Comment: Another trophy-less season for Manchester United will see Van Gaal get the boot
As Louis van Gaal puts the final touches to his team's preparations for Saturday lunchtime's Premier League curtain-raiser with Tottenham at Old Trafford, he will be under no illusions as to what is expected of him at Manchester United this season.
If last year was a free hit, the time has come for the Premier League’s most successful club to punch its weight.
When he spoke recently of a personal desire to add an English title with United to those won in Holland, Spain and Germany, Van Gaal admitted it would be a stain on his record if his contract ended at Old Trafford in June 2017 without the club adding to its 20 previous championships.
“That would be a pity,” Van Gaal said. “But then Manchester United shall fire me!”
Three years of failure would certainly not wash with the Glazers, United’s American owners, or the club’s supporters, but the uncomfortable question for Van Gaal is whether two years with no return will be enough to safeguard his position at Old Trafford.
Time will tell, but a noticeable change in approach by Van Gaal this summer, during United’s pre-season tour of the United States, hinted at a realisation that, after restoring the club to the top four following the freakishly bad seventh finish under David Moyes, the clock is now beginning to tick on his reign as manager.
It was in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, on the outskirts of Los Angeles in mid-July 2014, that Van Gaal first played to the gallery as United manager by allowing over 30,000 supporters to watch him deliver his first public training session as manager.
Van Gaal would go on to claim he had inherited a ‘broken’ United from Moyes, with the ‘shattered’ confidence of his players in need of careful rebuilding, but the spectacle in Pasadena was the Dutchman showing himself to be the man with a plan, with his energetic, demanding and technique-based approach clearly reinforcing his reputation as a world-class, innovative coach.
The process would continue throughout that pre-season trip, with similar sessions laid on for supporters in Denver, Washington and Detroit, all of whom witnessed a group of players engaging with Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ and enjoying the challenges of his demands.
But the change in mood and focus on United’s return to America last month betrayed the sense that Van Gaal and his players must hit the ground running this season.
Rather than invite the world to watch their preparations in the States, United trained behind closed doors, out of the way in remote camps in Seattle and San Jose, with Van Gaal’s players enduring a two-week routine of train-rest-eat-train-sleep.
If last season was all about Van Gaal rebooting United, it is now about showing a return on a £225million investment in the squad, which is why this pre-season has been much more intense, rigorous and away from prying eyes.
Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Matteo Darmian have all arrived for an outlay of just over £75million, followed by the free transfer arrival of Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
But while the four outfield arrivals will all bolster United and improve their hopes of challenging for honours, the departure of Angel di Maria to Paris Saint-Germain - a combination of the player not seeing eye-to-eye with Van Gaal and his family growing unsettled in Manchester forced his sale - and the unresolved situation of goalkeeper David de Gea have cast a cloud over the club ahead of the new campaign.
Losing Di Maria without a ready-made replacement is one thing, but allowing a distracted goalkeeper to remain in position may yet return to haunt Van Gaal and United if De Gea’s form leads to a change of personnel during the campaign.
For the third successive season since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United go into a new campaign with unresolved issues clouding the horizon and, on the past two occasions, the team has been unable to emerge from its state of flux quickly enough - or at all - to threaten any kind of challenge.
Without the addition of an experienced centre-half and proven goalscorer so far this summer, United are in danger of sleepwalking into a campaign once again.
Van Gaal’s decisions to deploy Daley Blind at centre-half and Wayne Rooney at centre-forward both come with large elements of risk due to Blind’s lack of pace and Rooney’s ability to prove that he remains a 20-goal a season striker.
But while his first season in English football was a demanding one, Van Gaal’s pragmatism and readiness to be bold with the likes of Marouane Fellaini ultimately delivered the top four finish demanded by the United hierarchy.
For long stretches of last season, United’s football was dour and overly-cautious, with Van Gaal allowing his team to become bogged down in tactics against opponents who would usually be beaten by flair and cavalier football.
Towards the end of the season, Van Gaal allowed the shackles to be removed and the rewards came with crucial victories against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Those performances suggested that lessons had been learned and that the input of his more attack-minded assistant, Ryan Giggs, had been taken on board.
That learning process has again been evident this summer, with Van Gaal building preparations around the game against Spurs after believing that United’s heavy pre-season workload 12 months ago contributed to the fatigue which saw them lose on the opening day to Swansea City and then proceed to record the club’s worst start to a season since the 1980s.
With a Champions League play-off looming just 10 days after the start of the season, Van Gaal’s determination to avoid last season’s terrible start is understandable, but it is only one of the stepping stones which must be taken.
To elevate United alongside Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal as title contenders, a good start must be accompanied by attacking, adventurous football, trust in his flair players and good fortune with injuries.
United and Van Gaal fell short in all of those departments last season, so the room for improvement is clear.
But with United enduring back-to-back trophyless seasons for the first time since the late-1980s, Van Gaal cannot afford dust to collect on the roll of honour again.