Paul Hayward: Embattled Van Gaal has one last chance - win the Premier League title
Manchester United's fans, players and directors will already be thinking beyond Louis van Gaal, who has lurched into lame duckery with a soporific playing style and an embarrassing exit from an unthreatening Champions League group.
The credibility of managers collapses with ever-increasing speed. Too quickly, in most cases. But only by winning the Premier League title race can Van Gaal now vindicate the decision to appoint him post-David Moyes.
Big clubs hire big names on the safe-pair-of-hands principle. Minimums are assumed. The Wolfsburg game, though, was a shambles, from starting with Michael Carrick on the bench to bringing on Nick Powell and plonking the injured centre-back Chris Smalling at centre-forward like El Cid. Powell's most recent appearance had been in the 4-0 League Cup defeat against MK Dons in August 2014, where he lasted 57 minutes.
Van Gaal will now lose control of this narrative. Fans and pundits will speculate non-stop. Two possible solutions stand out, next summer, or even earlier if the Premier League campaign falters. One is a Class of 92 dream team of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. The other is a move for either of the coaches who would restore United's attacking tradition. The boat was missed on Jurgen Klopp so the dreams of United fans will wrap themselves again around Carlo Ancelotti or Pep Guardiola.
In either scenario - homegrown or foreign royalty - Van Gaal is paying a price for treating United as an elaborate academic exercise, a chance to show how sophisticated he is, rather than a club who took a wrong turn after Alex Ferguson's retirement and needed to return to what they knew.
The chatter will not be stopped by stern looks or rebukes from 'King Louis'.
Ancelotti is unemployed. Gary Neville has taken up a head coaching role at Valencia and could conceivably return as early as late summer to work with Giggs, who has maintained a diplomatic silence through Van Gaal's 18 months in charge.
The Scholes, Rio Ferdinand generation, though, are clearly fuming about United's slide into torpor. To be dull at home and also-rans in Europe is not a manifesto that will endear Van Gaal to the many Ferguson-era legends, who can all comment from a background of success.
Some of the club's problems are institutional, and reflect the warping of priorities in favour of commerce. Chasing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale could be seen as attempts to burnish a fading brand rather than a realistic transfer strategy.
The constant over-estimating of Wayne Rooney's value to the squad has been another handicap, along with Van Gaal's habit of blowing hot and cold on players. Sending Adnan Januzaj out on loan was particularly baffling.
It all means that United started 2015-16 depending for goals on a 19-year-old emergency purchase with potential (Anthony Martial) and a fading household name with 14 years of Premier League football on his clock (Rooney).
United have now hired two versions of the same problem. Eager to impose their own authority, both Moyes and Van Gaal refused to accept that United already had a "philosophy". Moyes went more direct, more Everton.
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Van Gaal has turned them into a slower Holland. United's crowd-deflating patient play is working to a degree in a bad Premier League title race but stretched the faith of supporters in Wolfsburg. Van Gaal was low on credit prior to the Champions League game on Tuesday night anyway and has lost that leeway now.
A coach who has travelled across Europe's borders - and a tactician by trade - he ought to have been capable of laying a path out of a group that was home to Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow.
Van Gaal's unimpressive game management in Germany exemplified his mishandling of the whole group campaign, in which United ignored the cardinal need to attack, and win, at home.
Time and again insiders said that he was "brought in to do a job" after Moyes was fired. Stability would be restored, the squad rebuilt. United would look like aristocrats again, and resume the fight against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Instead, progressing from a humdrum Champions League group is beyond them; capitalising on a £250m transfer spend in a wide-open Premier League title race is harder work than it should be. And good players continue to be marginalised or used haphazardly as the manager consults his clipboard.
Van Gaal's self-confidence might even extend to the belief that his coaching brain is bigger than United's history and traditions. His career-pattern has been that a dictatorial coaching style eventually alienates players.
There are countless amusing anecdotes of his time at Barcelona, where he reportedly upset Hristo Stoichkov by telling him how to take penalties.
United's fans are already disaffected and the swirl will grow if the players now start to disengage.
In today's climate, a manager who makes top players look bad is not long for this world, as Moyes discovered. No longer the saviour, Van Gaal is now merely the incumbent, with one chance to turn that dynamic back round.
He must win the Premier League. If that possibility expires between now and Easter he could yet be fired.
The way United are these days, he will go when he is bad for business.(© Daily Telegraph, London)
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