Is Van Gaal Right in Warning Erik ten Hag?

Louis had some strong words for target man Erik ten Hag

Earlier this week, United’s ex-manager, Louis van Gaal made headlines after making remarks aimed at potential suitor and fellow countryman, Erik ten Hag. Van Gaal told Erik ten Hag that he should turn down a chance to take the Old Trafford job because Manchester United are a “commercial club”, and Erik ten Hag would be better off in a “football club.”

Obviously, this is a controversial take by a former United manager. It gets murkier because Van Gaal was sacked after being one of the two managers in the post-Fergie era to have won a major trophy (of course, Moyes won the Community Shield but we can safely put that one under the “irrelevant” folder.) And Van Gaal has been vocally speaking up against United hierarchy over the years post his sacking. While a lot of what he says can be attributed to sour relations with the club, this recent statement hits home. Not in a good way.

As a childhood supporter of the club, I’ve always thought of it has football-first, football-only club with a rich heritage and history bar none. I took pride in it. However, the last decade has been tough on all United fans. A decade that we’d happily wipe off our history and either go back to the glory days, or better yet, fast forward to the next set of glory years. But hey, we’re not glory hunters, are we?

Van Gaal is a storied manager and a successful one at that by any measure. Incidentally, Van Gaal started his managerial career at Ajax before going on to manage Barcelona, the Netherlands national team, Bayern Munich (2009-2011) and Manchester United (2014-2016.) At United, Luke Shaw was one of his first signings, including Herrera, and Di Maria. He also brought Martial in his second season (7 years ago!) Furthermore, Van Gaal gave Rashford his debut in the first team. His football was unattractive and much less entertaining than his pressers, but he did leave a mark in the United squad.

So, when Van Gaal says we’re a commercial club, not a football club, is he right?

One of a kind, Louis van Gaal

No Post-Fergie Era Footballing Heritage or Identity

If you ask any United fan on what they think were the highlights of the last ~10 years in the club, they’d probably say great success commercially, some mega-name signings, lots of shirt sales and probably more sponsor logos than we care to recognize. But I doubt anyone will say our football and our success on the pitch was one of the highlights.

For all the major spending over the last decade, we have little to show in the trophy cabinet other than a Community Shield, an FA cup, the Football League cup and a Europa League cup. In the years after 2013 which was our last premier league title, we have secured 2nd spot twice – once under Jose and once under Ole. All of this may seem like a successful run for any professional club, but considering our track record, it was peanuts. Too little. This is after all, Manchester United.

Not only trophies, but in the years after Sir Alex, our footballing identity has shifted from “never took off” under Moyes to defensive under Van Gaal to “park the bus” under Jose. We started to see a bit of the flair and fast attaching football of the yesteryears under Ole before he too got the sack. And now we’re a gegenpressing team that can’t gegenpress. Our identity was lost with Sir Alex and David Gill.

Our success under Ed Woodward and the Glazers is measured by the income statement, mega-money commercial sponsorships, and dividends given away to the owners. These kept flowing during the pandemic when most clubs prioritized football. It rarely has been measured in terms of our football.

Clearly, we cannot disagree with Van Gaal here.

Louis van Gaal and a “fan” after winning the FA Cup final with Manchester United

Transfer Strategy Over the Years

Another measure of footballing success for a “football” club is how it does its transfers. I doubt I need to elaborate here. If our transfer strategy had a report card, there would be very few Ds, and lots and lots of “F”s.

We started to get a bit of a hold on our transfer activities under Ole. Thanks to the appointment of Fletcher and Murtough, there is at least some semblance of a footballing structure around our transfer decisions. Until that point, from the outside, our transfer strategy was a “flavor of the month” strategy – go after the biggest, shiniest name who can sell shirts first, play our kind of football later. And that reflected directly on the field. It was tough to watch some of those players – Sanchez, Falcao (with moments of brilliance), and of course more recently, Van de Beek who’s been struggling in the Premier League. Something is broken and it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that our transfer strategy historically has been made on commercial value vs. footballing fit.

Looks like Van Gaal may be right on this front too.

The European Super League Debacle

Only a club leadership that has no regard for its rich history or the heritage and traditions of the nation it operates in would think the European Super League was a good idea. What was worse is Woodward et al did little to hide their greed. They were selling snake oil and not even pretending that it was useful to the buyer. They were so deep in greed, they gave up reason and proposed the setting up of an exclusive, elite and closed group of clubs that would pat each other on the back, completely cut off from reality.

This move would have ensured that football would have no room for fairy tales. No Leicester City titles, no big upsets and no European dominance by a small town in Spain with a population of only 50,000- Villareal. There would not be a West Ham or Young Boys fighting with the giants of football on the world stage, and believe that they could prevail.

What’s worse and embarrassing is that our club was one of the clubs leading the way to kill those fairy tales and dreams to create a closed, exclusive club of rich clubs to preserve their wealth. A club that was started by railway workers in 1878. Oh, the irony!

It’s safe to say we’ve lost our way and commerce, indeed, is the primary focus.

The highs were high, the lows were low

Is there any hope for Erik ten Hag then?

Of course, there is! We may have lost our way over the last 10-15 years; However our history goes back 144 years. If appointed, Erik ten Hag would become a part of THAT history. He has proved with Ajax that he can do a lot with very little. At United, he will have the resources and players to truly shape his dream team. The owners will be forced to back him after years of mismanagement. And with Fletcher and Ralf Rangnick to support him, plus his open channel with Van der Saar at Ajax, he’ll know how to navigate the club structure and put his fingerprints on the future of the club.

The squad is stronger than recent years and needs some tweaking and clearing out. He is not inheriting a team that’s winning titles – this is a good thing for him. There will be no pressure to deliver immediately, rather I hope the fans and the board are patient with him. Any change takes time. Ole almost got us back to the top but didn’t make it that far. As a fan, I hope Erik ten Hag gets the time and backing if appointed.

Despite all the negativity surrounding the club, it will not be easy to shake off 144 years of heritage. That should be enough to attract any manager worth his salt, let along Erik ten Hag. As a club, we’ve seen far worse, and achieved far more after tough times. It will happen again, and boy, will it be incredible!

PS: Our thoughts and prayers are with Louis Van Gaal in his fight against pancreatic cancer. Everyone from the American Red Devil family is sending our best to Louis and his family.

Get well soon sweet prince!

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