It was a strange and stupefying season of football in England. The English Premier League, for the first time in its history, saw a minor club — which was fighting relegation blues in the pre-season — actually winning the title. Leicester City’s title race was not an easy one. It is admirable the way they managed to maintain their lead at the top of the table during the last 10 or so league games — making the top English clubs look ridiculous.
Now it’s time for the top clubs of England to ponder over things which went wrong for them and make amends before the next season begins. The dagger now hangs over the heads of the managers who are frequently shown the door by club owners when their teams fail miserably.
There’s this popular theory in football, which at times seems absurd and at other times seems judicious. On several occasions one finds it pretty difficult to accept the fact that whenever a team with a certain reputation fails to live up to the expectations attached to it, the manager has to become a scapegoat for the below-par performance — which more often than not results in the ouster of the manager.
The football world has witnessed a multitude of cases in the past where managers were sacked, both at club level and at international level, after their teams failed. Manchester United’s former manager Louis Van Gaal is the latest one to add to this tally of scapegoat managers, and has been replaced by none other than Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, who was sacked by Chelsea in December last year, when the club fell to 16th place on the league table. While Pep Guardiola, after a successful stint with Bayern Munich will be heading to Manchester City next season.
Whether or not a manager should be blamed entirely for a disappointing season or for an early exit of the team from crucial international tournaments remains debatable. After all, a manager can only pull a few strings from the touchline during the game, make a few changes, shout his lungs out, ridicule the referee for a bad decision and at the most kick the ground in dismay. Of course, he can’t get on the pitch and score the goals for the team. His role is limited to managing the team, motivating them, keeping ego clashes among big players out of the dressing room and the pitch, and maintaining a disciplined training routine for the players directly or via his subordinates. In Van Gaal’s case, he was apparently struggling with the English style of play. Let me put it more aptly: Van Gaal was struggling with United’s style of play. The Dutchman laid emphasis on imbibing a certain philosophy in United’s system — the philosophy of minimising risks and a style that had an inclination more towards ball possession — which was rather a defensive style than an attacking one. Unlike the entertaining and attacking style of play that was a hit at United till the days of Sir Alex Ferguson. But sadly, Van Gaal’s philosophy succeeded only partly — United had the highest average ball possession in the league at 58.47% but they scored only 49 goals this season, their lowest since the 1989-90 season. And the team made most backward passes this season and even failed to score a goal at home in the first half for 11 consecutive games.
United’s charismatic former manager Ferguson, however, achieved unprecedented success at the club during his era which lasted well over three decades — when managers elsewhere kept coming and going. The Scotsman had a way of imposing his will on the players but he managed to get the results, produced world class players and most importantly, led his team to win several trophies during his tenure. Despite Van Gaal’s decent track record (even in EPL he had a winning percentage of 51% in 76 games) and his vast experience as a manager, he had repeatedly suggested during his two year tenure at arguably the world’s most popular club, that the expectations at United were sky-high. One wonders what Van Gaal had in mind considering he was managing a club which has a rich football history and tradition; and whose fans are accustomed to watching their team play attacking football and winning trophies. It’s foolish to ask the fans of a club to settle for anything less.
The football world has witnessed a multitude of cases in the past where managers were sacked, both at club level and at international level, after their teams failed. Manchester United’s former manager Louis van Gaal is the latest one to add to this tally of scapegoat managers, and has been replaced by none other than Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford.
The main reason for Van Gaal’s exit, according to football pundits, is: United spent lavishly, around $375 million, over a period of two years under him without ever showing any signs of improvement in the field. They signed expensive players like Angel Di Maria for $99 million, Memphis Depay for $48 million, Morgan Schneiderlin for $39 million and Bastian Schweinsteiger for $23 million in the last two seasons, all of whom struggled to adapt to Van Gaal’s stern system which seemed to get worse as the last season progressed — although they managed to win a consolation in FA Cup final against Crystal Palace. To be fair, Di Maria was a complete waste of almost a billion dollars. There is no doubt, however, that the Argentine is a world-class player who looked flawless while he was at Real Madrid with his runs down the right flank, scoring many crucial goals for the team apart from providing a number of assists — Di Maria was different player altogether before heading to Old Trafford. In United’s colours, he looked bemused and out of place. Interestingly, ever since he moved to Paris Saint-Germain, he is back again at his best and remains a key player for the Parisian club. Van Gaal clearly seems to have squandered a player of Di Maria’s caliber while he was at the club. Van Gaal also failed to cultivate a legacy at United that could have extended his stay at Old Trafford. His style of football lacked the quality which often culminates in goals — a brand of football which became a trademark for the club over the years. This was the style which helped United reach a stature that no other English club could attain. It was a style of football that was developed through laborious efforts and under the watchful old eyes of Ferguson. It was from this legacy that players like Scholes, Beckham, Giggs, Neville, Ronaldo and others had stemmed. The only thing which stands to the credit of Van Gaal is that he brought 14 promising players from United’s academy to the main team including the winger Jesse Lingard who scored the winner for the Red Devils in last week’s FA Cup final.
On the contrary, let’s look at Claudio Renieri who returned to the English Premier League last year, after 11 years, as the manager of Leicester City. Ranieri had previously managed Chelsea and guided them to the FA Cup final and Champions League semi-final during his spell between 2000 and 2004 at Stamford Bridge. He had a reputation of being an underachiever due to his failure to win a league title or a major trophy all through his career. But as one poem of Emily Dickinson begins: “Success is counted sweetest by those who never succeed”. As the Foxes’ manager in his very first season, Renieri guided them to their first ever Premier League title, after which the city of Leicester erupted in celebrations. Delirious fans could be seen all over the city celebrating — they climbed lamp-posts and danced in the streets. It’s worth mentioning that the club had spent modestly all through the season but managed to get the results which were not expected of them.
It remains contentious whether a disastrous performance of a team should be directly attributed to its manager or not. But in Van Gaal’s case, the sacking seems somewhat justified. For he apparently struggled to make a mark at Old Trafford. It is hard to believe that for someone who managed clubs like Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the past and guided the Netherlands to the third position in the last World Cup where they had convincingly beaten the reigning world champions, Spain, managing Manchester United seemed a completely different ball game.
It would be interesting to see how Mourinho would tackle the situation United find themselves in presently. There will be no Champions League for the team next season, and considering Mourinho’s tactics as a manager, the club would surely come out all guns blazing for the league title in 2017.