Manchester United and Southampton managers do not have much in common but they share a need for more players
On the list of great managerial feuds it is maybe not quite up there with Ferguson-Wenger or Mourinho-Guardiola but it is still fair to say there have been times when the relationship between Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman has been lukewarm at best.
Koeman was Van Gaal’s assistant at Barcelona, where their wives, Bartina and Truus respectively, became best friends. Yet the two men rubbed up one another like sandpaper when Van Gaal went back to Ajax as their technical director. Koeman was the head coach and objected to the way Van Gaal would put a chair by the side of the training pitch, plonk himself down and observe every session, arms folded, in the manner of someone monitoring a sixth-form exam.
More than once, Koeman went to the chairman to complain about Van Gaal’s intrusiveness. Yet Van Gaal, in his authorised biography, explains that he had to be that way because his colleague – “that boy” – was weak and needed career advice on the basis, deliciously put, that “what the farmer doesn’t know he won’t eat”.
Another passage in Louis van Gaal – Biografie & Visie tells the story of Van Gaal intervening in a feud between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rafael van der Vaart and then selling the Swede against Koeman’s wishes. “The real problem at Ajax was Ronald Koeman no longer had control over the group,” Van Gaal says. “In principle, Koeman should have solved that, but he couldn’t.”
The book came out in 2009 and badly undermined Koeman bearing in mind he had just replaced Van Gaal as manager of AZ Alkmaar. Van Gaal claims Koeman was third choice behind Co Adriaanse and Dick Advocaat and noticeably fails to mention his rival’s successes at Ajax. Koeman’s response came three years later when Van Gaal took over as manager of the Dutch national team for the second time. It was, he said, a “surprising” appointment explained only by the number of managers who did not want it, including himself. “He was sixth choice, I believe. Though please add ‘joke’ to that, otherwise it will be completely pulled out of context.”
On Sunday, when Southampton begin their season at Liverpool, Koeman will take his first step towards trying to establish himself as one of the few managers from the country of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Ernst Happel and Leo Beenhakker to make a decent fist of working in England. Van Gaal’s first step came in the form of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City and, however demoralising it was as a first match, it has not taken long in his company to understand that he is absolutely convinced he will get it right. Or that this is the man, in his early days at Bayern Munich, who used to march around the dressing room, according to the German press, declaring: “I am like God! I never get ill and I am always right.”
Van Gaal was three questions into Friday’s press conference before he reminded his audience not to try to catch him out – “I am smart” – and back in Holland he was once asked if he had ever read the book Ik Heb Altijd Gelijk (I Am Always Right), by the Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans. “No,” he said. “But I would never say that myself. I am usually right.” The new manager at Old Trafford, much like his friend José Mourinho, brings to mind the observation about Benjamin Disraeli: he is a self-made man who appears to worship his creator.
Yet he and Koeman could do with some help. Van Gaal – unless he does actually believe he is like God – ought to know he is not going to get very far with the current United squad and Southampton, who should essentially be considered a success story, have spent far too much of the summer as a slow-down area for the sport’s rubberneckers. The money men at Southampton will be congratulating themselves on a fine job bearing in mind the profit generated from selling Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren. All the same, it has made difficult viewing. Koeman may need all that famous Dutch self-belief when the summer has brought so much insecurity to the club’s supporters.
Van Gaal has at least restored some of the old positivity to his new workplace. He is a giant bear of a man – straight-backed, holding eye contact, frequently giving the impression that the most innocuous question might result in an invitation outside, and Old Trafford needed someone with that supreme self-confidence after the ordeals of the previous year. But they also need some better players and this is the time when their chief executive, Ed Woodward, really has to deliver, with a fortnight before another transfer window bangs shut.
The defeat to Swansea merely highlighted what they should already have known, namely that there is considerable work to be done. Unless they think it normal for a club of their stature to start the season with two fit senior defenders. Some background: United did spend a long time looking at Eliaquim Mangala, Manchester City’s new signing, but concluded that £32m, with hefty agent fees on top, was too much for a centre-half one of the people involved in the process has described (without it necessarily meaning to sound like an insult) as a “cross between Joseph Yobo and Jean‑Alain Boumsong”.
They also believed Thomas Vermaelen was overpriced. That’s all fine. Every club works to a budget and nobody wants to feel they have had the rough end of the deal. Yet it is still slightly bewildering that United have gone into the new season, this summer of all summers, with fewer incoming players than any other top-division club. Toni Kroos is a good example. Last November, David Moyes went to Wembley to watch England play Germany. In February, the United manager was in London again to see Arsenal against Bayern Munich. Kroos was the outstanding player both times and Moyes had seen enough. By March, Woodward thought he had the deal in place. Then Moyes was sacked, the transfer unravelled and Kroos eventually pitched up at Real Madrid. What a mistake that was: Kroos finished the season with the best passing statistics in the Champions League and a World Cup winner’s medal; he would have been an ideal wearer of United’s colours.
