Why is Man United manager Louis van Gaal under so little pressure?
Underwhelming United are and stuttering in Europe and domestically, yet the club's hierarchy remain oddly satisfied
Louis Van Gaal goes into the most important match of his career as Manchester United manager apparently without any pressure. It should not be so.
United have to beat Wolfsburg away in the Champions League on Tuesday to guarantee they reach the last 16 of the prestigious competition which should be the absolute minimum requirement for Van Gaal. Failure to do so would simply not be good enough.
United are fourth in the Premier League, just three points off the top, and that is masking a lot of the team’s problems this season. Going out of the Champions League at this stage should not be brushed aside because of that.
The information coming out of Old Trafford continues to be that the club’s hierarchy are happy with Van Gaal, that they appreciate and admire the work he has done since succeeding David Moyes, both on and off the pitch, and the way he conducts himself. It is an admirable attempt at continuity.
So happy are they in fact that United have apparently even let it be known that they harbour doubts as to whether a manager such as Pep Guardiola could cut it in the Premier League - which is either an insight that is incredibly perceptive or completely wrong.
Logic emphatically suggests the latter not least because Guardiola’s next port of call after conquering La Liga and the Bundesliga will eventually be the Premier League. He wants to work here so will not be a reluctant employee. He will do his homework.
United even believe Guardiola will leave Bayern Munich when his current contract expires at the end of this season but that they will stick with Van Gaal who has a year left on his deal after this campaign.
They probably could not have given any other view right now without rocking the boat – although they could have fudged it a little more. Maybe they do have genuine doubts about Guardiola and absolute faith in Van Gaal. Maybe, conversely, they already have Guardiola signed up although that, surely, is not the case.
Or, maybe, they believe – as many in football now do – that it is a done deal that the Spaniard is going to take over at Manchester City. City strongly deny this but how would it feel at Old Trafford to have Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Guardiola at City?
United’s stance is that the club has a growing preoccupation with the Premier League and believe that Van Gaal can deliver the title this season. Going out of the Champions League would therefore not constitute a disaster as they fight for what they regard is the main prize.
Also the club points out that being out of the Champions League in 2013-14 did not harm its commercial revenues and, besides, the next Premier League television deal, which kicks in next season, is so vast and so lucrative that revenues from European football are less important.
It is an argument. An argument that is being put forward, it would appear, to either genuinely portray a club making progress and happy with its lot – or one that is preparing the ground for potential failure this week.
Either way it is a little warped. Where is the glory in all of this? A club of the stature, history and resources of United should not be prepared to accept that going out of the Champions League is acceptable because the club remains in contention for the Premier League title. Not at this stage. Especially as, it should be pointed out, that if they do go out then they will find themselves in the Europa League instead.
And United are fourth in the Premier League. They are not running away with it and they do not give the impression that they are going to be good enough to do so without a significant improvement in their attacking play. Which probably means yet more signings. They grind out results, little more, at present.
That in itself is also a switch in thinking at the club. When Moyes was sacked one of the strongest reasons put forward was that he had betrayed what was termed the “DNA” of the club and that there had been “few swash-buckling, attacking performances”; little to lift the supporters out of their seats.
There has been little of that either from Van Gaal. He has gone from chanting “Louis Van Gaal’s red and white army” at press conferences to asking why the fans cry “attack, attack, attack” in frustration as to what they are witnessing.
United are in a group with Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow – all competent teams but not ones they should fail to finish ahead of. Not with a manager of Van Gaal’s pedigree – not least in this competition – and not with the resources at his disposal and the vast amounts of money that have been spent in the transfer market to create a work-in-progress.
United fly to Germany without Wayne Rooney, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera – who are all injured – as are Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and, of course, Luke Shaw which will make their task even harder against a highly-motivated Wolfsburg team who want to go through themselves.
Win and they win the group and the landscape of the season changes; go out and it simply should not be brushed aside. And certainly United can win. But no-one would bank on it. Not least, it seems, the club itself.