The scale of disillusionment in the Manchester United dressing room has been laid bare as the Louis van Gaal era ended to little sympathy among players or fans
So, how did it ever reach the stage where the manager of Manchester United can win the FA Cup, with all the glories it is supposed to bring, then be booed by considerable swaths of the clubs supporters and carry the trophy into his press conference only to be informed the news wires were flashing up stories of his imminent sacking?
For all Louis van Gaals faults, it was certainly a low stunt for that kind of information to be leaked while his suit was still damp from the spray of champagne. Van Gaals diminished popularity can probably be judged by the beery chants of Jos Mourinho on Wembley Way, as well as various stops along the Metropolitan line, throughout Saturday night, but no manager deserves that kind of treatment. Two have now been in this position since Sir Alex Fergusons retirement three years ago and Van Gaal, like David Moyes, found out through the people he called my friends in the media. Except, of course, he didnt say it with any friendliness in his voice.
He is entitled to feel it could have been handled with more dignity but, equally, it is difficult to argue with Uniteds decision when Van Gaals two-year reign has been synonymous with bland, prosaic football, featuring their worst scoring statistics for more than a quarter of a century and, within the dressing room, a scale of disillusionment that makes it absolutely clear there will be minimal sympathy among the players. Van Gaal has been described among 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. It hasnt reached the point of mutiny, but it has been a close-run thing sometimes. The consensus has been that it cant get much worse than it is.
A manager does not have to be popular but he needs to be respected and, though there were times when the players warmed to him and even found him good company, Van Gaals often abrasive, almost schoolmasterly approach rubbed against the players like sandpaper. They found his methods restrictive. Why, they asked, was a man with his impressive background so devoted to such an unappealing style? Supporters longed for a return to the old United way attacking, adventurous football, played at speed and with penetration but so did the players, and it pained them that he refused to bend.
Instead, there was always the gnawing sense they had to stick to Van Gaals rigid system or risk being expelled from the team. United have scored one more goal than fourth-bottom Sunderland a team who spent 237 days in the relegation zone in his final season of talking about the process or the philosophy, and conveniently ignoring how he promised on his arrival that everything would click within three months. It is the least watchable United side in memory and there are numerous stories about how, collectively, the players respect for Van Gaal eroded in the process.
One example comes in the form of Van Gaals 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, was always willing to listen to complaints and encouraged his players to speak up. But the bad feeling continued. From that point onwards, he started sending the players individual emails 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 emails or redirected them straight to their trash. Van Gaal suspected as much and had a tracker fitted so he could check if the emails were opened and for how long. It became a game of cat and mouse. Some players opened the emails 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 breaks as a welcome break and the chance to play in a relaxed atmosphere away from a manager they never fully understood and who, to borrow one description, was thought of as weird.
David de Gea will certainly not be too despondent bearing in mind his relationship with Van Gaal had broken to the point the goalkeeper was giving serious consideration to pressing for a transfer this summer. De Gea has been Uniteds player of the year for the last three seasons and, without him, it is tempting to think their fifth-placed finish, 15 points off the top, would have been significantly worse. Yet his outstanding form masked the fact there was no warmth between him and Van Gaal. The Spaniard had separate issues with Frans Hoek, the goalkeeping coach, but may now be dissuaded from making this his final season in Manchester.
The idea of losing De Gea, presumably to Real Madrid, would have represented a devastating setback for United given that we are talking about one of the few players with genuine star quality. Otherwise, it is not just Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and all those other player-turned-pundits from the Ferguson era who insist there will have to be a massive clearout. Many at Old Trafford are saying the same. How many need to go? Ninety per cent, says one important figure, after giving the question long consideration.
More than anything, the players crave a return to what they consider normality. Ashley Young, for instance, was bemused and mildly horrified earlier this year to be informed he was being given a new role as a back-up centre-forward. Young was one of Uniteds better performers last season when he moved from his customary place on the left wing to play as a full-back. What he has never purported to be is a striker, especially given the way Van Gaal sees the role. Uniteds 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 teams fullbacks to arrive in support.
All of which might help to explain why Van Gaal had misgivings about whether Gareth Bale, a long-time target of the clubs executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, was a natural fit for the team system. Van Gaal talked at Wembley about United needing fast, creative players but this was the manager who came out with a line in one of his first press conferences I do not want players to be intuitive that seemed so extraordinary the journalists in his company had to go over the tape to check they had not misheard.
