Fans’ Patience With Louis van Gaal at a Nadir

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By any measure, Manchester United is one of the four biggest soccer clubs in the world. Its wealth, tradition, stadium and future earning potential are all up there with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

But on the field, United is massively underachieving.

Its team is out of the Champions League and drifting out of contention in the Premier League, where Leicester City, a low-budget club, still leads the standings with more than half the season gone.

Bravo to Leicester, and shame on United.

After Saturday’s loss at home to Southampton, United Coach Louis van Gaal was heckled by a sizable portion of the 75,000 in the stands at Old Trafford stadium.

“I’m very disappointed that I cannot reach the expectations of the fans,” van Gaal told reporters. “They have — or they had — great expectations of me, and I cannot fulfill them, so I am very frustrated because of that.”

When van Gaal was asked if it was demoralizing to be heckled in the stadium, he responded, “I agree with them, so it doesn’t have any impact. They have also knowledge of football, of entertaining football, and you have to play football to entertain the fans. Today, I don’t think we have entertained them, so they can be very angry.”

This was not a one-time show of discontent. Manchester United has been known, and loved, for decades for its fast-flowing style. Its philosophy ever since the 1950s has been: You may score; we will score more. And under two great managers, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, it has sustained this daredevil commitment to rapid wing play and sharpshooting.

Saturday was the 11th consecutive home game in which United failed to score in the first half. More than that, the team seldom looked as if it even could score.

Rebuilding after Ferguson is proving just as hard as it was for the managers who tried stepping in after Busby retired 45 years ago. Van Gaal, who joined Manchester in 2014 right after he guided the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals, has so far lasted twice as long as the previous coach, David Moyes, who was dismissed in less than one season after succeeding Ferguson in May 2013.

Part of Moyes’ problem was that he was stuck in the shadow of his predecessor, because Ferguson remains on the United board. Part of the problem, too, was that his management lacked Ferguson’s fire, and part of it was that the club was spooked because fans, and some players, clearly thought Moyes was not experienced enough for the job.

Van Gaal, on the other hand, has been a winning coach at Ajax and Alkmaar in the Netherlands, at Barcelona and at Bayern Munich.

That is a heck of a career path, just so long as you overlook the fact that he left both Barcelona and Munich on bad terms. Arrogance and abrasiveness are part of van Gaal’s modus operandi. He picks fights with players, with journalists and even with the directors who appoint him. “Friends of the press,” he said at a news conference announcing his departure from Barcelona in 1999, “I am leaving. Congratulations.”

And with that, he left the room and the club.

Now 64 and with what he calls his “retirement paradise” home set up in Portugal for when this last job is over, he could walk at any moment. His contract runs through 2017, but uncorroborated reports suggest that he has offered to tear that up twice over the past two months, and twice he has been persuaded to stay.

Then there are stories that United’s executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, dined in Paris last week with Pep Guardiola, who has already announced that he will leave Bayern Munich after this season. And, inevitably, there is the rumor that José Mourinho fancies himself as United’s head coach.

Mourinho’s representative, the Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes, responded on Sunday to a British newspaper report that said Mourinho had penned a six-page letter to the United board, outlining in forensic detail the performances of each player and how he, Mourinho, would improve them.

“It does not occur to anyone that a coach like José Mourinho can write letters to clubs offering their services,” Mendes insisted. “It is absolutely ridiculous and totally absurd.”

up again. One is that Alex Ferguson declared that Chelsea would be mad to fire him (as it did) because he thinks Mourinho is one of the best coaches in the world.

Another is that he palpably wants the Manchester United challenge and thinks he is one of the few men who can handle it.

Against him are the controversies he stirs, the way that Chelsea’s team fell apart under him this season and his lack of interest in developing youth, which was a cherished tenet at United under Busby and Ferguson.

There is also the small matter of looking for another man’s job while he still has it — especially when the incumbent, van Gaal, mentored Mourinho when he was a young assistant at Barcelona in 1997.

One more element is Ryan Giggs. Now 42, Giggs joined United as a 14-year-old and later starred on the wing throughout the Ferguson years and filled in as a player-manager after Moyes was fired. Giggs was led to believe that United wanted him to learn from van Gaal with the goal of eventually succeeding him.

Everything Giggs did as a player was in the dashing style of United. And nothing that Mourinho has achieved as a coach, which is a lot, suggests that he knows how to give players that license to entertain.

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