From dramatic dives to calling Chris Smalling Mike, Louis Van Gaal and his time at Manchester United will certainly live long in the memory, but it simply wasn’t to be for ‘Louis Van Gaal’s army’ as their general failed to keep his job, leading to the question of just what went wrong? 

The experienced Dutchman came into the job at Old Trafford near the end of his management prime; he had just taken Holland to a third-place finish in the World Cup and seemed as tactically astute as ever. So, when he was announced as the next man to attempt the impossible task of replacing Sir Alex Ferguson, United fans were rightfully excited. Van Gaal brought with him some much-needed experience and a much-needed winning mentality; something that Old Trafford had not seen for a while. 

To be exact, Van Gaal brought with him the experience of winning a grand total of 19 trophies. If I was a betting man, I would have happily placed my money on Van Gaal to finally steer the sinking ship of United towards the safety of success. He had all the experience to guide United back to trophies, so what went wrong? 

Not the best start 

After gaining access to United’s chequebook, Van Gaal brought in three players of his choice, totalling a fee of £100million. Di Maria swapped Madrid for Manchester – a decision he has since regretted- for a record fee of £67million. The former Madrid man joined Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind to complete the summer’s transfer plans. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction for United. They had recruited a serial winner on and off the pitch with Louis van Gaal and Angel Di Maria. But, six years later, and none of the original three can be seen wearing the red of United. At the time, however, many expected a good first season and a smashing of Swansea City on the opening day.

Swansea were travelling in hope of a win at Old Trafford for the first time ever; United were looking to open a new era with a resounding victory. United hadn’t lost on the opening home game of the season since 1972, making a win as likely as ever. But, with the scores level courtesy of goals from Ki Sung-Yeung and Wayne Rooney, Swansea struck to take the lead. Gylfi Sigurdson stepped up with just 18 minutes left on the clock to give his side an underdog victory. 

Many believed Van Gaal could break records at Old Trafford. And, in fairness to the Dutchman, he did exactly that in his first game in charge. Van Gaal’s first game ended a 42-year wait for an opening day home defeat and gave Swansea their first-ever win at Old Trafford. Not even Sir Alex could break that record!

Transfer mistakes

United then went on to endure a winless August despite record signing, Di Maria making his debut in the last game of the month. The first win finally came at the start of September with a 4-0 smashing of QPR; a game that saw Di Maria score his first goal for the club. The win would have signalled a collective sigh of relief for all those involved who could finally begin the Van Gaal era. Just a week later, however, and United were back to their worst under the Dutchman; The Red Devils went from enjoying a comfortable 2-0 lead over Leicester to ending the game as 5-3 losers. The fact is, they were simply not good enough at the back.

Perhaps Van Gaal’s biggest mistake of them all came in his first few months in charge when he opted to blow the budget on Di Maria instead of a star defender. In making that decision, he went completely against the saying that won Sir Alex so many titles: “Attack wins you games but defence wins you titles.”

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The policy makes even more sense when considering the damage done by the signings of Van Gaal. Radamel Falcao, a prolific goalscorer in Spain, was on just two goals by the time January came around. Di Maria ended the season with just 16 goal involvements despite costing a record fee. Both had been a waste of money; money that could have been spent on solidifying the back four. 

Some impressive victories along the way

It wasn’t all bad that season, however, and United picked up some impressive wins. Louis Van Gaal’s army stormed past all of Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City in the same season they failed to beat Swansea City. Football lacks logic sometimes, doesn’t it? United prevailed over the top sides but suffered defeat to those nearer the bottom in true Robin Hood fashion. And, in the end, it helped them to secure a top-four finish; their first since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. Both Giggs and Moyes had failed to take United back to Europe. Van Gaal did it in his first season. So, for now, the Dutchman’s job was safe and another season was to be had under the leadership of Van Gaal.

He had taken United from the misery of seventh place to back amongst the big time in the space of a year; further improvement was expected in his second season in charge. 

The second season

Once again Van Gaal was given the financial freedom to sign the players needed for a targeted title surge. This time, the Dutchman brought in a total of six players for a total fee of around £140million. Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin joined forces with a United squad looking to return to their title-winning ways. And with a mix of youth and experience at Van Gaal’s disposal, they were certainly among the favourites. 

