LVG’s big-spender football blues
Manchester United’s pitiful loss to Leicester proves that smash-and-grab management isn't all it's cracked up to be.
What does £150million buy you? If you’re Manchester United, a 5-3 loss to Leicester City. Louis van Gaal’s summer of panic-buying, a stark contrast to the measured spending of Sir Alex Ferguson, reflects top-flight football’s new culture of smash, grab, buy and hope for results. The only problem is Mr van Gaal isn’t quite doing it right.
In 2003, a dashing Russian businessman strolled into west London and bought Chelsea Football club for £140million. Ever since Roman Abramovich’s coup, English football has increasingly been about one thing – the moola. Chelsea immediately adopted an aggressive transfer policy and bought, rather than fought, their way to the Premier League title in 2005. Four years later, Manchester City’s new Arab owner, Sheikh Mansour, followed the Abramovich blueprint. Two consecutive summer-spending sprees of £128million and £75million respectively preceded City’s first ever league title in 2012.
Over the last few years, watching Chelsea and City’s transfer exploits has felt like watching a crazed eight-year-old take command of his favourite team on Football Manager. Money isn’t an issue. Economics goes out of the window in pursuit of the world’s most illustrious players. While the boys in blue looked to sculpt footballing dream teams, the old guard – Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson – proudly stuck to their guns. They were the last bastions of sensible spending, only opting to break the bank on rare occasions. Watching Ferguson and Wenger attempt to avoid the spending bug was like watching two men trying to keep a hold of an umbrella in gale-force winds – futile.
To keep up with Europe’s elite, buying the world’s best players for astronomical transfer fees has become essential. At the highest level of the game, unveiling a £50million signing is as commonplace as a pre-match burger. Since Ferguson retired in 2013, Wenger has decided to loosen up the Emirates Stadium purse strings, signing the likes of Mesut Ozil for £42.5million and Alexis Sanchez for £32million. When even Wenger, the football-manager equivalent of a spendthrift, is beginning to splash the cash, it is clear the new creed among the Premier League’s biggest sides is this: spend big and expect instant results.
Louis van Gaal, Manchester United’s newly appointed manager and the man tasked with tidying up David Moyes’ mess, has followed the moneybags doctrine to a tee. The only problem is, his new-look Red Devils are not getting those instant results we all expected. Instead, van Gaal’s attempts to radically reshape a side who slumped to a seventh-place Premier League finish last season have seen him dig into the Glazer family’s pockets and throw money around in a manner the Old Trafford faithful have never seen before. Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao are all recent arrivals at Old Trafford. On paper at least, this is a list of purchases that would leave any fan grinning from ear to ear, and that eight-year-old playing Football Manager very proud indeed.
A 4-0 hammering of Queens Park Rangers immediately followed the closure of the transfer window. Things looked rosy for Van Gaal. He had assembled a dream team of sorts. The consensus among hardcore, keyboard-hugging, constantly tweeting United fans was that the Dutchman had concocted a team capable of bringing the Premier League title back to Old Trafford.
Little over a week later, those rose-tinted glasses were shattered. Last Sunday, a starting line-up boasting five of Van Gaal’s summer acquisitions, ironically dubbed the ‘gaalacticos’, succumbed to Leicester City. They squandered a 3-1 lead, conceding four goals in 21 minutes before going on to lose 5-3. Limp, with no stomach for the fight and a porous defence, United were decidedly outworked by a side whose record signing, Leonardo Ulloa, cost a paltry £8million. You could have bought six of him for one Angel Di Maria, Van Gaal’s biggest summer signing.
The problem here seems obvious. While spending millions, Van Gaal has overlooked the Reds’ biggest frailty: a shambolic defence with no leaders. This Sunday’s back four? Evans, Blackett, Rojo and Rafael. Not quite the same as a backline consisting of the likes of Evra, Ferdinand and Vidic. It may be too early to tell, but Van Gaal’s attempt at replicating the Premier League victory formula of smash, grab and buy looks like it’s failing. If so, who’s to say United won’t get rid of Van Gaal and do it all over again? One thing is for sure: Ferguson is gone and Manchester United has joined the legion of spenders.
Duleep Allirajah is away.