Jury still out on Louis van Gaal's reign at Manchester United
Manchester United's season has struggled to move beyond themes suggested on the opening day of the season.
There was an air of bewilderment at Old Trafford last August when Swansea won the first Premier League game of the Louis Van Gaal era. Manchester United had lost at home on the opening day for the first time since 1972 and, suddenly, it seemed that there were problems that would last longer than David Moyes.
This was not how the game had been billed. Van Gaal's pre-season had been so triumphant that it was easy to think that the problems that began with Moyes's arrival would all leave town with his departure.
Van Gaal's assurance had a lot to do with that but the season has followed the pattern of that opening game. Van Gaal remains assured but around him there are now doubts. Van Gaal is as clear-eyed about his vision as he always is and it may be that with time, and the money United will spend again in the summer, he will achieve all that he has promised. His CV suggests it is possible but his CV also ensures that United's sterility is not unfamiliar either.
There was something approaching certainty about what Van Gaal would do when he arrived at Manchester United and the season has been a reminder that few managers can be sure of what they'll achieve. Van Gaal's impressive World Cup with the Netherlands had hardened that belief, even if it was a tournament that would never match the heights of their opening game victory against Spain.
Van Gaal had been a success everywhere he went, it was said, although it was forgotten that he had sometimes failed first, as with the Dutch national team, failed quickly, as he did with Bayern Munich, or worn people down during his achievements, as he had during his first spell at Barcelona.
It also didn't matter that Van Gaal has won only two league titles in the 21st century, one a spectacular achievement with AZ in Holland, the other with Bayern in his first season.
If Manchester United had been swayed by the sentimentality attached to the Scottish diaspora when appointing Moyes, they could feel certain that Van Gaal was not a man to be distracted by any misty-eyed romanticism. "I am friends with my children and they love me," he said once when explaining why they addressed him - as he had with his parents - in the formal form of 'you' in Dutch rather than the more familiar. Typically, Van Gaal went on to say that his children now understood why he took this approach and one of his daughters had adopted it herself. All this self-assurance was what United needed and, as they enter the final phase of a critical season, they require it just as much.
A victory for United at West Ham today would allow them to believe that they are moving away from a difficult period. Since they lost at home to Southampton on January 11, United have been unconvincing.
Their disappointments in recent weeks have been humdrum just as United's form has stuttered all season. At Loftus Road three weeks ago, the Manchester United fans chanted for 4-4-2 as they became frustrated with Van Gaal's system and his pursuit of systems almost for the sake of it. Joey Barton, who played for QPR in that game, said last week that this United side was the worst he had played against but, as he had been in the Championship last season and didn't play against Moyes's team, that is an observation of limited value.
Sometimes it is hard to spot the progress Van Gaal promised as players are played out of position and struggle to express themselves within his system. After the opening day defeat at Old Trafford, United went another three games without victory and in that time were knocked out of the League Cup by MK Dons. They scored once in those three games but after beating QPR 4-0 at Old Trafford, they lost spectacularly at Leicester City, a defeat which promised that if United were going to fail this season, they would do it flamboyantly.
Instead Van Gaal returned to a 3-5-2 system and in denying his opponents, he also seemed to deny something of Manchester United.
"I do not have to take into account 600 million opinions," he said when asked about United fans chanting for 4-4-2 at Loftus Road. "I cannot listen to what the media are writing or what other people are saying because they are never at the training ground or attending the team meetings. It is my job to analyse the games, communicate with the players and then make a decision with my staff."
The scoreless draw at Cambridge United in the FA Cup allowed more doubts to spread, yet Van Gaal's certainty provides something of a consolation and his vision, much as it can be mocked, remains one of his most appealing qualities in the job.
With Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao both scoring against Leicester City last weekend, the manager might hope that United can become intimidating in front of goal again.
Before the Swansea game on the opening day, Van Gaal said that United would probably be his last job in football. In the same interview, he had suggested that he would be in a position to take United on a title challenge in a year.
On Friday, he promised that if the team continued to improve they would be in a position to challenge Chelsea and Manchester City as the best team in England.
The failing of others has allowed United to move into a Champions League place despite their uncertain form and some indifferent displays. But in recent weeks, the others have looked as if they are getting a handle on their failings.
"It's fantastic what this beleaguered team has managed to achieve so far this season despite all the injury worries," Van Gaal said as he entered his final months as Bayern Munich's coach, an illustration that his confidence is not always an indication of other people's confidence.
Van Gaal fulfils one of the key requirements for a modern manager and in doing so, he contrasts vividly with the diffidence and hesitancy of Moyes. In an interview last week Moyes said he would have approached the Manchester United job very differently had he known it would last only ten months.
It was a fair point but as Moyes took his time and was considered in all he did, Van Gaal has used the poor results in a more impressive way. Sometimes he can sound like Basil Fawlty complaining to the guests that Manuel "is hopeless, isn't he?" as he explains that every mistake is just another reason why he should be at Manchester United for a long time, putting things right.
When things went wrong for Van Gaal at Bayern Munich, the side was described as "toothless, impotent and predictable" by one critic. There have been times in recent weeks when it could have looked like a description of Manchester United. Yet they remain on course this season and a win at Upton Park today will be an important step in returning to the Champions League.
The club's problems predated Van Gaal and many of them predated David Moyes. The appointment of Van Gaal and the money the club has spent were the strongest indications of their determination to fix those problems. The extent of them was clear on the opening day of the season and, amid all the noise, not much has changed.
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