There was a time when Louis van Gaal used to marvel at Manchester United supporters. His team were losing and struggling to score. They were underachieving in the league. They were received rapturously.
“I have never had the experience that when you lose or draw at home the fans are still applauding for you, showing their belief in you,” he said in the summer. “Never. In Barcelona, the white handkerchiefs. In Bayern [Munich], whistles. In Amsterdam, Ajax, they are shouting. Here, they are applauding – stand up and applaud. Unbelievable.”
They are not applauding any more. Old Trafford had never been more hostile towards Van Gaal than it was on Saturday. He was booed.
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The United faithful were supportive when he only took 13 points from his first 10 games in charge. Now he has taken 10 from the last 10. After 18 months of underwhelming football and £285 million (Dh149.1m) of expenditure, perceptions have changed, not least Van Gaal’s.
Talk of a three-year “process” has faded, along with mentions of his infamous “philosophy”, something the Dutchman has never properly defined but which stands, to United supporters, as shorthand for plodding football, sideways passing, picking players out of position and a general dullness.
“They have, or they had, great expectations of me, and I cannot fulfil them,” he said on Saturday, an hour or so after Southampton condemned his side to defeat. His honesty was commendable, his defeatism remarkable. Van Gaal’s deep wells of self-belief appeared empty.
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There is something hubristic about the humbling of an arrogant man and Van Gaal, for much of his career, has deemed it a compliment to be branded arrogant.
He has pursued his path regardless of whatever others thought, convinced it was the right way. But now? It is hard to say what he believes he is trying to achieve.
Van Gaal talks of trying to “disorganise the organisation” in rival defences, but slow starts and ponderous passing help them be organised. It is no coincidence his United have failed to score in their last 11 first halves at home.
They allow opponents to settle into a game. He talks about wanting balance with quick wingers, yet he sold Angel Di Maria, leaves Memphis Depay on the bench and inhibits his remaining creative players with his tactics.
He has constructed a side that the United public do not relate to, because they are almost unprecedented. There have been defensive teams in England before, but they have usually played without the ball, focusing on set pieces or the counter-attack. It is rare a side has had so much of the ball and achieved so little with it.
Van Gaal’s defence has long lain with his record. He has cited his past. He won league titles in each of the Netherlands, Spain and Germany. Indeed, he lifted silverware in his first season at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern. Yet history is not repeating itself.
United finished 17 points behind Chelsea last season. They are 10 adrift of Leicester City now. They have been knocked out of the Uefa Champions League and are struggling to qualify for next season’s competition.
The notion that United will be better off after three years of Van Gaal is increasingly ridiculous. They may have improved in one, but they have regressed in the second. If the initial difference the Dutchman noticed with his former clubs came in the stands, now it is more apparent in the boardroom.
Barcelona or Bayern would have already sacked him. Still more trigger-happy clubs, like Chelsea or Real Madrid, would have done so earlier again.
Meanwhile, United languish in limbo. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s loyalty is admirable but his judgment is more questionable. The sense that Van Gaal could inspire a turnaround was quashed on Saturday.
Beating Liverpool, normally a crowd-pleasing move, bought him about 37 minutes' grace with the supporters. Then the jeers began. Their relationship has gone beyond the point of no return. The only way for Van Gaal to win back their respect would be to walk away. That would entail admitting he has failed, but it feels as though Van Gaal is reaching that conclusion. Others already have.
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