It’s always been a basic trait of the media—and of people in general—to build people up to knock them down. Reputations are like jenga, great edifices being constructed to prove somebody is a genius, before gleefully being picked apart until everything comes crashing down. Then you start building the tower again.
Louis van Gaal was routinely hailed as a genius after leading the Netherlands to the semi-final of the World Cup and then as United won five out of six pre-season games—and even the other one was a draw that ended in a victory in a penalty shootout. One setback, though, and he’s suddenly Louis van Fail.
Usually in such circumstances, you say the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. In this case, though, it lies far closer to the genius end of the scale.
He may have won only one Champions League trophy in his career, he may have won only two league titles in the past decade, but nobody has had such an influence over European football in the past quarter of a century, as noted in The Guardian.
One defeat doesn’t change that, not even a limp home defeat to Swansea. It takes time for any manager to impose his ideas, particularly on a squad as unbalanced and lacking in confidence as United’s, and even more especially for a manager like Van Gaal, whose method is so idiosyncratic.
He encourages players to see the pitch as a series of interlocking triangles, constantly encouraging them to over-man in the relevant zones—such intense positional play is something that has to be worked on.
Van Gaal, while moaning that the club’s pre-season trip to the USA would hamper preparations, himself said it would take "10 weeks" for players to get used to his way of playing, as Joe Bernstein of the Daily Mail reported.
At Ajax and AZ Alkmaar, Van Gaal didn’t win a title until his third season. Bayern Munich, in 2009-10, took two points from their first three games, 12 from their first eight and 17 from their first 11.
After a couple of months, the Dutchman seemed on the verge of being sacked. Bayern went on to win the double and reach the Champions League final that season.
A slow start was always probable. In an extended profile for decorrespondent.nl, Dutch journalist Michiel de Hoog wrote: "There is a fair chance that in the beginning of the season, Manchester United will drop points against unfavoured opposition.” In that, of course, he was absolutely right.
What is troubling for United is the context. Explaining that Van Gaal is more concerned by the process than the result, De Hoog continued: “After such a loss, Van Gaal will say that he thought his team played well or even brilliantly, even when he is the only person in the stadium who thinks so.”
But that wasn’t the case of Saturday. On Saturday, Van Gaal—having changed formation at half-time—admitted the squad needed an overhaul, as Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News reported.
He was quoted as saying:
I know in what positions we need better players.
But you have to buy only when the player can fulfil the way of playing that I ask. We have to wait and see. But we could have won today.
He was also quick to make clear that he’d known that since the US tour—this wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction based on the Swansea defeat—but still, it seemed telling that there was little attempt to defend the performance, no insistence that the journalist hadn’t understood the game. This was bad, and Van Gaal knew it.
Van Gaal remains a very fine coach, probably in the circumstances the best man for the job, but even geniuses need time.
In this case, he also needs investment. Whether you blame the Glazer ownership for a long-term lack of spending or United chief executive Ed Woodward for what’s looking increasingly like an inability to complete transfers, as Nooruddean Choudry suggested in the Daily Mirror, United need at least one more central defender and central midfielder, while Van Gaal has spoken openly of his desire for a winger, as Sky Sports reported.
It would be absurd to condemn Van Gaal after one game anyway, but he needs a squad of the requisite quality. He’s a genius, not a magician.