Louis van Gaal sensing pressure at Man United as fans have had enough
A David de Gea goal kick away from Old Trafford's east stand, in front of the huge buildings of the Liverpool Warehousing Company, stand two 18-metre-high chain sculptures with giant hooks. Standing on the edge of the Trafford industrial park, the sculpture is a nod to the area's industrial heritage. The slate-grey hooks sit near the Manchester Ship Canal, the old Salford docks and a red, white and black bridge that once swung to let passing ships through. Manchester was once the busiest inland port in Europe.
Manchester is a hard city with deep roots in industry. Get to Old Trafford early on a Saturday and you'll see tourists from around the world getting their photos taken by the statutes of former legends. Arrive half an hour before kickoff and you'll still see tens of thousands of local people streaming across bridges spanning canals and railway lines, flocking to the stadium to support their team. They want to be entertained. They want going to the match to be the highlight of the week, the game as the pinnacle.
Louis van Gaal has struggled to grasp that attitude. Now 71 competitive games on from his appointment in July 2014, he hasn't come close to reaching the expected heights. Fans have long since gotten bored of his football and want him out. They've had enough. Lacking confidence, the team have slumped in the last month, but the grumbles have been building throughout 2015.
Complaints have intensified after the team failed to win any of their last six games and was eliminated from the Champions League, but while results matter greatly, the performances and lack of goals are what has damaged Van Gaal's appeal.
On Saturday, a fan who sits the East Stand told me that he hasn't seen a goal at his end of Old Trafford since September. Old Trafford has seen only 13 this season in the league, the lowest of all 20 grounds. United have scored 10 in eight games, five less than Newcastle United in 17th place.
Before Saturday's game against a Norwich City side that had won once in 11 outings, there were more spare tickets floating around before the game than there have been at any league match I can recall this century. Demand is slipping, and crucially -- especially in the eyes of the accountants and bankers who run the club -- the bottom line will start to suffer. If the modern hallmark of Manchester United becomes possession-heavy, penetration-free football, then it will be less attractive to the markets the club courts.
Until a month ago, the team were hard to watch and hard to beat. Now they're just hard to watch, and Van Gaal will be fortunate to still be in charge of the club at the start of 2016. There are two more games this year, at Stoke on Dec. 26 and home to Chelsea on Dec. 28.
United need a boss who's loaded with self-assured arrogance and a strong vision, who won't be swallowed up by the size of the world's best-supported football club. Van Gaal has those qualities, but the way he's imprinted his negative philosophy onto a football club renowned for attacking football has caused consternation from the beginning. He's been given money and time; even on Saturday, pockets of fans were valiantly singing his name. The Dutchman appreciates that support greatly, but while the fans are reluctant to turn on their own inside Old Trafford, they've had enough.
Van Gaal brings weariness, routine and drudgery -- everything from which football was supposed to be an escape. He buys stars but doesn't let them shine. He bravely promotes youngsters but is taking them from an under-resourced youth system that has slipped behind its rivals. It doesn't have the quality nor the numbers of youngsters it needs to compete. Though that's not Van Gaal's fault -- nor is the horrendous number of injuries under his tenure -- fans see no sign of improvement.
With Carlo Ancelotti going to Bayern Munich and United thinking that Pep Guardiola is going to City, fans want Jose Mourinho. He's a proven winner (as Van Gaal was) who knows English football well and is currently benefitting from a case of the grass appearing greener. Assistant manager Ryan Giggs is a club legend, and those who know him well think he'll be a very good manager. It's a wonderful idea loaded with sentiment. Giggs replacing Van Gaal after three years is appealing to fans, but Van Gaal has failed him, his players and the fans.
Giggs wanted to be vocal on the sidelines. He knows how the people in the stands think because he grew up in the same streets and used to take the bus home from where the hook sculptures stand. Instead, Van Gaal wants his coaches to remain calm and let the players find solutions for themselves.
Van Gaal has done his best and nobody can doubt his work ethic, intentions or professional demeanour -- though unused goalkeeper Victor Valdes might want to. If he goes, he deserves to go with dignity. United would be loath to repeat the error of the last sacking, when journalists knew of David Moyes' departure before Moyes himself, but the main issue is kickstarting a faltering team at a club that seems unsure of its own identity.
United have thrown money at the problem of a football team that doesn't win enough, score enough or entertain enough, and it hasn't worked. They can't dip into a pool of emerging talent because it has been allowed to run dry. There are no quick fixes, though there remain many excellent footballers at the club, players who feel that their creativity has been stifled. Could Mourinho, a man known for methodology and obsessing over opponents like his old boss Van Gaal, get more out of them?
There's money to spend for whoever is in charge in the January transfer window, but even new signings will receive a diminished welcome from fans thanks to the failings of so many who have arrived at Old Trafford after Sir Alex Ferguson.
United remain immensely popular, even when they fail, but the free fall must be stopped. Though he's not responsible for all of their problems, the buck currently stops with the first-team manager. And he knows his job is in grave danger.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.