The season got off to a strong start with six wins out of the first 10 games. United looked a formidable title challenger and back to their best. They overcame the likes of Spurs and Southampton before famously beating Liverpool. The game against the Reds will forever be known as the day Anthony Martial announced himself to the Premier League. The Frenchman seemed to take on the entire Liverpool defence before slotting home to secure a 3-1 victory. The goal signalled a famous piece of commentary from Martin Tyler who bellowed, “welcome to Manchester United, Anthony Martial”. The Frenchman became an instant fan favourite and is one of the only players to have survived the reign of Van Gaal.

By November, things were still, surprisingly, going to plan in the Premier League; United had just the two losses to their name and were on course for at least a top-four finish. When it came to the Champions League, however, they didn’t enjoy the same luck. They finished third in the group and exited to the Europa League. Things didn’t get much better there, either, as they crashed out to Liverpool in the round of 16. All in all, it wasn’t exactly the return to Europe they had previously hoped for. 

But, shifting the focus back to the league, United were still well on course for another crack at the Champions League the following season. The Red Devils sat as high as third and were well on their way to hit crucial targets. Louis Van Gaal’s appointment seemed an act of genius by Manchester United at that point. Suddenly, in a season and a half, United had gone from 7th to the top three, showing just how quickly things can change in football. Unfortunately for United, though, the saying goes both ways. A team can endure a sudden rise to the top but, at the same time, all it takes is a few bad results for that same team to plummet once again. And this is exactly what happened in a disastrous December for United.

A December disaster

Van Gaal’s army was suddenly forced to retreat in their pursuit of top four after going six games without a victory. United suffered three losses in a row to Bournemouth, Norwich City and Stoke City. The defeats and the three draws that followed did unsalvageable damage to their season; they went from third to sixth in the space of a month. By the end of the season, Van Gaal’s army had fallen apart as they totalled eight defeats and finished outside of the top four. 

The chance to bow out with glory

So, with the Premier League concluding with failure and a run in Europe coming to an early halt, Manchester United’s season was all but over with one very important game left to play: the FA Cup final. Win and United’s season doesn’t look as disastrous. Lose and the season is remembered as yet another campaign of decline.

The pressure was on – pressure that United hadn’t dealt with well all season – and this showed. Defeating Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace side is an easy task on paper – especially for a side as heavily invested in as United’s. But anything can happen in a final, especially in the FA Cup.

By the second half, the unexpected had happened as Alan Pardew broke into a dad-like dance in celebration of Jason Puncheon’s opening goal. United had endured some bad moments but losing to a Palace side, led by a dancing Pardew at Wembley, would top the lot. At this point, Louis Van Gaal’s reputation was on the line. 

Football, as mentioned before, can change at any moment. A man can go from doing a joyful dance – if you can call it that – to hanging his head in shame. And as the clock hit the 81st minute, a plucky little Spaniard saved United’s backside once again. The goal from Mata turned Pardew’s smile and slick moves into a folded arm frown and took the game into extra time. I, for one, was glad to see Pardew revert back to the folded arms position after paying witness to some strange shapes being thrown.

It was in extra time that United proved to be the better side. They took the lead through Jessie Lingard with 10 minutes to go. Ironically, just five minutes earlier, it was Chris Smalling who almost prevented the cup win after receiving a red card. United – luckily for Mike – were not affected by the dismissal and went onto win their 12th FA Cup and Louis Van Gaal’s first trophy in English football.

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A harsh dismissal 

With a fifth-place finish and a trophy to his name, people would have been forgiven for stating the unfair nature of Louis Van Gaal’s sacking. He had proven his ability to win trophies, secure a top-four placement – albeit in the previous season – and clearly had something good going at Old Trafford. Youngsters were progressing with perhaps one more year needed under Van Gaal to blossom into world-class players. The truth is, United had progressed and were heading in the right direction under the Dutchman. The sacking was an extremely harsh one when considering things. 

Van Gaal has every right to shift at least some of the blame onto those that let him down. Di Maria, Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin proved to be big letdowns after high expectations. No matter what, however, Van Gaal’s tenure will always be remembered. His vibrant character shined through alongside his nature to forget certain names and tactical experience against the very best.