Louis van Gaal’s time at Manchester United has inevitably come to an end. In the heated aftermath, it is worth examining what his actual legacy will be.
Many fans will claim that it has been one of underachievement and tedious football. It would be hard to argue with this. However, if there is one thing van Gaal has done right, it is giving young players a chance to shine.
His preference for youth was made apparent with his marquee signing at the beginning of the season. A transfer fee of nearly £36m made Anthony Martial the most expensive teenager in the world. However, van Gaal openly said that Martial was not the ready-made package and was a signing who would hit his peak after the Dutchman left the club. In essence, Martial was part of a strand of long-term thinking.
Van Gaal’s youth policy was broader than buying in young talent. He also had a strategy of promoting a number of players from the academy. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has been given valuable experience this season. Furthermore, Jesse Lingard’s continued selection paid dividends when he scored the winner in the FA Cup final.
The biggest success story has undoubtedly been Marcus Rashford. Thrown in at the deep end in February, the 18-year-old has defied all expectations and even played himself into England’s squad for Euro 2016 with a stunning goalscoring debut against Australia which made him the youngest ever player to score on his national debut for England.
Given the climate of modern football, where results and immediate success are paramount, van Gaal’s youth policy goes against the grain. Indeed, it is a telling statistic that van Gaal’s Man United was responsible for 23% of all minutes played by teenagers in the Premier League this season.
This carries on a long and proud element of the United philosophy. Every match-day squad since 1937 has fielded at least one player who was groomed at the academy. It’s a record which has extended to well over 3,000 consecutive games. Think back to the Busby Babes, who were mostly comprised of men born a few miles from Old Trafford, or more recently the Class of 1992. Youth is integral to the Manchester DNA.
However, such localism is a rare sight in modern football. The new breed of owners and managers prefer instant success on the back of high-profile mercenary signings. Worryingly, Jose Mourinho exemplifies this attitude. His spells at Chelsea left several young talents wasting away in the reserves or on the bench.
High profile examples are Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. Both were left on the sidelines during their time at Stamford Bridge, and forced to move elsewhere. Now, they are amongst the best players in the League. Chelsea looks on as their ageing squad is in desperate need of rejuvenation. How dearly they wish they would have kept the services of the young pair.
It all points to a fundamental lack of long-term sustainable thinking, and the inability to spot potential. This is something Mourinho will have to change if he wants to be a genuine success at Old Trafford. Fans must hope that Mourinho follows van Gaal’s example, and helps nurture some of the phenomenal young players he will have at his disposal.