David Moyes was sacked a year ago today after a 10-month nightmare at Old Trafford – so how has Louis van Gaal turned it around?
COMMENT By Greg Stobart Follow on Twitter
At 7.40am a year ago today, David Moyes walked into Ed Woodward’s office at Manchester United’s training ground to officially receive the news that the whole world knew was coming.
Just as Moyes woke up that morning knowing that he would lose his job, Louis van Gaal, in his penthouse in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk, was by then well aware that he would be the next manager at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal had first been sounded out over the possible vacancy at United that February and contact had continued to the extent that most aspects of his three-year contract were already agreed by the time the axe fell on Moyes.
Following the 33-word statement thanking Moyes for his honesty and integrity, United immediately set about repairing the damage of a 10-month spell that had taken the club from runaway title winners to seventh in the Premier League table.
A year on, United sit third in the league with 65 points – one more than they managed in the whole of the last season – and a return to the Champions League next season is all but mathematically certain.
Moyes continues to insist that all he needed was time, having been backed with a six-year contract when he took on the unenviable task of replacing Sir Alex Ferguson after a 27-year reign of unparalleled success.
But there will be no regrets in the United boardroom.
The ‘Chosen One’ Ryan Giggs was handed the job until the end of the season having been sounded out several weeks earlier. He was assisted by Class of ’92 contemporaries Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.
Four weeks after Moyes’s dismissal, Van Gaal’s appointment was confirmed. The one sticking point in contract negotiations had been in the make-up of his backroom staff but most importantly the Dutchman was given carte blanche for the summer overhaul that, for various reasons, Moyes had been unable to implement a year earlier.
A summer investment of £150 million in transfer fees saw the arrival of six new players in Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and a loan move for Radamel Falcao. Moyes had planned a similar level of spending but there was a lack of trust in his judgement after Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata had struggled to adapt at Old Trafford.
Fellaini and Mata, ironically, are now two of the most important players in Van Gaal’s side while the two most high profile signings from last summer – Di Maria and Falcao – are facing questions over their futures.
If there is one thing to be said for Van Gaal, it is that he has a conviction in his philosophy and decisions that we never saw in Moyes.
While Moyes was mocked for perusing a dossier of set pieces with his assistant Steve Round, Van Gaal receives no such criticism when he clings on to his tactics bible in the Old Trafford dugout.
While Moyes once admitted he left Robin van Persie on the pitch because he was worried about the crowd reaction, Van Gaal has been happy to leave the likes of Di Maria on the bench and has publicly criticised Falcao’s performance levels.
For much of the season, the style of football under Van Gaal has been similar to the dour Evertonisation of United under Moyes. The main difference has been that, beyond some obvious slip-ups, such as two defeats to Swansea, the team have managed to grind out results.
Van Gaal’s obsession with possession-based football and his tinkering with tactics drew frustration from the crowd as United failed to play with the attacking verve the fans wanted to see.
Indeed, after the home defeat to Southampton, United had the same number of points from 21 games as they had at the same stage last season.
“So you have waited until this moment when you can put this question,” Van Gaal said, when told of the Moyes comparison. “All the weeks, you have waited to put this question, the moment I have the same points as David Moyes, that I haven’t made better.”
The 63-year-old was annoyed, partly because United were in a superior league position and on target for a top four finish, but mainly because he felt the team would click into gear once they fully grasped his ideas.
And they eventually did. With a run of impressive victories in March and April, including a 2-1 victory away at Liverpool and a 4-2 home win over Manchester City, United have saved their best performances under Van Gaal for the big occasions and have picked up 13 points from a possible 21 against last season’s top four.
Van Gaal’s reputation as a serial trophy winner and the fact he had managed huge clubs in Barcelona and Bayern Munich meant he was instantly respected by the United squad, but there was a sense that Moyes was always on the verge of a revolt. Van Persie felt he was overtrained, captain Nemanja Vidic announced his exit halfway through the season and Rio Ferdinand publicly complained about when the team was announced.
Van Gaal, though, has the buy-in of the players even in some of his schoolmaster ways. He insists the whole squad and staff eat together in their club suits on matchdays, with nobody allowed to leave until he says so.
Some players have been unhappy with a lack of playing time, but this is Van Gaal’s team now.
They are given rafts of instructions on opponents during various meetings, training sessions are meticulously planned and team meetings are held regularly in which players are invited to express their views.
At Carrington, video cameras have been installed to record training sessions and floodlights have been put in place. Van Gaal has spoken endlessly about the need for his players to think tactically, like they are coaches themselves, during matches.
Moyes had the dilemma of having to sensitively break up Ferguson’s final side, move on some of the older players and build the club in his own image.
The last remaining stalwarts of the Ferguson era – Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick – are captain and vice-captain under Van Gaal. It was a clever move that immediately got the squad’s British players onside.
Supporters have accepted the last year as a transitional period, but they have seen the progress they demanded.
When Van Gaal is next called to Woodward’s office, it will be to plan a title assault for next season.