The pursuit of Cesc Fábregas and Paul Pogba was also dropped after the change of manager. Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera arrived in June but that, plainly, is not enough when United need some stardust in central midfield, some better wide players and, above all, at least two new defenders bearing in mind Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Alexander Büttner have left.
Too many good players out, not enough in – it is not a particularly helpful combination, as Van Gaal’s old adversary from Holland appeared to be suggesting with that dry line of wit on Twitter recently. “Ready for training!” Koeman announced, showing a picture of their practice ground, and not a single footballer in sight. Touché.
At least Koeman’s employers have recognised the problem and started bringing in some new faces. Van Gaal’s must do the same, no matter how much faith they have in their new manager. Van Gaal loves to improve players but he has already said they are not good enough and, as he likes to point out, he is usually right. There is also an old Dutch saying that both he and Koeman will be aware of: boontje komt om zijn loontje. The little bean comes to the right people. Or, in simpler terms, you get what you deserve.
Yaya Touré has been such a supreme player for Manchester City it is a pity he has created the situation this summer whereby most people have probably been left with a far greater opinion of him as a footballer than their opinion of him as a man.
That, unfortunately, was his own doing after manufacturing a falling-out with his club for not making enough fuss about his birthday and employing an agent, the atrocious Dimitri Seluk, to do the talking who was perfect for the role, bar one fatal defect: everything he said made his client look even worse.
Touré came across as the worst form of prima donna and I suspect I am not alone in thinking that all that guff about not getting a nice enough cake or a suitable present (“when it was Roberto Carlos’s birthday, the president of Anzhi gave him a Bugatti,” was one of Seluk’s more memorable quotes) was a strategy to announce his availability to potential buyers or get a juicy new contract out of the club.
The next part was even more troubling because Touré’s accusation that City did not let him have time off to spend with his brother, Ibrahim, who was dying of cancer, would be a remarkable indictment on the champions if it were true. City, however, deny his version of events and can reel off many examples when they have granted players and staff compassionate leave. If they are lying, then shame on them, but they make a pretty strong case. Alternatively, if Touré was using the death of his brother without any real substance, it really is difficult to find the words to justify that level of thinking.
He now says he wants us to forget all about it and has set about trying to butter up City’s fans with a carefully stage-managed interview to the club’s official media. But contrast his behaviour with James Milner, who started the summer wanting a transfer, frustrated by his lack of matches, and never lost sight of the fact he should go about it the right way.
Milner never got that move because Arsenal and Liverpool, the clubs who wanted him, could not get close to matching his current salary, so he is preparing for another season as a fringe player, especially now Fernando and Frank Lampard have arrived. There will be no hissy fits. He will not make a fuss. Nobody at City should worry whether he prefers Smarties or Jelly Tots on his birthday cake.
As for the rent-a-quote Seluk, no doubt we will be hearing from him again towards the end of the season, especially now Vincent Kompany, Sergio Agüero and David Silva have been awarded new contracts(Edin Dzeko and Joe Hart could followsoon). It has become an annual part of the football calendar and, by now, we all know the motives.
The past week should not pass without praise for the Football Supporters’ Federation and other groups such as Spirit of Shankly for arranging the “Affordable Football for All” march through central London on Thursday. Ticket prices have been too high for too long so let’s hope these organisations keep the volume high when we probably all know people who have grown up shaping their lives around their weekend fix but are now being forced away.
Christian Seifert, the chief executive of the Bundesliga, was not exaggerating when he said there would be “a huge shit-storm” if Germany’s top clubs started charging as much as Premier League sides. Schalke discovered that in 2010 when they had they temerity to hike prices for a game against Borussia Dortmund from €14.30 to €22. Around 1,500 Dortmund fans boycotted the match under the banner of “Kein Zwanni für nen stehe”. Or “20 Euros for standing? No way”.
In England, there is generally more an accept-and-expect culture and, unfortunately, we are already well beyond the point of decency when, to cite one example, West Ham fans have just been charged up to £72 to watch their team at Spurs. Likewise, you may remember the fuss among Manchester City supporters early last year about the £62 entrance fee for the away end at Arsenal. True to form, Arsenal have done something about it. It will now cost £65.