Ahead of Louis van Gaal's second season in charge, Manchester United looks undoubtedly like the Dutchman's team. Only a manager with his conviction and belief in his own methods—some would call it ego—could drag United into the next era after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
In 2015-16, United will continue its transition to van Gaal’s positional possession game that began with Daley Blind and Ander Herrera’s increasing influence last season. Big summer signings Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay all fill a need addressed at the end of the season.
“Our selection was not in balance, and I’ve already mentioned in that period last year that I want to make the balance with midfielders. You could expect that I shall buy two holding midfielders,” van Gaal said when United traveled to Seattle in July as part of its preseason tour. “Manchester United only buy players that can make a contribution to them, and we are not buying for buying.”
Regardless of the squad, any discussion about the club naturally turns into one about van Gaal himself, just as he would have it. He commands the room and takes over press conferences, leaving no room for others who would usurp or undermine his power in any way.
The message is clear: nobody is above the collective.
“When you are not willing to follow the principles of the philosophy,” van Gaal said, “then there is only one way—and that is out.”
As such, United’s only use for individuals has become as servants to the greater whole. It’s this disciplined, structurally minded philosophy that allowed van Gaal to set Bayern Munich on its course toward the evolution completed by Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola.
In his second season, van Gaal seems set to take over the Premier League. In his first full offseason, he identified his squad’s biggest areas of weakness and spent big to fill them. Schweinsteiger’s signing in particular hearkens back to van Gaal’s time at Bayern, when he won the treble in his first year.
Despite their carrying a combined £75 million price tag and the attention that brings, the biggest pressure for United’s new signings might actually come from within the dressing room. Van Gaal expects his players to perform, or they will likely be cast off just as Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie and Ángel di María were after failing to succeed in his system.
“It is always in theory, because Morgan is a player from the Premier League, so he can cope with the Premier League. The question mark is with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian because they have to prove that,” van Gaal said. “They know already because that is always what I say to the players: you have to fight for your position. Never it’s secure. In top sport, no position is secure. Even my position is not secure, as you know.”
Van Gaal's second season with the Bavarians was disastrous and saw him leave before the Bundesliga even wrapped up when Bayern slipped out of the top three. Everywhere he’s been since his unexpected success at AZ Alkmaar from 2005 to 2009, van Gaal has lasted no more than two years.
With a full ramp-up period under the former Dutch national team manager, United looks much more settled than just a year ago. Van Gaal started the same 10 players in front of the goalkeeper in the first three games of preseason in the U.S., hardly tweaking the group in the last match.
Now that he has had time to fix the “broken” and imbalanced squad he inherited from David Moyes, van Gaal’s success or failure will be unquestionably his. A surplus of central players remains, with Blind likely sliding into central defense and Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick left to battle for starting spots in the holding-midfield block.
One position still in question is at striker, where Wayne Rooney seems to be the only dependable option still at United. If Javier Hernández stays, he’ll likely reprise his role off the bench that he played at Real Madrid on loan (and at United full-time before that). Van Gaal has hinted he could yet sign another forward before the transfer window closes, though, with Barcelona's Pedro being touted for a move to Old Trafford.
David de Gea, rumored to be on his way to Real Madrid throughout the summer, has been training with the team from the start of preseason. With Madrid’s signing of Kiko Casilla, it looks as if de Gea should be around for at least one more season before potentially leaving on a free transfer next summer.
After winning multiple transfer battles, navigating the Premier League and Champions League will be van Gaal’s biggest challenges. The squad’s depth will be tested frequently, especially if United goes through another period with multiple injuries.
An overbearing management style is nothing new at United, where Ferguson ruled with an iron fist and removed players that grew to think they were more important than the team or the man in charge. If he’s successful, this could be the season that van Gaal wins over the club and fans.
His reception at Old Trafford as the season goes on will depend on the results. After two seasons without a trophy, supporters and executives won’t stand for much more philosophizing if the end product is still missing.