Louis van Gaal learns from his mistakes. On Sunday, the Manchester United manager strolled out to the bench with a closed, leather portfolio tucked under his arm. It was bulging with valuable papers. We can only guess what they were.
Van Gaal carried only a clipboard last week at Crystal Palace. An alert photographer snapped a picture. The visible sheet did not reveal the secrets of his formation. Rather, it was a wine list.
It could be that van Gaal, fearful of espionage, had simply grabbed an irrelevant piece of paper to cover more valuable documents. On Sunday, as his team drew 1–1 against Arsenal, it would have been natural for the United manager’s thoughts to turn to adding expensive reds to his collection.
At this time of year, every manager in the Premier League is putting the finishing touches to a very expensive shopping list. The weekend’s results will help determine which clubs will have first bid first on the goods on display in the transfer window. It promises to be a particularly frenzied summer.
Liverpool’s defeat in the Steven Gerrard testimonial on Saturday ended the very slim chance that United might finish outside the top four. Manchester City’s victory at Swansea earlier on Sunday ensured that United cannot finish second. The draw with Arsenal means the Gunners need one point from two games to wrap up third. Still, Van Gaal is happy with fourth.
"We sat together, myself and the board, and set the goal, which was to finish in the first four,” van Gaal told a press conference during the week.
Third is still significant. Because it finished fourth last season, Arsenal had to play a two-leg Champions League qualifier against Besiktas in August. That early fixture congestion might be one reason why the Gunners won only two of their first eight league games. Next season it will go straight to the group stages. United must play what Van Gaal called a “stressful” qualifying round.
There was plenty of time on Sunday for van Gaal and his Arsenal counterpart, Arsène Wenger, to let their thoughts drift ahead to summer. Arsenal did not manage a shot in the first 50 minutes. It leveled with an own goal in the 82nd minute when substitute defender Tyler Blackett deflected the ball past substitute goalie Victor Valdés. Between them, the teams managed just seven shots on target. The lack of goal-mouth action gives a clue to where the most frantic transfer action will be in the coming months.
Thierry Henry, the former Arsenal great who is now a Sky pundit, repeated before the game his belief that Arsenal needs a “a new spine.” City needs to strengthen in defense and across midfield. Chelsea must plan for life without John Terry. Everyone, except Chelsea, will hope to find their own Nemanja Matic. But the burning need for five of the top six teams is a goal scorer, or two or even three. They will all be chasing the same players waving checkbooks.
Unless City has grown bored with Edin Dzeko, it looks set with a trio that also includes Sergio Agüero, the division’s top scorer, and Wilfried Bony, who hit a smart goal at Swansea on Sunday.
José Mourinho will be shopping in bulk for strikers. At Arsenal last month, Chelsea started without a striker because Diego Costa was injured, as was the injury-prone Loïc Rémy, while Didier Drogba missed the match because he had to go collect his pension.
Olivier Giroud has scored 18 goals for Arsenal this season but given that Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott, even when fit, are not true central strikers, the Frenchman is all the club has, which is probably not a thought that reassures Wenger.
For United, Robin van Persie is fading. Falcao, who seemed to wave goodbye to the fans on Sunday, has only shown the occasional spark. That leaves Wayne Rooney, who Van Gaal likes to play in midfield. United has already secured Memphis Depay, who has scored 28 goals in 39 games for PSV Eindhoven this season, but at 5'9", he is going to stay on the wing.
The striker shortage runs further down the division. With Daniel Sturridge almost permanently injured and Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert apparently not good enough, Liverpool has been starting its young weapon, Raheem Sterling, who is two inches shorter than Depay, in the center of attack. That’s not ideal.
Tottenham has young Harry Kane. While he doesn’t look or move like a wonderkid, for six months he scored like one. He had to. The first question with the club's other two strikers, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado, is whether it can persuade anyone to buy them. The second is whether it can stop someone buying Kane.
Spurs and Liverpool, with less money to spend than the top four and having missed the Champions League, must worry that their attacking holes will grow bigger before they can start to plug them. United is reportedly sniffing around Kane. Chelsea and Arsenal are among a string of clubs said to want Sterling.
Kane and Sterling appeal, in part, because they are homegrown players. Each Premier League club must have at least eight in its 25-man squad. That rule will also make Saido Berahino, Danny Ings and Charlie Austin attractive this summer, though none looks ready to do more than sit on the bench for a top-four team.
Proven Premier League strikers are particularly desirable, even if they aren’t English. That is why the club that should be most terrified is Aston Villa because Christian Benteke has once again looked like the best striker in England over the last two months. Only his injury record might deter the big clubs.
