Football, the old adage follows, is not a game played on paper, but when a manager invests over €345 million in his playing staff through the course of three transfer windows, it is reasonable to expect that they should progress into the last 16 of the Champions League.
This is particularly true when the side in question is drawn in a group alongside last season’s runners-up in the Bundesliga, a Russian side who have finished bottom of their Champions League pool in each of the last three seasons and a Dutch club who netted a profit of €31m in the summer transfer window after selling their two best players – Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Yet, when the draw for the first knock-out round of the 2015/16 Champions League is made in Nyon on Monday, Manchester United will not be present among their Premier League colleagues Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal and will have no possibility of vying with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain for the most coveted title in club football.
Instead the Red Devils will be joined by FC Krasnodar, Belenenses, Slovan Liberec, FC Midtjylland, and Viktoria Plzen among others in the draw for the last 32 of the Europa League.
Some 18 months on from the appointment of Louis van Gaal as successor to David Moyes at Old Trafford, it seems safe to suggest that this is not the manner in which the club hierarchy were hoping the side would progress.
Tuesday evening’s chaotic 3-2 defeat in Wolfsburg has inevitably ratcheted up pressure on United’s manager, and Van Gaal’s bizarre in-game decision making has hardly helped to lessen supporters’ ire.
Why, for instance, did the Dutchman start the unproven 22-year-old Guillermo Varela at right back? Why was the 18-year-old Cameron Borthwick-Jackson selected to replace the injured Matteo Darmian before half-time when Ashley Young was on the bench? And why was Juan Mata withdrawn on 69-minutes when his replacement, Nick Powell, had not kicked a ball for the United senior team in over a year?
For all of the rhetoric and eye-catching transfer-fees that have characterized the Van Gaal era, the reality is that United are nowhere near the level that they should be a year and a half into his tenure. Indeed, the Wolfsburg defeat makes the United hierarchy’s stated willingness not pursue the signature of Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, should he depart Bavaria this summer, appear deeply ill-considered.
Monday’s draw for the Europa League will offer a painful illustration of just how far Manchester United have regressed in the 30 months since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain faith in Van Gaal’s ability to restore the club to its former standing.
While the 64-year-old has improved results since inheriting a side that finished seventh in the league under Moyes and did well to rid the squad of highly-paid, underperforming players such as Robin van Persie, Rafael Da Silva, Darren Fletcher, Nani, and Tom Cleverly, he has simultaneously diminished the quality of United’s football, ostracized a clutch of talented home-grown players (Danny Welbeck, Adnan Januzaj, James Wilson, and Tyler Blackett spring to mind), and failed to effectively invest the exorbitant transfer fees at his disposal.
Why, for instance, was a clearly over-the-hill Bastian Schweinsteiger signed from Bayern Munich last summer when Van Gaal already had one veteran midfielder passer in his squad in the form of Michael Carrick? Why hasn’t the dynamic young Spain playmaker Ander Herrera been given a meaningful chance in the first XI? And why has the manager stuck so rigidly to Wayne Rooney in attack when the United captain has consistently shown himself ineffective at the top level of English and European football over the past year?
The most damning example of Van Gaal’s profligacy in the transfer market, however, is the manner in which he handled the purchase of Angel Di Maria.
The Argentine arrived at Old Trafford in July, 2014 as the most expensive player in the history of British football; he won the man-of-the-match award for his performance during Real Madrid’s Champions League final victory that May and played a crucial role in helping Argentina to reach the World Cup final in July.
Di Maria was precisely the kind of “Rolls Royce” player Old Trafford had craved since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, but after some initial flashes of brilliance, the 27-year-old was constantly shunted around different positions (including wing-back) until he lost form and was dropped before being sold at a loss to PSG during the summer.
WhoScored? record that Di Maria has since scored seven goals and assisted a further six in 17 appearances for his new club.
Van Gaal is facing an uncertain future at United following Tuesday’s humiliation. Large swathes of Old Trafford have already lost patience at the drabness of the football on display, and if results continue to deteriorate in the manner that they have over the last two months (United have failed to score in five of their last 11 matches), the board’s hand may be forced.
“For United the gloomy truth is that under Van Gaal they appear a million miles from adding to their three European Cups,” The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson wrote after the Wolfsburg defeat.
“They are the club with a £250m investment by a manager who has taken them into the Europa League. It is just not good enough.”
[Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images]