No excuse when United play the money game

The football world has changed, Louis van Gaal said on Friday. At first, we wondered whether he was about to admit to the difficulties a dogmatic 64-year-old coach faces in keeping up with those changes. But, no, he was talking, in the aftermath of Manchester United's elimination, about how much harder it has become for such a big club to win the Champions League.

Yes, according to van Gaal, it was different in the late 1990s because only "three clubs or four" had what he called "great money". He reeled off Barcelona, whom he coached at the time, Real Madrid, United and Bayern Munich. "Now," he said, "we have much more clubs who have the money."

Does van Gaal really want to play the money game?

Okay, Louis, you asked for this.

For the year ending June 2015, United's turnover was £395.2 million (S$850 million). The corresponding figure for this season has been forecast to break £500 million. If it falls slightly short, it will only be because their slice of Champions League revenue has dropped as a result of their elimination at the group stage.

Van Gaal should be grateful he is not in charge of Porto. After suffering the rare indignity of being eliminated from their Champions League group, their coach and players were hounded by angry fans when they landed at Oporto airport.

They are the world's second-richest club, behind Real, and are spending, both relatively and in real terms, at a rate far beyond the parsimony of Alex Ferguson's final years as manager, when they were heavily outspent by Chelsea and City, let alone Real.

Of the 32 teams in this season's Champions League, only one of the 10 richest did not make it through to the round of 16. Money does not guarantee sporting success - thank goodness - but it gives you very little excuse for failure when you have it and spend it in such quantities as United.

If there is an excuse for van Gaal, it comes down to the paucity and imbalanced nature of his squad, but that goes to underline only just how poorly they have operated in the transfer market.

They have spent a shade over £350 million gross in the past five transfer windows, post-Ferguson, and been left with a squad that looks substandard even without the inevitable injury problems, for which van Gaal seemed to make little provision in terms of cover in key areas.

Where are United going under van Gaal and Ed Woodward, an odd couple if ever football saw one?

They are a great club suffering from a complete loss of direction, identity and vision - other than in a commercial sense - since the departure of Ferguson and David Gill, who was effectively replaced as chief executive by Woodward, the executive vice-chairman.

Ferguson papered and glossed over the cracks that the Glazer family's under-investment had caused, outperforming Chelsea and City in a manner that gave a (gloriously) flattering impression of the squad inherited by Moyes and van Gaal.

Since then, Woodward has developed a terrifying obsession with his quest to find a "superstar", and it probably speaks volumes about the modern United that they have at times been more entertaining in the transfer market than on the pitch.

Van Gaal says it is "very difficult for a Premier League club to match with the other leagues in the Champions League". Yes, the competitive intensity of English football, on the pitch and financially, can have a knock-on effect in European competition, but let no manager delude you into thinking the Premier League has six top-class teams and 14 more who would thrive in La Liga or the Bundesliga.

Van Gaal had a difficult job, but it has been made easier by a relaxed transfer budget and by low expectations, which meant that it took more than 12 months of slow, functional football before the frustration of the supporters became audible.

Expectations? Van Gaal should be grateful he is not in charge of Porto. After suffering the rare indignity of being eliminated from their Champions League group with 10 points from six matches, their coach and players were hounded by angry fans when they landed at Oporto airport. To play the money game again, Porto's turnover last season was £68 million.

Van Gaal was asked whether, if football has changed, whether he has changed with it and whether, at this stage of his career, he remains one of the world's best coaches, the man capable of leading United into a new golden era.

He said something about hearing the same 20 years ago - "when we went out of the group stage with Barcelona (in 1998), they wrote the same, that my touch has gone". "I can make the difference," he said, "in tactics and everything, but I cannot score goals."

Nobody - seriously, nobody - is expecting United to be at the level of Barcelona and Bayern when they are in an awkward period of post-Ferguson transition, but the speed and indeed the direction of travel are a growing concern.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'No excuse when United play the money game'. Print Edition | Subscribe