Who's Behind The Louis van Gaal Smear Campaign?

Photo via Getty
Photo via Getty

We’re reportedly only hours away from Manchester United’s beleaguered manager Louis van Gaal finally getting the ax, and maybe only days away from the similarly inevitable announcement that José Mourinho’s ass will replace van Gaal’s in that gilded though bloodstained manager’s seat at Old Trafford. As is always the case in this particular window of sacking season, “people with knowledge” of United’s inner workings are airing their longstanding grievances, and the stories don’t speak well of the Dutchman’s standing with his team.


The best anecdote from the Guardian’s premortem involves the manager and his harsh brand of player criticism. The day after games, van Gaal made it a point to get the whole team together and watch film of the match. With players already disaffected by van Gaal’s tactical rigidity—to the point where, feeling so creatively stifled, some reportedly considered disobeying the manager’s instructions—it didn’t help matters that during these film sessions the manager would lay into offenders, offering withering critiques of their actions on the pitch in front of everyone. A source used the word “crucify” in describing LVG’s takedowns.

Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick had a private meeting with van Gaal to voice their concerns. They let van Gaal know that the other players were not responding well to the sessions, and requested that he try to soften his methods a little. The manager was receptive to their concerns and did change his tack—to a degree. Here’s the Guardian on LVG’s new critique-delivery medium, and his struggle to get players to pay attention to them:

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.

To read more about the beefs both major and minor between van Gaal and the team (including a strange tidbit about a player asking the club chef to cook him a couple eggs to take home, since he didn’t know how to do it himself), check the whole thing over at the Guardian.

What’s more interesting than the specifics here is how they emerged. Players not taking well to a manager who doesn’t win is a story as old as coaching itself; had van Gaal’s ideas paid off in the form of on-field success, some of these very behaviors used to pillory him on the way out would likely be held up as examples of his tough, unsentimental efficacy. That his style didn’t lead to wins, and thus players didn’t like it, is no surprise.

What is a little concerning is when and from where these leaks sprang. Clubs—smart ones, at least—usually recognize that there’s not much of a percentage in bashing your average, mediocre coach when getting rid of him. As long as the fans recognize that the manager wasn’t working out (as is clearly the case at United), most will accept that the team’s results were sufficient cause for firing him and won’t need the behind-the-scenes breakdown to justify the move.

With the timing of all this—the newest report that Mourinho was soon to be in and van Gaal was out broke so soon after United’s FA Cup victory this weekend that van Gaal was already fielding questions about it during the postgame interviews—it’s hard to imagine Man U’s backroom people moving against van Gaal right then. United’s brass couldn’t have wanted to overshadow this season’s one happy moment.


The players then become the next-most obvious culprits. If the squad seriously worried that van Gaal would somehow make it another year in charge, putting their reasons for why they didn’t like the manager out in public would increase the pressure on the club to fire him, as well as to some extent explain away their own underachievement during the season.

However, there is a third source for this stuff that fits even better, and plays into the larger machinations at the club. As the Manchester Evening News has posited, it’s quite possible that the real agent of agitation is superagent Jorge Mendes. Van Gaal fell out with big-time Mendes clients Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, and David de Gea in his short United tenure. Mendes himself has been sufficiently annoyed by some of these situations to slam van Gaal’s handling of them in the media. Mendes is a man with ears all over Old Trafford, and with multiple axes to grind with the head man.


That, plus the rumors of a power struggle waging in Man U’s boardroom that to a large degree hinged on the potential hiring of Mourinho—another Mendes client—clouding Mourinho’s future, and Mendes’s motivation becomes clear: ensure LVG’s firing so that Mourinho gets the job, and make it as demeaning as possible to get back at van Gaal for the way he’s treated Mendes’s clients. Throw in little things like United’s best player de Gea threatening to leave the club if van Gaal stays, and a lot of the noise around United makes more sense.

At any rate, van Gaal is all but confirmed to be gone, with Mourinho getting his wish and becoming the next United manager. God has answered Mourinho’s tearful prayers and given him the job for which he’s campaigned so hard for years. If Mourinho wants to thank The Omnipotent One for the help, all he may need to do is ring up his agent.