Manchester United travel to newcomers Burnley in disarray
AUG 29, 2014 11:15a ET
There was a piece of conventional wisdom about the post of head coach of Manchester United. You used to hear it all the time. "The smart job to take is the job of following the guy who takes over from Ferguson," it held.
The implication was that whoever succeeded the dauntingly successful Sir Alex, winner of 38 trophies in 26 years at Old Trafford, would be bound to fall short of the veteran Scot's standards and, after overseeing a decline, find himself out of work. The next man could then come in, rebuild the team and look more like the real thing.
David Moyes didn't let the theory put him off. When Ferguson called him early in 2013, revealing that he was going to retire at the end of the current season and telling Moyes to prepare to end his decade-long tenure at Everton because he was moving to Manchester in the summer, Moyes didn't argue with his senior. He felt up to the challenge and couldn't back down from it.
Moyes was duly sacked. He took over United as Premier League champions and before the end of his first and only season, in which they finished seventh, had been found inadequate and temporarily replaced by local legend Ryan Giggs, over 40 but, at that stage, still a player, whom Moyes had given a junior coaching role with the idea that he would form a bridge between the old regime and the new.
Into Old Trafford, after finishing his work with his native Holland at the World Cup, swaggered Louis van Gaal. He would fix United. He had, after all, won things with big clubs - Ajax when they were leaders of Europe, Barcelona, Bayern Munich. He hadn't just kept Everton buoyant like Moyes. He was big enough to be the guy who followed the guy who followed Sir Alex Ferguson.
It may still work out that way. But don't tell Van Gaal yet that he has done the smart thing. Not after a couple of early weeks of competitive action in which United have taken one point from two Premier League games and been slung out of the Capital One Cup, beaten 4-0 by a team from the English game's third tier, Milton Keynes Dons.
True, Van Gaal had gone to Milton Keynes with a second-choice side in which young defenders Saidy Janko and Reece James made their debuts, but several internationals still featured and it was the way the Dons enjoyed themselves at United's expense that made it an especially memorable cup shock.
Memorable and, for many, enjoyable. Not just because neutrals favor an underdog but because there is something about United that makes their falls popular among the English soccer community. Something to do with the nature of the club's American ownership which even many of their own fans find objectionable. Something that shouldn't have been allowed. Something that's already made the Glazer family a lot of money and looks certain eventually to bring the Floridians a pile more.
Because the leveraged takeover the Glazers masterminded in 2005 brought a proud club - United claims to be the world's most widely supported - a lot of debt. It was all perfectly legal and yet it still rankles, even now the debt has been reduced to a manageable few hundred million dollars. Manageable, that is, as long as United do not stay out of the Champions League and general trophy contention for too long.
Because that means heavy investment in a fresh generation of players, overdue replacements for such class acts as Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the Glazers are having to sanction a far greater transfer-market budget for Van Gaal than Ferguson was accustomed to requiring. On the very day of the Milton Keynes debacle, United paid Real Madrid nearly $100 million for Angel di Maria, a possible new Giggs. That was the English record smashed and more activity may take place over a weekend that sees Van Gaal take his team to play Premier League newcomers Burnley.
It's a short trip but one that will be watched closely for further signs that United could spend at least another season exiled from the Champions League, again squeezed out by Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and - worst of all from the fans' point of view - Liverpool, their deadliest rivals, ahead even of the noisy neighbors from the Etihad.
Of course we know that United will get back to Europe's top table one day. They are the biggest club in England and their money will talk because, much as the Glazers would prefer not to throw more millions into the transfer market, it's the best way to protect their investment. Eventually, the Glazers and United will start winning again. But, in the meantime, a lot of people in England are happy to watch them making a mess of things â and Louis van Gaal is getting to know it.