Emotion clouds judgment on Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United future

Sometimes we let emotions get in the way of facts. We have instincts and feelings that cloud our logical judgement. Then, all of a sudden, we are betting someone we can hit the bullseye on the first try and we’re out $20. It’s part of being human.

How, then, do we minimize the risk of letting our emotions get in the way of making the right decision?

Manchester United has a big decision on their hands right now. Do they fire manager Louis van Gaal, or do they keep him on to finish the year and perhaps beyond? I support Manchester United (I started following European football during the 1998 season…) and even I feel uncomfortable taking a position.


I think van Gaal seems like a weird dude. He looks funny. He talks funny. He can’t remember the name of his star defender. He carries a giant binder like the kids who always messed up the curve. And his team attacks in a manner only slightly more flowing than the way my mom futzes with her phone. I don’t like van Gaal as a person (which is a sad thing to say since I’ve never met him, but that’s life). As a result, I’m inclined to want to see him go.

I can acknowledge, though, that he has probably fulfilled his managerial duties so far. As Jamie Carragher recently wrote, “Whether you are a fan of van Gaal or not, he has delivered the minimum requirement so far — a return to the Champions League in his first season — and he is in a position to challenge for a title this season.” And he has a history of setting a framework for future success — see his spells at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But I forget those things because he looks funny and talks funny.

Making decisions in sports is tough for the same reason we follow sports in the first place: sports fire us up. We get emotionally connected to the team we follow; our team feels like our family.  

Managerial changes are complex, particularly given the long-term ramifications. One of the things I’ve learned during my career is that a coach needs time. He needs to build a culture and set a tone for the way his employees function; he needs to to set a playing style, which can take years to get ingrained into a player’s’ nature; he needs to build trust. We can’t fully judge a manager until he’s been given sufficient time. (And, as far as I’m concerned, if they let the coach go early, the sporting director or director of football should be fired as well for making the wrong hire in the first place. If United actually had one, that is.)

But sometimes you can tell the relationship isn’t working. The manager doesn’t mesh with the players or the history of the club. He might be a good manager working in the wrong place. Do you risk a year or two hoping he figures it out? (And, don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely idiot coaches out there that deserve to get fired first thing in the morning. Again, see Sporting Director.)

These decisions last for years. You can keep a manager too long and he buys players to long term contracts, or totally spoils the culture and atmosphere of the building. Or you can fire him before he has a chance to set up his system and then you are constantly in flux, losing the right man to a rival before he had the chance to work his magic. Before you know it you’re Liverpool, a club in which everyone under the age of 35 thinks you’re perennial Europa League contenders instead of a team with almost as many English trophies as Manchester United.

It’s a nearly impossible decision to make in the right state of mind, more or less with your heart getting in the way. Remember that time you broke up with your girlfriend and then regretted it in the morning? You emotionally want to win today, but winning today might set you back for the years to come.

The conundrum hits home to American fans given the scrutiny surrounding United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann has stepped in it with the American soccer base — bashing MLS, mocking journalists, calling the fans dumb — a few times and has watched his results on the field dip over the past year. Now a portion of the American soccer base doesn’t like him. Maybe he’s the right guy for the job or maybe not, but it’s gone beyond logic.

We tend to support the people we like, give the benefit of the doubt to those we trust, and tell the others to pretty much get out.

It’s hard to be unbiased. More to the point, it’s hard to realize you are biased. When players take a shower after practice, they always talk about the day’s session and the state of the team. It’s the team therapy hour. Some guys moan, others recount their training ground heroics, and the rest talk about what the team can do to get better. There’s one guy you can never really trust: the guy that isn’t playing but thinks he should. He’s angry and vindictive. He’s emotional. Of course, he thinks the coach is an idiot. Our coach could be the best coach in the world, but that guy would see him go tomorrow.

When emotion and logic collide, logic gets tossed towards the Arctic Ocean. And don’t act like you’ve ever been to the Arctic Ocean.

As I think about United’s impending decision, I quiver a bit. I’m pretty sure Pep or Mourinho are better coaches, while I’m absolutely positive that I’d rather grab a beer with Pep than Louis.

Is there any chance the two sentiments aren’t connected? And is that any way to make a decision worth billions of dollars?