Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill are part of perhaps the greatest double act in Manchester United history. The duo oversaw an unprecedented period of success at the club, winning every major honor on the annual footballing calendar.
As they stepped down in 2012, most observers knew Old Trafford would be a very different place from then onwards.
That the Red Devils would never accomplish the challenge of replacing Ferguson was known. But finding a suitable successor to Gill was in fact an equally daunting test.
Ferguson handpicked David Moyes to pass on the baton, while the club directors opted for Glazer family loyalist Ed Woodward to fill in the void left by Gill’s exit.
Incoherence in the club’s approach during the summer transfer window of 2012 was palpable. The Moyes-Woodward partnership was unrealistic in their pursuit of players leading to collapse and scrapping of several deals.
From Daniele de Rossi to Cesc Fabregas, the club futilely coaxed players they thought were available to sign on the dotted line. Switching to panic mode, Moyes finally completed his first signing in a last minute and over-priced deal for Marouane Fellaini.
The club paid the price for their slapdash transfer policy on the pitch as they slipped up on numerous occasions, ending hopes of retaining their title very early into the new season.
As chances of European qualification came under threat, the club once again raided the market in January in search of solutions to their problems. Chelsea’s Juan Mata thought of as surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge by Jose Mourinho, was injected into the squad in another bumper deal.
Mata didn’t turn out to be the messiah Moyes hoped for as the club slumped to their worst season performance in over two decades. The Scot was sacked just 10 months into his tenure.
After their failed experiment, the club took more chances with their next appointment as they acquired the services of Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman, often considered as dictatorial and a genius at the same time, brought another quality to the table that United lacked since Fergie’s departure – decisiveness.
The former Holland boss was swift to identify the problems he had inherited. The balance of his ‘broken squad’ needed to be addressed and the manager began the rebuilding process in earnestness.
Having signed a three-year deal, Van Gaal’s first task was to seal Champions League qualification for the club in his debut season.
He snapped up Luke Shaw, Ander Hererra, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind in order to bolster his defense and midfield. After their first season, the quartet showed they clearly could form the new nucleus of the club for years to come.
Van Gaal made two other significant signings, as the club perhaps for the first time after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, lured genuine world football superstars to Old Trafford.
Smashing the British transfer record fee for Angel di Maria and pulling off a coup to get Radamel Falcao on loan, Van Gaal scripted a significant departure from Ferguson’s policy of searching for ‘value’ in the market.
Happy days seemed to return at the Theatre of Dreams, but their arrival didn’t translate into trophies. However, at least the club finished in the top 4, much to the relief of fans and the club's new shirt sponsors.
Van Gaal ticked off the first task of his three-year project. With two more promises – winning the Premier League and leaving behind a complete squad by 2017 – to be fulfilled, the 63-year-old is now fitting the missing pieces in his carefully crafted plan for the next two years.
Memphis Depay arrived early in the summer followed by Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian and Sergio Romero.
The manager has signed 12 players, spending close to €300m, since taking over. Interestingly, the list of departures clearly tops that of the arrivals at the club. Patrice Evra, Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly and Robin van Persie are some of the big names that have been shown the door during Van Gaal’s regime.
In a sense, the team stands truly transformed as a core group of players has now been replaced by a new set. With Van Gaal at the helm, Woodward too has stepped up his game, showcasing astonishing efficiency in successfully pursuing players wanted by the manager.
United’s U-turns, flip-flops and indecisiveness in the transfer market almost seems like a thing of the past. This is the second successive season where they have expeditiously completed player signings.
Players from different countries and cultures need time to settle into a new environment. Hence it is critical for them to meet and understand their new team-mates before the season begins.
Since United completed their marquee signings well ahead of deadline day, the likes of Depay, Schweinsteiger and Darmian were able to gel into the team in an informal setting of the pre-season tour.
Van Gaal lays great emphasis on preparation and philosophy, which reflects in his dealings in the transfer market. The new policy, having made the necessary course correction to the methods of Moyes and Ferguson, of shipping off and signing up players is clear and strong-willed. United’s intent of competing with other European giants for the best talent is clearly there for all to see.
Van Gaal’s second season is perhaps his most important in terms of fulfilling lofty ambitions of the club and its fans. Having made significant improvements to his team from last year, the maverick manager knows that stakes are even higher in the 2015-16 season.
As he inches ever closer to building another dream team in his last career assignment, the Dutchman is fully aware that the time to deliver is now here.
Having done all the groundwork, Louis van Gaal is now in a position to reap dividends of his much scrutinized transfer policy.