the most backward passes and the joint highest number of sideways passes.
Perhaps most condemning, Opta shows that the Red Devils have mustered the fewest number of shots in the league after relegation-threatened Sunderland and Old Trafford came close to open revolt when Van Gaal substituted French forward Anthony Martial for Belgium midfielder Marouane Fellaini when his side were chasing a goal during last month’s 1-0 Champions League win over CSKA Moscow.
Given that Van Gaal has already had one full season in which to adapt to the Premier League and shape United’s playing staff in accordance with his vision, the football is falling far short of expectations. This is a reality which the editor of the prominent United fanzine United We Stand, Andy Mitten, surmised well in a Tweet after the side’s 0-0 draw away at Crystal Palace on October 31.
Though the statistics have altered, Mitten’s observation is as apt now as it was at the end of October and in this context it is difficult to fathom why the United hierarchy (barring an exceptional change of circumstance) have no interest in replacing Van Gaal with Guardiola at the end of the season.
It must be stated here that Van Gaal has been far from a failure at Old Trafford.
Even after yesterday’s disappointment, United sits only three points back from Premier League leaders Leicester City and a victory away at Wolfsburg on Tuesday would ensure the Red Devils progression into the knockout stages of the Champions League after a season long absence from the competition last term.
It is also notable that Van Gaal has succeeded in making Manchester United the meanest defensive unit in the Premier League. Yesterday’s clean-sheet means that they have only conceded 10 times in 15 league fixtures this season (City have ceded 16; Leicester, 21) and it is over 500 minutes since the team last conceded a league goal at Old Trafford.
Still, this increased defensive solidity has come at the expense of attacking incision (United are the lowest scoring side in the top-six in the Premier League by five goals) and Van Gaal’s consistent failure to implement an offensive game plan capable of getting the best out of his front-players makes United’s decision not to move for Guardiola appear mistaken.
No coach in the modern era has succeeded in blending attractive, attacking football with winning major trophies as consistently as Guardiola, and while the Catalan inherited far superior playing squads at Barcelona and Bayern Munich compared to that which Van Gaal did at Old Trafford, it seems clear that the double Champions League winning coach would be better placed to attract world class talent to United than the Dutchman who has not won a major honor in five years.
The prospect of appointing Guardiola in Manchester is made even more attractive owing to the manner in which he has succeeded in building on Van Gaal’s tactical foundations in the past.
Guardiola was Van Gaal’s captain at Barcelona while the former Netherlands boss managed at the Camp Nou between 1997 and 2000. Van Gaal ended a four year barren spell at the Camp Nou by winning back to back La Liga titles in 1998 and ’99 and he further succeeded in blooding young talent such as Carlos Puyol and Xavi Hernandez in the first-team.
When the now 64-year-old returned for one unsuccessful season in 2002-03, he introduced Victor Valdes and Andreas Iniesta into the senior squad; all players who played a crucial role in helping Guardiola to win 14 trophies in just four years in charge at the Camp Nou between 2008 and ’12.
A similar pattern was repeated at Bayern Munich where Van Gaal was manager between 2009 and ’11.
In addition to promoting players like Philipp Lahm, Holger Badstuber, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller into the senior squad (again, players who have featured prominently under Guardiola in Bavaria), Dutchman succeeded in implementing the foundations of the Barcelona-type possession and pressing game which Guardiola has profited from. This is a tactical continuity between the pair, which the Guardian’s Michael Cox highlighted when Guardiola was appointed Bayern coach in 2013.
“Van Gaal’s first season at Bayern, in 2009-10, saw them playing high up the pitch and generally dominating possession. However, there was also a clear emphasis upon speedy counterattacking,” Cox said. The author concluded, “The link between Pep Guardiola and Louis van Gaal, who coached Bayern between 2009 and 2011, is crucial when considering how Guardiola will adapt to life in Munich.”
Guardiola has won two Bundesliga titles in record fashion and a DFB Pokal cup in his two seasons in Bavaria, twice reaching the last four of the Champions League. The Catalan’s track record of successfully building on Van Gaal’s tactical foundations makes United’s decision to overlook such a succession plan difficult to understand and it is Manchester City who stand to profit most as a consequence.
[Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images]