Why Manchester United are now reaping the benefits of Louis van Gaal’s rebuilding job

Monday 19th May 2014. A date that might not reverberate around Old Trafford as one of great significance, but it is a date that should be remembered more fondly.

That date was the day in which former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss, Louis van Gaal was confirmed as the new Manchester United manager.

United’s 2013-14 season had just ended. David Moyes’s one and only season as United boss had been a disaster, and in fact ended with the sack, four games before the Premier League season had even finished.

Defending champions when Moyes took over, United’s aura of invincibility dissipated at an alarming rate. Hamstrung by a botched summer transfer window, in which Marouane Fellaini was the only acquisition on deadline day for several million more than the £23.5 million he would have cost had United enacted his early transfer window release clause, and a Premier League-winning squad not convinced by his methods or managerial record, in which he had never won major silverware in fifteen years of management.

These factors amongst others meant Moyes’s United side finished seventh in the Premier League, their lowest ever position in the competition and their lowest league finish since 1989-90.

Van Gaal, the man who had won major silverware with a who’s who of Europe’s biggest clubs and had just earned rave reviews for taking an unfancied Netherlands team to third place in the 2014 World Cup (their best ever result), was the man tasked with turning the tide.

After completing his World Cup commitments, Van Gaal finally took up his new post officially and immediately jettisoned many of the remnants of United’s 2012-13 title-winning squad who had underperformed so badly the previous year. Patrice Evra, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher all departed whilst Ryan Giggs retired and took up residence next to Van Gaal in the United dugout as Assistant Manager.

With Chief-Executive, Ed Woodward, Van Gaal sought to immediately bring the glory days back to the red-half of Manchester with Real Madrid-esque “Galactico” superstar signings such as Madrid winger, Angel Di Maria and that prolific scorer of spectacular goals, Radamel Falcao on loan from Monaco.

With this, Van Gaal brought back the fear factor to Old Trafford, where opposing teams had won an incredible seven Premier League matches at Old Trafford the previous season, the most since 1973-74. That season in 1973-74 saw United relegated from the top flight.  In 2014-15 United lost just three home league games, in a marked improvement from the Moyes era.

It was not all plain sailing in season one but United did threaten to make a late title tilt with a run of six consecutive victories including impressive wins over fellow title contenders; 3-0 over Tottenham Hotspur, 2-1 over Liverpool and 4-2 over Manchester City. However, a 1-0 defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea ended the run.

Van Gaal’s team survived some late-season injuries to key players such as David De Gea, to secure fourth place in the Premier League and bring Champions League Football back to Old Trafford.

With his “Galactico” signings having flopped, Van Gaal decisively cut both Falcao and Di Maria adrift and also decided fan-favourite, Robin Van Persie at 31 years of age, had passed his best and shipped him out as well. Van Gaal instead turned his attention to youth in the subsequent transfer window and further ruthlessly culled those on the outskirts of the squad.

Returning to the blueprint which had served him so well at Ajax, two decades earlier, wherein his young side with an average age of just 23 won the Eredivisie league title and Champions League double, Van Gaal snapped up unknown French teenager, Anthony Martial as his new centre-forward. He further added young Italian defender Matteo Darmian, exciting Dutch prospect and Eredivisie top scorer, in 2014-15, Memphis Depay, then-25 year old Morgan Schneiderlin as a replacement in defensive midfield for Michael Carrick and finally added some much-needed winning experience with the acquisition of the most glittering professionals of all time, former World Cup winner and Germany captain, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Van Gaal didn’t just build his squad with transfer fees for young stars; he looked at United’s academy too, much like his acclaimed predecessors Busby and Ferguson had done.

However, even those esteemed United legends would have been unlikely to thrust unknown 18-year-old Marcus Rashford into the starting line-up for his full senior debut in a crunch European match. What a decision too. Rashford repaid the faith with a brace of goals, following it up days later with a second double, this time against Arsenal. A star was born and Van Gaal had afforded him the opportunity. Who else would have done?

One of the most obvious recipients of Van Gaal’s dedication to youth was academy product, Jesse Lingard. Lingard, who had earned a starting spot in Van Gaal’s first competitive match, the previous season. His Premier League debut was cruelly cut short by injury but Van Gaal didn’t forget about him, however, and Lingard found a starting spot in the United team available to him in the 2015-16 season. Lingard’s season was mixed as is to be expected with most youngsters making the step up in quality. However, Lingard repaid Van Gaal’s faith with a spectacular FA Cup Final winning goal to secure United’s first major silverware post-Sir Alex Ferguson.

That is an easily forgotten fact. Van Gaal was the first man not named Ferguson, to bring major silverware to Old Trafford since 1985.

It was a fact not lost on Van Gaal’s successor, Jose Mourinho, who classily claimed that the 2016 Community Shield was Van Gaal’s trophy considering it was him, not Mourinho, who had earned the 2016 FA Cup win and the right to face Premier League Champions, Leicester City.

The fact that United were in much better shape post-Van Gaal than post-Moyes assisted Mourinho in crafting a squad that was able to win a triumvirate of trophies in 2016-17; namely the aforementioned Community Shield, EFL Cup and most impressively, the Europa League. With the European victory, United earned themselves a place in the Champions League proper once again in 2017-18.

Although Mourinho dispensed with several of Van Gaal’s signings such as Memphis, Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin and sidelined many others such as Darmian and Daley Blind, he has afforded a huge number of chances to Martial, Rashford and Lingard.

It is hard to believe that Mourinho would have brought Martial to Old Trafford as a 19-year-old, had he been in charge of United in 2015-16. It is also unlikely he would have promoted Lingard and Rashford to the starting line-up, had they not established themselves as first teamers during Van Gaal’s reign.

Lingard and Rashford, in particular, have repaid the faith shown in them by Van Gaal and in 2017-18 have produced their best seasons as professionals for Mourinho. Rashford was United’s second top scorer in all competitions, behind only Mourinho’s £75 million centre-forward signing, Romelu Lukaku, with a career-best 16 goals. He has also built up an impressive statistic as Mourinho’s most selected player during his tenure as United boss.

Lingard, for his part, call-ups was United’s third top scorer with 15 goals in all competitions, also a career best, eclipsing his five goals the previous season.

Both Lingard and Rashford’s performances have earned call-ups to Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the 2018 World Cup, with both expected to play a major part. They owe Van Gaal a debt of gratitude, as does Mourinho and every Manchester United fan.

Van Gaal set United up for success for many years to come.

Written by Paul Benson

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