Sport has an undeniable obsession with legacies. Whether you’re talking about the impact an Olympic Games has on young participants in sport, or the increasing attention grassroots football is getting because of England’s failings on the international scene; we always seem to want to leave something good behind.
The idea of a legacy is important because it revolves around decisions in the present which can have a lasting effect in the future – such approaches are selfless, forward-thinking and, above all, smart. Most of the time such scenarios would involve making sacrifices in order to help those who come after you.
This is, of course, no different in football, when the lifespan of a job is significantly shorter than most others in society.
In total, van Gaal gave first-team debuts to 14 players who joined the club when 16 or younger and those youngsters often gave the team something entirely different and helped to make them more of an unknown quantity.
Added to that, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay fitted into a similarly youthful bracket when signed by van Gaal, while Adnan Januzaj and Paddy McNair also saw match time, albeit rather less.
Injuries to senior players undoubtedly had a role, but van Gaal was rarely forced into throwing these players into the limelight. It seemed clear for much of last season that he wasn’t going to be at the club beyond the summer, yet he continued to adhere to United’s youth policy and numerous talents were unearthed.
Jesse Lingard became a regular, as did teen sensation Marcus Rashford. Andreas Pereira caught the eye in fleeting appearances, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah promised much, particularly the latter.
But fast-forward to November with Jose Mourinho in charge, that legacy has been blown to smithereens.
Rashford and Lingard remain successes, but Fosu-Mensah has managed just one league appearance despite his obvious presence in numerous positions, Martial’s form has suffered badly, Depay looks even more out-of-sorts and Mourinho seems to have a problem with Luke Shaw.
Pereira, Guillermo Varela, Borthwick-Jackson and Januzaj all departed on loan, while Tyler Blackett, McNair, Nick Powell and Will Keane all left for good, though that quartet never looked like holding down first-team roles.
Rashford’s case is a particularly interesting one. Mourinho obviously values him and plays the youngster, but during Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s barren run there were never any indications that the teenager would get the chance to at least attempt to usurp the Swede. Yet he filled that berth so effectively towards the end of last season.
So you start building a team around young talent like Martial, Rashford and Lingard. And then you appoint Jose Mourinho.
— Elko Born (@Elko_B) May 21, 2016
Meanwhile, there has been no sign of any other youngsters coming through to challenge in the first-team. Highly rated Axel Tuanzebe was initially name-dropped by Mourinho in pre-season, but he’s not had a look-in yet, even with their current defensive issues.
Despite the criticism and the overall poor campaign overseen by van Gaal last season, he was able to leave something that he can be judged positively on. Whether it was by choice or necessity, he gave young players a platform and the chances are Mourinho wouldn’t have given Rashford a similar chance had he been in charge.
Not much of what Mourinho did at the Bernabeu left positive legacy, but his pushing to sign Modric for Madrid worked out very, very well.
— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) October 19, 2016
van Gaal has to be given credit for his willingness to stick to United’s ideals and for his commitment to the club’s future, but perhaps that’s what ultimately led to his downfall.
Mourinho will not leave such a legacy at United, so unless he brings the title successes that his team currently look utterly incapable of challenging for, he’ll go down as a failure.