Players sent his assessments into the bin

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal walks onto the pitch before the FA Cup final on Saturday. The 2-1 victory against Crystal Palace did nothing to rescue his long-term prospects at the historic club.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal walks onto the pitch before the FA Cup final on Saturday. The 2-1 victory against Crystal Palace did nothing to rescue his long-term prospects at the historic club. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • So, how did it ever reach the stage where the manager of Manchester United can win the FA Cup and carry the trophy into his press conference, only to be told the news wires were flashing up stories of his imminent sacking?

For all Louis van Gaal's faults, it was certainly a low stunt but equally it is difficult to argue with United's decision when his two-year reign has been synonymous with bland, prosaic football.

Further, in the dressing room, there is a scale of disillusionment that makes it absolutely clear there will be minimal sympathy among the players.

Van Gaal has been described by those players as "hard work". His tactics have been so unpopular that various members of his squad have talked between themselves about openly defying him.

United managed 49 league goals this season; their previous average in the Premier League era was 76.4.

It is the least watchable United side in memory and there are numerous stories about how, collectively, the players' respect for the Dutchman eroded in the process.

One example comes in the form of van Gaal's "evaluation sessions" the day after every match when the Dutchman could be so outspoken in his criticisms - "he would crucify players in front of each other", according to one source - the two most senior players, Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, went to see him to air their concerns that it was damaging for morale and, in effect, a self-defeating exercise.

Van Gaal, to give him his due, listened and opted instead to send the players individual e-mails detailing their faults and submitting video clips to highlight his dissatisfaction.

Except by that stage, a lot of the players were so disillusioned, many ignored the e-mails or redirected them straight to their trash.

Van Gaal suspected as much and had a tracker fitted so he could check if the e-mails were opened and for how long. Some players opened the e-mails on their mobiles, then left their phones on the side and wandered off for 20 minutes.

It reached the point where many players regarded international games as a welcome break and the chance to play in a relaxed atmosphere away from a manager they never fully understood.

United's forwards were under orders to do the same thing virtually every time - control the ball, lay it off and then get in the penalty area and wait for it.

Wide players were told that, rather than taking on their man, it was better to wait for the team's full-backs to arrive in support.

One of van Gaal's more bemusing instructions was for his strikers not to shoot first-time from balls coming across the penalty area. Instead they were under orders to take a touch in front of goal, even if the relevant players felt confident enough to go for goal straight away.

Over time, the players started ignoring the rule, complaining that they should be allowed to think for themselves.

Ryan Giggs' own thoughts about van Gaal's managerial style are understood to fall roughly in line with those of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, his close friends and vocal critics of the Dutchman. The last couple of years have been exceedingly awkward for him as assistant manager, brought up on the old United principles but having to adhere to a different way of thinking and not wanting to rock the boat.

It partly explained why Giggs stopped doing interviews if it meant discussing the team and why his body language often looked so stifled on the bench.

At one stage, United had more backward passes than any other Premier League club, the lowest percentage when it came to moving the ball forward and the joint second highest ratio sideways.

United finished with the most 1-0 wins and the joint highest number of goalless draws.

Their total number of shots on target, 430, was the 15th highest out of 20 clubs and Opta's number crunchers have data that shows only three other teams - Watford, Aston Villa and West Brom - created fewer chances.

This is the bottom line: Van Gaal gave a new meaning to the saying "football, bloody hell".

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'Players sent his assessments into the bin'. Print Edition | Subscribe