When Louis Van Gaal was appointed I had hoped that he would stabilise the club, return them to the Champions League and put it in a nice state to be taken over by a capable up and coming manager upon his contract expiration. I also noted that his achievements weren't as grand or gilded as the press made them out to be, and that his abrasive approach to management always ensured that his tenures at clubs tended to be short.
Now that Van Gaal has been sacked and replaced with Jose Mourinho, it's time to give a verdict on his tenure as United manager. The most immediate reaction is to look back on the fairly dreadful football overall, and more specifically the record-setting winless sequence around December last year. The achievement of returning the club to Champions League on his first try is negated by getting knocked out in the group stages. He won the FA Cup but had to suffer the indignity of being treated like a dead man walking in his hour of glory. Despite all the issues with the playing style, Van Gaal came close to securing Champions League football again, but fell short. Had he managed just one more point, we would be looking at a rather different appraisal right now, and it might even be in the present tense. There were reports of dressing room unrest, and his inability to do something about United's maddening lack of attacking initiative means that he departs to little lamentation.
During that terrible winless run, I would have welcomed Mourinho with open arms. However, at the season's end there are things for which I am grateful to Van Gaal. I am grateful that he has unearthed Marcus Rashford, a very exciting local prospect who not only was given a run out but was entrusted with the lone striker's position against all odds; I am grateful that under his watch Chris Smalling has emerged as one of the better center-halves in the league; I am grateful that Van Gaal resisted the calls for Anthony Martial to replace Wayne Rooney as the lone attacker and kept him on the left wing, where he has been simply marvelous all season. I am grateful that he gave so much playing time to Jesse Lingard, who repaid the faith with the FA Cup winning goal. I am grateful that other young players like Tim Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson saw significant game time – they look promising to say the least. I am grateful that he challenged Luke Shaw last season, and he looked like a world-beater earlier this one before his unfortunate injury.
So there you have it – Van Gaal leaves behind a very binary inheritance. It's often like that with coaches of Van Gaal's ilk. Their uncompromising, unyielding nature creates resentment in the dressing room and enemies in the media. Journalists are forced to paint him as 'an eccentric' when the results are good, but when the going gets bad the coverage skews towards ridicule. But the same qualities that see him forced to depart before the contract's end also mean that, for arguably the first time in a long while, there is a group of young players ready for prime time. Mourinho, should he choose to, will reap the benefits of Rashford, Lingard, Fosu-Mensah et al, but Van Gaal's role in their breakthroughs should not be forgotten. The only caveat here is whether these players will go on to form the nucleus of a newly resurgent United under their new manager. Many worry that Mourinho is not one to promote the causes of young players, so we will have to see. Van Gaal's United legacy ultimately lies in the hands of his former assistant.