Leaked over the weekend, the news that Pep Guardiola is unlikely to be Manchester United manager this time next year felt vaguely inevitable.
It seemed a little more like the Spaniard’s decision than the club’s, and came fresh with two opposing reactions, each entirely legitimate.
On the City side of Manchester there was quiet rejoicing, because Pep, one could now extrapolate, will probably be joining City instead and he’s kind of good at his job. On the United side there was something more like a thousand silent head-in-hands gestures, followed by a collective weeping episode, because the news likely means that Louis Van Gaal will be staying on at United for the remaining 18 months of his contract. And he is considered slightly less good at his job.
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The negative end of those two reactions will not have occurred simply because Guardiola happens to be a good manager that United has missed out on. Neither is it down to the widely agreed upon notion that Guardiola is currently a better manager than Van Gaal. Rather, it’s got to be this: United fans are, like everyone else, more than a little bored of the football their team is playing under its current manager.
In the early days Van Gaal’s footballing “philosophy” was mysterious. More recently the popular joke goes like this: it turns out the philosophy is nihilism. The Dutchman’s team has scored just three goals in its last six home games, every added pass seems only to make it less likely to score, and the man himself has begun rambling about being “unlucky.”
But bad luck just doesn’t tend to come in such large batches, does it? And as such United fans aren’t being petulant by being unhappy at the notion of Van Gaal staying on; they’re being pretty much correct. No one wants to watch this stuff.
In quashing the Guardiola-talk (he’s due to move away from Bayern Munich this summer, just not to United) and apparently briefing that Van Gaal will stay on short of something “dramatic” happening, United has essentially set off that rarest of things in football: a war of attrition between its manager and fans in which it’s entirely possible that neither side will end up winning.
Usually this can’t happen. Usually, the manager can always, theoretically, be sacked if he gets unpopular enough and thus a way out for both sides is always, theoretically, available. In ruling out that possibility and seeming like it means it, United has removed the standard get-out and left only a battle of belligerence fought over the question of who will stop turning up first. If neither manager nor fans blink, 18 months’ worth of tedium could be about to be the end result. Now that would be genuine bad luck all around.
There’s maybe one way out. The oldest and simplest. United and Van Gaal could start winning a bit more often and, with the promise at least of it not going on like this forever, United fans could perhaps bring themselves to tolerate success in place of rather than alongside style for a few months. This shift, though, would have to start soon, because minds are already approaching being permanently made up and, at that point, footballing forgiveness is all but unheard of. Specifically, I think, it would have to start on Tuesday night away to Wolfsburg in the UEFA Champions League.
With a rousing, qualification-inducing win against one of Germany’s best teams, there is a chance that the war of attrition could be postponed. No one would necessarily be entirely happy and only temporary relief would, realistically, be provided. But that win would be enough for Van Gaal and United to present at least some kind of case in its favour to the fans—the old “well, at least we haven’t definitely lost yet” case. There would something. Just something.
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Without even that straw to clutch at, this could get ugly. (Or, to be fair, “uglier,” for anyone who’s been watching United play this season.) No one, apart from all of their rivals and a large section of neutrals, wants to watch Manchester United’s manager and fans tied together in a gloomy, despairing lunge towards low-scoring mediocrity lasting 18 months, and yet that is surely the only outcome should Wolfsburg not be defeated.
If the win doesn’t turn up and the war of attrition isn’t averted or postponed, then the question surely moves to why—oh why—United would impose this on itself? What kind of club voluntarily removes its own get-out-of-jail-free card, for the sake of sticking with a manager that will quite possibly end up neither stylish nor successful?
Either one that has made a mistake, one that holds its own fans in contempt, or both, I’d say.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter