Man United manager Louis van Gaal doing it his way in transfer market
Paul McNamara examines Manchester United's approach to this summer's transfer market after last year's flurry of signings
Appointed as manager at Manchester United in May last year, Louis van Gaal had the small matter of a World Cup finals tournament to navigate before he could fully turn his attentions to matters at Old Trafford.
Finally taking up his club duties in the middle of July, following his guiding of Holland to third place in Brazil, Van Gaal had only a month to resuscitate and bolster a squad that had finished the preceding season in turmoil; their defence of the Premier League crown won in 2013 petering out into a seventh-placed finish under the short-lived reign of David Moyes.
With time short, Van Gaal took a pragmatic view to his work in the market. While away with his country, the Dutchman waved through deals for Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, content to take on two players not entirely of his choosing, but certain to improve the quality in a suddenly fragile looking United contingent.
When it was his turn to pinpoint targets, Van Gaal played it relatively safe, albeit at some expense.
A prevailing theme through the 63 year-old’s career has been his fondness for acquiring players from his homeland. Indeed, during his first spell in charge at Barcelona between 1997 and 2000, the manager required two La Liga titles to mollify supporters critical of the Dutch enclave that he had forged in Catalonia.
Three of his compatriots were brought into the Nou Camp in Van Gaal’s first year in charge, with another five Dutchmen linking up with Barca before the manager eventually departed.
Perhaps scarred by a less than prosperous second-coming with the Spanish giants in 2002, when none of his major purchases – Juan Roman Riquelme, Gaizka Mendieta and Robert Enke – were men of Holland, Van Gaal didn’t hesitate to go Dutch again when he took the Bayern Munich hot-seat in 2009. It cost roughly £17.5m to lure Arjen Robben to the Allianz Arena from Real Madrid, an investment that is still reaping dividends today.
Given his history, then, allied to the fact that he was coming to Old Trafford straight off the back of managing his country it was inevitable that Van Gaal would dip into the ranks of his ex-international charges early in his new job. That he opted to bring in Daley Blind, rather than go for one of his more enterprising Dutch performers, was perhaps indicative of Van Gaal recognising a need to add a reliable, functional component, to what was then a disjointed unit.
For stardust, the game-changers who might add sparkle, zest and punch to an uninspiring United side, the ex-Ajax boss plumped for Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria. These were two Galacticos of the world game, designed to re-engage the Old Trafford crowd with a team that had become unrecognisable to them during Moyes’s ten month tenure.
Unusually, however, for a manager famed for his ‘philosophy’ and methodical approach, scant thought appeared to have been given to how these two luminaries would fit into the plan that Van Gaal was hurriedly attempting to mould in the north-west. Even so, not many judges would have foreseen the extent to which the previously prolific Falcao would struggle to acclimatise to life with the 13-time Premier League champions. Likewise Di Maria, who, after a promising start at the club, cut a disaffected figure on his later, infrequent outings in United colours.
12 months later and Falcao is embarking on a loan period with Chelsea. Argentinian international Di Maria, meanwhile, is the subject of almost daily speculation regarding a potential move away from England. The former Real Madrid winger’s countryman Marcos Rojo has been more of a hit with the Red Devils, without yet convincing that he has the tools to cement a spot in a side challenging for major honours. Nevertheless, Van Gaal’s decision to buy the versatile Rojo in the embryonic stage of last season can, in hindsight, be interpreted as the first hint that the Dutchman wasn’t totally sold on Shaw’s talents.
Now, with the benefit of having accumulated first-hand knowledge of his players and the Premier League, where he had never worked before taking on his current assignment, there is a sense that Van Gaal has entered this transfer window with a far clearer mind than was the case 12 months ago.
The gaping hole that has existed in United’s midfield for an inexplicably lengthy period has been filled in one fell swoop with this month’s purchases of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, both sound buys that have this meticulous manager’s stamp all over them.
In similar vein, Van Gaal responded to his team’s glaring need for a right back in straightforward fashion. This time around, the prey wasn’t an extravagantly priced English rookie like Shaw. Nor was it a jack-of-all-defensive-trades in the style of Rojo.
Matteo Darmian is an authentic full-back and first-choice in the position for Italy, a country renowned for breeding high-calibre defenders. The efficient, no-nonsense manner in which the bargain £12.4m deal was wrapped up for the Torino player had all the hallmarks of the man making the purchase.
It is Van Gaal’s first signing of this summer, though, that illustrates the degree to which the Dutchman has grown into his United skin. Plundering his national team’s talent pool, once more, the manager wasn’t after a prosaic operator a la Blind. The object of the manager’s desires this time was the flying attacker Memphis Depay, a raw but exhilarating 21-year-old, who Van Gaal was prepared to invest his faith in to the tune of £25m.
Add in the revelation this week that the Old Trafford outfit have steadfastly refused to bow to Real Madrid’s heavy-handed pursuit of David De Gea, instead demanding Sergio Ramos’s services in return, in order to facilitate any move for their goalkeeper, and the impression grows that Van Gaal is a man going about his business with all the clarity missing from the tentative opening phase of his stewardship.
If last year’s hit-and-miss transfer policy was reflected by United’s subsequent up-and-down campaign, then what lies ahead following a more coherent summer’s trading, altogether?