When the Manchester United playing squad first heard of the club’s interest in Louis van Gaal last month, the reaction was not universally positive. Good enough reason to suggest, therefore, that the 62-year-old Dutch coach may transpire to be exactly the right choice.
Time will tell. A year ago, there were not many dissenting voices in and around football following the appointment of David Moyes. Many commentators who criticise that choice now were happy to declare themselves in favour at the time.
What is clear, however, is that United’s playing squad now need a firm hand. They need to realise, and quickly, that, contrary to what they may presume, their voices are not the most important ones at Britain’s biggest football club.
Moyes, it transpired, couldn’t hold on tight enough to a group of players unsettled and unnerved by the presence in their midst of anyone other than Sir Alex Ferguson and his familiar band of coaches. For Van Gaal, we should presume that will not be a problem.
He has a reputation for being forthright, positive and free of self-doubt. He will need to be all of these things as he looks to restore the proper order of things at Old Trafford and, further down the road, tries to restore United to their accustomed place at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
For United, this is Life after Ferguson Part II. This is the bit that they really have to get right. One bad appointment is a nuisance. Two, however, starts to chip away at reputation, at standing and at prospects.
Moyes was an appointment for the long-term and it didn’t work simply because he couldn’t get the short-term part right. Van Gaal, sticking to that theme, is perhaps a man for the mid-term, a coach who must guide United over a bump in the road that has grown an awful lot bigger over the last few months.
Van Gaal’s record shows that he doesn’t tend to stay in one place for too long. After almost a decade at Ajax, he did three years at Barcelona, two with Holland, another with Barcelona, four at AZ Alkmaar and two at Bayern Munich. From that point of view, the three-year contract handed him by the Glazer family feels about right.
Ideally, United may have liked a younger man. At Old Trafford, though, priorities have changed dramatically since last summer. United are a club that cannot afford to slip any further behind Manchester City and Chelsea.
Currently they are no longer even in their rivals’ slipstream and Van Gaal’s appointment – as strange as it sounds – is just as much about moving United forwards again, about arresting decline, as much as it is about winning the Premier League next season.
Van Gaal, in many ways, is a safe option and the Dutch coach arrives to find a squad in dire need of an overhaul.
United won the Premier League just a year ago but suddenly theirs is a squad short of at least two new central defenders and maybe two left backs. It also needs at least one central midfield player, one wide player and maybe a centre forward.
United chief executive Ed Woodward has been talking big in terms of projected spending. Once Van Gaal takes proper stock, however, Woodward may find that even £150m begins to look rather conservative.
Currently, United appear to be stuck a little between the old regime and the new in terms of transfer targets. Woodward had hoped that the list of players put together by Moyes would withstand the scrutiny of the new manager.
That, of course, was always unlikely and currently the club’s stated aim of doing most of their business before the World Cup looks startlingly unrealistic. Van Gaal is now on the cusp of a World Cup campaign with Holland and will not be seen at Old Trafford until the middle of July.
As such, the synergy between him and his chief executive is going to be a damn sight better than that between Woodward and Moyes if United’s squad is going to be competitive by the start of next season.
In the background, meanwhile, lurks Ryan Giggs.
Van Gaal’s decision to give Giggs a key role on his staff represents the safe option and something of a risk all at the same time. It gives the new United manager a link between himself and his dressing room already as well as insight in to how the club works and what it expects, on and off the field.
Should things not start well for Van Gaal, though, he may find that the man next to him in the dugout begins to represent a threat – at least in terms of the public’s perception – as much as anything else.
There is a faction among the United support – romantic fools that they are – that would have liked to see Giggs and his former team-mates – the so-called ‘Class of 92’ – given the job. Management by collective, so to speak.
That would never have worked. A club needs a manager, a figurehead, a leader. The man United have chosen certainly has broad enough shoulders to cope. Woodward and the Glazer family must hope he has the flexibility and the wherewithal to adapt to the Premier League, too.
Another poor appointment and United could find themselves adrift.