In the summer of 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson, who had managed the club since 1986, announced his retirement from Manchester United, taking 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions League titles with him.
The Red Devils attempted to continue their unmatched level of success with the hiring of David Moyes, who’d managed Everton with aplomb for over 10 years. Moyes’ first and only season at the helm was an unmitigated disaster.
Moyes’ team got bounced from the FA Cup in the third round by Swansea City and lost in the semifinals of the League Cup to Sunderland. They bowed out of the Champions League after a 4-2 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. With the team a lowly seventh in the Premier League table, Moyes was sacked before the season even concluded.
Up next with a chance to somehow replicate Ferguson’s success was Louis van Gaal. Van Gaal had guided his home country, the Netherlands, through an impressive 2014 World Cup campaign and had managed the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Van Gaal lasted twice as long as his predecessor, although the ride was hardly ever a smooth one. He led the team to fourth and fifth place finishes in the Premier League, and won an FA Cup trophy only to get the sack two days later.
While Van Gaal’s stint in Manchester was relatively ephemeral, he brought in a bevy of new faces during his time there. Angel Di Maria, Morgan Schneiderlin and Radamel Falcao didn’t pan out, but Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind are still key components of the squad.
But it was his younger, more developmental projects that generated the buzz. In his two years as manager, he reeled in 18-year-old Luke Shaw from Southampton, 21-year-old Memphis Depay from PSV and 19-year-old Anthony Martial from Monaco. Shaw was on a fast track to becoming one of the best left backs in the world, Depay was one of the most potential-laden wingers in football and Martial had drawn comparisons to fellow French legend Thierry Henry.
Shaw’s first season saw him suffer a gruesome leg break that forced him to miss nearly all of the 2015-2016 season. Depay made 45 total appearances in his first year under LvG, and while his goalscoring record didn’t follow him from Holland, he was a streaky contributor in both domestic and European competitions.
Martial exploded onto the scene, scoring a goal reminiscent of Henry in his debut as a substitute against Liverpool. He ended up tallying 17 goals in 49 total appearances across all competitions.
— Usman Iliyasu M (@UsmanIliyasuM09) January 15, 2017
Van Gaal also turned to Manchester United’s youth academy, and Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard were also a big part of the vast youth movement.
Rashford took the world by storm, showcasing his elite talent at the juvenile age of 18. In his first-team debut during a Europa League round of 32 match, replacing an injured Martial, Rashford tallied two goals in a 5-1 win. He became the youngest European competition goal scorer in Manchester United history, breaking a record held previously by Red Devils legend George Best.
Three days later, making his Premier League debut, Rashford scored two more goals and contributed to the third goal in a 3-2 win over Arsenal. The young, budding star went on to score 8 goals in 18 overall appearances during the 2015-2016 season.
Lingard had gone through loan spells in every year prior to Van Gaal’s arrival, all with lower-level English teams. During Van Gaal’s last season, Lingard received his most extensive run with the senior side, appearing in 40 total games for Manchester United and contributing heavily in their FA Cup triumph.
Since Van Gaal’s departure, his young proteges’ careers have branched off in different directions under new manager Jose Mourinho. Shaw has rarely featured with Rojo and Blind handling most of the left back work. Lingard is used sporadically as a substitute but has done well enough to sign a new contract at Old Trafford.
Martial and Rashford continue to be regular components of the squad but many times as ancillary substitutes; they haven’t come close to replicating the goalscoring and overall form that they showed under LvG. Depay has been offloaded to Lyon during this most recent transfer window.
Impressive first Rhône derby for Memphis Depay. L'Equipe awards him 2/10, making him (in their eyes) the joint-worst player on the pitch.— Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) February 6, 2017
Manchester United craved getting back to their winning ways by hiring Mourinho and allowing him plenty of freedom. Mourinho brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has been fantastic but occupies a heavy allotment of match time that Martial and Rashford need in order to further develop. They splashed the cash by bringing in Paul Pogba on a world record transfer and acquired experienced attacker Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Those transfers have worked out in the short term, but was it the right move for the future of the club? Manchester United is currently in sixth place in the Premier League table, lower than Van Gaal’s finishes. In the process, they haven’t committed to the continued maturation of a few of their (supposed) future stars. Will it come back to haunt United in the future? Time will tell, but I’m sure Van Gaal isn’t too happy about seeing his youth revolution put down.