How important is a manager?

Manchester United has failed to ignite under Louis van Gaal, so far.-AP

It is all too embarrassingly obvious that the 3-5-2 formation which Louis Van Gaal had so profitably employed with Holland in the 2014 World Cup simply wasn’t working at Old Trafford. By Brian Glanville.

When the new English season began, two largely successful and highly respected managers were involved. And things began disastrously for both of them.

Louis Van Gaal had just taken his Dutch team to third place in the World Cup Finals in Brazil, thrashing the Brazilians 3-0.

Earlier in the tournament his team humiliated the Cup-holders Spain 5-1.

So to Manchester United, where the team had just endured an untypical and disastrous season, having for the first time for so many years failing to rank high enough in the Premiership to compete in the European Champions League.

The hopes were, and they certainly were not belied in United’s victorious pre-season tour of the United States, that Van Gaal with his somewhat autocratic but galvanising presence, would restore the fortunes of a club in such unexpected decline.

He could hardly, it was expected and at Old Trafford hoped, be as unsuccessful and unconvincing as his hapless predecessor, David Moyes, who had arrived after 10 successful years at Everton, where, despite lack of finance, he had kept the club in the top division, albeit without any notable achievements. But as we all know, things were due quickly to go wrong.

Though, United began the Premiership well enough, thrashing Swansea, results degenerated all too rapidly. Poor Moyes almost became a figure of fun. Though recently the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has come to the defence of Alex Fergusson, the manager so splendidly successful at United for so many years, the man who in fact had nominated Moyes, not everyone was as convinced. Did Fergusson, after all those distinguished years in charge, realise the team was in decline, whoever took it over? Did he nominate Moyes because he didn’t want a managerial star, such as Jose Mourinho, to succeed him and challenge his fame?

Whatever Ferguson’s motivation, Moyes proved sadly out of his depth. It was not essentially his fault that he failed to acquire the players he wanted — a manger after all can only suggest to the executive hierarchy — but when at the tail end of the summer transfer period he and the club acquired his ex-Everton attacker the big, powerful Belgian international Marouane Fellaini, it proved to be a disaster. In no time at all Moyes, who had been welcomed by the fans as ‘The Chosen One’, was the hapless object of derision. Doomed to a premature departure!

Such disaster was surely unthinkable under Van Gaal, who, unlike Moyes, has such a glittering record at major European clubs, where he had won major tournaments, with clubs like Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Yet the new English season began disastrously for United, with Swansea, so soundly beaten a year earlier with Moyes in charge, having the temerity to come to Old Trafford and to win on their undoubted merits. Nor would things get any better.

One defeat would follow another. And when in the superficiality of the Football League Cup, which has over its many mediocre years changed its name as often as a confident trickster, Van Gall put out a weakened team at humble MK Dons, of what is effectively the third division of English League football, United were thrashed 4-0.

It was all too embarrassingly obvious that the 3-5-2 formation which Van Gaal had so profitably employed with Holland in the 2014 World Cup simply wasn’t working at Old Trafford. According to one leading sports columnist it was the fault of inadequate players rather than Van Gaal himself that the system didn’t work. That “his players may have been better off in a conventional and familiar back four, but that should not hide the fact that they should have been able to play it and that in just about every other football nation, such a change could be brought about in pre-season without skipping a beat.” To which it might be argued that even the greatest football manager must cut his coat according to his cloth and that while it might be puzzling, even lamentable, that centre backs capped for England such as Smalling and Jones could be struggling with the system which can also look like 3-4-1-2. The stark fact is that it hasn’t been working. And that when just before the international break, United could only struggle to a goalless draw against a Burnley team which cost mere peanuts by contrast with their own. United still looked ill at ease and still without a victory to their name. Even with the colossally expensive Argentine star attacker Angel Di Maria making his League debut; and with Holland’s fine young defender Danny Blind also now in the roster. Plus Falcao: so costly and only on loan.

Van Gaal asserts he has no intention of changing his tactics. Scottish international midfielder Darren Fletcher was humble enough, at Burnley. “As players learning a new system and developing new ideas,” he said, “you know it’s going to make you a better player in the long term, without a doubt. It’s training, videos, constant learning, looking over every match.” But time waits for no one, let alone in football, and compare and contrast what happened the same day at QPR, who, in a match I saw, gained their first win of the season against Sunderland, with Harry Redknapp, their hugely experienced manager, an Englishman of course, abandoned a three-man back formation not liked by his players for a four in line defence, with immediate reward.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, under the renowned aegis of Felix Magath, once scorer of an European Cup winning goal for Hamburg, later manager of Bayern Munich and a string of other top Bundesliga clubs, failed for a fifth successive time to win a Championship game, following their relegation last season. But at least, after four initial League defeats, they managed to draw 1-1 with Cardiff City, who were relegated with them.

Magath continue to blow his own trumpet loudly. “I’m the right man, the only man,” he boasts. “I’m not a special one, I’m the only one.” You couldn’t blame him for Fulham’s relegation, he arrived so late, but throwing out so many experienced players and replacing them largely with youngsters, who however gifted were bound to find life hard in the physically demanding Championship.

A few days earlier in a joint newspaper interview with new owner Shahid Khan, Magath elected to blame the previous owner Mohamed Fayed, who, whatever his controversial career, had successfully poured millions into Fulham, for a failed transfer policy. But under Fayed Fulham stayed afloat. Nor was it he, last season, who paid USD18 million for the crippled Greek striker Mitroglou, since departed.