When Manchester United won the FA Cup in 2016, Louis Van Gaal was beaming. He paraded the trophy around for all of Wembley to see, but little did he know the plans for his succession were already being made. Despite a dramatic FA Cup run that confirmed that breathtaking goals, academy graduates, and last minute winners are still very much a part of Manchester United, the 2015/16 season as a whole was largely a failure that cost Van Gaal his job. The transition to José Mourinho happened so quickly that there was little time to reflect on the job of someone who was certainly the most likable manager out of him, David Moyes, and Mourinho. He wasn’t the serial trophy winner he was earlier in his career, but he did oversee several positive changes that made United a stronger team than the one he found in 2014.
Here are a few of the best moments from the Louis Van Gaal era at Manchester United.
2014 World Cup: The Flying Dutchman
Van Gaal may not have fully taken charge at Old Trafford yet, but this moment involved more than one United man.
Shortly after being named as the next Manchester United manager, Louis Van Gaal took on his final task as manager of the Dutch national team: The 2014 World Cup. The Netherlands were drawn in the same group as Spain, the team that defeated them in the final of the previous World Cup. The matchup was anything but a replay of the defensive 2010 final, and saw the Dutchmen make a clear statement about their intentions at the tournament.
After falling 1-0 down in the first half, the Netherlands set themselves up for a huge second half response through Manchester United striker Robin Van Persie’s incredible diving header, with the assist provided by none other than soon to be United player Daley Blind. After the goal Van Persie sprinted to the team dugout and exchanged the most legendary of high-fives with Louis Van Gaal. It was a moment that gave United fans something to cheer about after an awful season under David Moyes, and a lot to look forward to in the coming season.
2014/15: Believing Again
The 2014/15 season was difficult for United fans to take in. Van Gaal’s tactics of possession based football had brought some defensive stability to the side, but failed to produce goals on several occasions.
With Champions League qualification as their objective, United went on an impressive run of matches in the league to get themselves back into the top 4, and briefly put a bit of pressure on Chelsea in the title race. 6 successive wins in the league, including emphatic wins over Tottenham, Liverpool, and Manchester City, put minds at ease after some poor draws and losses. Wayne Rooney’s knockout blow over Tottenham, his volley against Aston Villa, and Juan Mata’s sensational scissor kick to win at Anfield have remained in the memories of fans despite the side’s struggles that season.
A 4th place finish in the Premier League was all Van Gaal’s United had to show for 2014/15, but promising football, a European spot for the coming season, and a war chest for the summer transfer window had fans excited about football again, and believing that success wouldn’t be too much further away.
2014-2016: Anytime Van Gaal had cameras on him
Though for some it was just an unbearable distraction from even more unbearable football, Van Gaal’s personality was at the very least entertaining, and at its best comedy gold.
A “philosopher” of the game, Van Gaal had no issue being the center of attention, creating a meme-worthy act or quote, or defending his tactical adjustments against criticism. On one occasion he even handed out cheat sheets for the media to better understand his team approach with Marouane Fellaini as a striker. His attitude with the press was sometimes a bit combative, but he was a wordsmith through and through. Whether he was trying to get his players “horny,” or simply revelling in the joy of a fully healthy squad, Louis was always up for a sound bite.
In a particularly fantastic game against Arsenal, for more reasons that we’ll get to later, Van Gaal stormed down to the manager’s box and dove to the ground to make his case to the fourth official. It was a bizarre moment, but in the context of a big United win on the day the comedy of it was appreciated by the fans, who laughed and cheered on their manager.
2015/16: The emergence of Martial and Rashford
United’s most promising forwards were not the work of José Mourinho, but Louis Van Gaal. Rather than rely solely on an aging Wayne Rooney for goals, Manchester United shelled out a massive fee for French teenager Anthony Martial, who at just 18 was already drawing Thierry Henry comparisons at Monaco. Martial went on to lead the United squad in goals, with 17 in all competitions, but when injuries hit the squad in the new year Van Gaal was forced to look to the academy for answers.
Enter Marcus Rashford, an 18 year-old with blistering pace and an eye for goal. On his debut he became a hero in the Europa League in the 2nd leg against FC Midtjylland. With United down 2-1 on aggregate, Marcus Rashford produced a brace to put his side ahead in the tie, and United went through after a 5 goal team performance.
Down the stretch in both the league and the FA Cup, Martial and Rashford were the catalysts for United’s success. They weren’t able to carry the team into a Champions League spot, but each gave several memorable performances on the way to the club’s 12th FA Cup win.
2015/16: The FA Cup
In 3 years of dull football, big losses, and the biggest identity crisis in decades, the Red Army was craving something to shout about. It came in 2016. After a catastrophic December United missed a golden opportunity to stay with the leaders in the Premier League and managed to finish third in a favorable UEFA Champions League group. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool bounced United in the Round of 16 of the Europa League in March, leaving the FA Cup as the only competition left alive.
Early wins against Sheffield United and Derby County required some Wayne Rooney heroics to get United through, but his injury put the burden of goals on Martial and Rashford, the latter of whom had only just broken through as a first team player. They youngsters stepped up however, and got United through a grizzly quarter-final tie against West Ham, one that required a replay fixture in London, and a semi-final at Wembley against a determined Everton.
Anthony Martial’s last minute semi-final winner became an instantly legendary moment as the team struggled to continue the incredible history of the club, and was only upstaged by Jesse Lingard’s extra time winner in the final. After falling behind 1-0 to Jason Puncheon and Alan Pardew’s dancing, Wayne Rooney managed to turn back the years on his very old legs and go on a run through the Palace midfield. After being forced too wide to shoot, Rooney lofted the ball up towards Fellaini, who chested it down for Juan Mata to strike and force extra time. With 10 minutes to go in the second period, Jesse Lingard volleyed a spectacular strike into the top corner of the Palace net, and sent the United end of Wembley into party mode. He was the third United academy product to step up big in the competition for United, and gave Louis Van Gaal and the club its first trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Overall, Louis Van Gaal didn’t have the career everyone had hoped for at United, but his personality, his transfers, and his shift towards a younger squad helped reverse the direction of the club after Moyes’ Evertonization project in 2014. Mourinho found a better team to work with than Van Gaal had, and the groundwork for United’s current crop of stars was already being laid in 2015.