With that type of regimented structure, it should be no surprise ngel Di Mara did not flourish at Old Trafford but has excelled for Paris Saint-Germain. Memphis Depay has struggled, too, and his cocksure attitude hardly goes hand in hand with what the 25m signing has shown in his first season at the club. When Depay made a mistake that led to Chelseas goal in a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in February he was ordered to play in the reserves the following day. Depay turned up to face Norwich Citys second string in a Rolls-Royce and did not seem to care when it was pointed out to him that it might reflect badly on him. There is, however, a degree of sympathy for him behind the scenes and a desire to give him the benefit of the doubt in the hope that he might be reinvented under a different manager.
Overall, though, there is no doubt Van Gaals signings have, for the most part, been a significant disappointment. Anthony Martial is the obvious exception but Van Gaal has spent in excess of 250m and for that kind of outlay there has been little back.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is a case in point after starting only 13 league games since moving from Bayern Munich and the last season has made it absolutely clear why the Bundesliga champions were willing to let him go. Schweinsteigers form has seldom gone above the six-out-of-10 mark but regularly below and it is not just his ponderous performances that have surprised his team-mates. Schweinsteiger has spent large parts of the season injured and his tendency to return to Germany, flying in and out for Uniteds matches, has gone down badly, to say the least.
Van Gaal gave Schweinsteiger preferential treatment because he saw him as someone who will carry out his instructions to a tee. For similar reasons, he trusted Marouane Fellaini with a key role. Fellaini was often the player the Old Trafford crowd distrusted the most but Van Gaal appreciated the way he listened to orders when it was obvious other players wanted to use their own initiative.
One of Van Gaals 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. One example goes back to the opening day of the season when Tottenham Hotspur were the opposition and Antonio Valencia sent in a low cross from the right to pick out Rooney, unmarked, in the middle of the penalty area. It seemed like a relatively straightforward finish but Rooney took an extra touch because that was what Van Gaal had drummed into his players. Kyle Walker made a saving tackle only to turn the ball into his own net and Rooney looked almost sheepish as he headed back to the centre circle.
Over time, the players started ignoring the rule, complaining that they should be allowed to think for themselves (though the story of one player asking Uniteds chef to hard-boil him a couple of eggs to take home, on the basis he did not know how to do it himself, suggests that maybe some members of the squad do need coddling).
Other sources have revealed how players became so frustrated with Van Gaals instructions they took matters into their own hands and told him they wanted to play their own way. In one case, that player is said to have improved markedly as a result.
It has also become apparent that a lot of players wanted Ryan Giggs to take over on the basis that he has a better understanding of the club than Mourinho, as well as being less likely to fall out with everyone a couple of years down the line, and it will be intriguing to see whether the Welshman remains at Old Trafford or decides to break free now he has been overlooked for the role that Ferguson, among others, wanted him to inherit.
Giggss own thoughts about Van Gaals managerial style are understood to fall roughly in line with those of Neville and Scholes, his close friends, and 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. Every Thursday, United had an 11-versus-11 practice match and it was Giggss role to set up one side in the formation of the team they were about to face and talk about set pieces. Beyond that, however, he did not have a significant say in tactics and was unable to convince Van Gaal to switch to a more entertaining style of football.
As such, United managed 49 league goals this season; their previous average in the Premier League era was 76.4. They have not been so unproductive since the 1989-90 season when the infamous Tara Fergie banner was held up and it sums up their deterioration that in the three years since Fergusons retirement the team have managed a total of 175 goals 81 fewer than Manchester City and, even more embarrassingly, precisely the same number as Fergusons side accumulated in his last two campaigns.
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 Optas 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. United also suffered their worst start to a season for 25 years in his first campaign, 2014-15, when the players privately blamed his pre-season arrangements on tour in Los Angeles for feeling like a five-star prison camp, with double training sessions, various meetings and an evening supper (a piece of toast) taking up every day from 8.30am to 10.30pm. It was a bad start and, even with an FA Cup to show, the difficult truth is that the Van Gaal years will not be remembered at Old Trafford with any fondness.