We can expect to read a great deal over the coming weeks about Lyon's Alexandre Lacazette, Palermo's Paulo Dybala, Inter Milan's Mauro Icardi, Sevilla's Carlos Bacca and Porto's Jackson Martínez, who are all on shopping lists across the continent. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale of Real Madrid will be linked with any club that has a lot of money.
Yet as van Gaal said after Sunday’s match, a bulging wallet is no guarantee that a club can fill every hole.
“Not every player is available,” he said. “Not every player wants to come. The club don’t allow that their players shall go. It’s not so easy as people are thinking.”
We shall spend much of the coming months reading his shopping list.
BAD OMENS: Watching Hull and Newcastle lose away and Sunderland draw, 0–0, at home on Saturday, it was clear that the best solution would be the for the Premier League to relegate the three clubs now and put us all out of their misery.
They are all awful, but the sad fact remains: Two of them will be in the Premier League again next season.
With one week left in the season, Sunderland has 37 points, Newcastle has 36 and Hull 34. Incredibly, there are two teams whose record suggests they are significantly worse. QPR and Burnley each have 30 points and are already relegated.
Sunderland is the form team of the three. It has taken nine points from its last six matches. It only needs one more point and has two more games to play, but those are away to Arsenal and Chelsea.
“We have two easy games,” Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat told Sky on Saturday.
Newcastle’s remaining game is at home to West Ham. Sam Allardyce seems to be using the last days of his reign as Hammers manager to stick up a finger at the club’s fans. His team has won just one of its last seven games, and that was at home to Burnley. But there is a team in even worse form in Newcastle. The Magpies have picked up just one point in their last 11 games.
After Newcastle lost, 2–1, at QPR on Saturday, manager John Carver used his BBC interview to plead with the Toon Army to provide an “electric atmosphere.”
“It could be the fans who get us across the line and keep us in the Premier League,” he told the press. Carver’s not a fool. After the second-half display at QPR, he knows his players can’t do it.
Hull’s last game is at home to Manchester United. Hull has never won a Premier game in May. In 17 years as a manager, Steve Bruce has never beaten the club he once captained.
"Maybe Man U owe me something after wrecking my knee, my hip and my ankle,” Bruce told the press on Saturday.
And maybe these three clubs owe their fans and Premier League’s global TV audience something. Like Bruce, viewers would be unwise to expect that debt to be paid. It is likely that the trio will all lose their remaining games. In that case, Hull is doomed.
LEARNING CURVE: Last March, after his Tottenham team lost, 4–0, at Chelsea, Tim Sherwood accused his players of “lacking guts and character".
On Saturday, after his Aston Villa team conceded five first-half goals and was humiliated, 6–1, at Southampton, Sherwood told the BBC that he had not criticized his players in the locker room during the break.
“There's no point me stripping paint off them in there. They know they haven't played well in that first period,” he said.
There are differences. Last season Sherwood was in his first management job and auditioning desperately to keep it. Now he knows he is secure at Villa; he has an FA Cup final to think about. But last season he also had an important objective: a place in the Champions League. The loss at Chelsea was Tottenham’s second thrashing against a big team under Sherwood. Spurs suffered another at Liverpool three weeks later. This was Villa’s first humiliation during his reign.
“I have seen enough character in these boys over the last couple of months," he added.
No doubt Sherwood was being honest last season and is being honest now. One of Sherwood’s more tiresome tropes is his insistence that he is honest.
"I am singing it from the heart, not from the script,” he said after his Chelsea outburst. “I'm not an actor.”
Yet even an honest manager knows that choosing what part of the truth he tells, and to whom, is one of the skills of the job. The biggest difference between Sherwood last season and Sherwood now could be that he is learning from his mistakes.
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER COLOR: Tottenham fans still live by the Cold War creed: better dead than red. Occasionally new Spurs signings will make the mistake of taking the field in red boots. It is not a fashion faux pas they make twice.
So when Danny Rose, who joined the club at 17 eight years ago, took the field with his hair dyed Arsenal red against Hull on Saturday, the home fans had reason to wonder if the combative left back was sending a message. Rose is a rumoured transfer target for Atletico Madrid, which plays in red, and Manchester City. The fans who watch him every week find the rumors implausible, but Rose added a few million to his transfer value with a neat volleyed goal that completed Tottenham’s 2–0 victory.
Of course, if any player has an excuse to be red, red, it’s Rose.
He said it was all a mistake.
"My hair went wrong, it was meant to go purple,” Rose told the media. “I woke up this morning and it had turned red! Not a good start to the day!"
He wanted to be the purple Rose of Tottenham High Road.