Louis van Gaal tells Manchester United fans that they must get used to being mediocre
Seldom has a club just three points off the Premier League lead appeared so engulfed by crisis. But then rarely has a club lavished £250m on star players and fashioned a team so utterly underwhelming.
Louis van Gaal underwent an inquisition yesterday unlike almost any other he had endured in his 29 years in management as he tried in vain to find a cogent explanation for why Manchester United had failed to advance from such an undistinguished Champions League group.
Phlegmatic as ever, he shrugged off all criticisms by claiming that the club inhabited a harsher reality from the era of Alex Ferguson.
"People don't want to hear me," he said. "They say a club like Manchester United has to win. But that's the past."
In its way, it was a stunning statement, tantamount to a blithe acceptance of mediocrity.
Van Gaal's argument was that it was far more difficult to excel both in Europe and on the domestic front, owing to a narrowing of the gap between the established powers and the chasing pack.
This might be true, but the Dutchman neglected to note that United played a Champions League final as recently as 2011. They also won the league by 11 points in 2012.
To plug the gap created by changing times, United chief executive Ed Woodward gave him a war chest bigger than some countries' defence budget.
By any measurement, he has failed to deliver the standards he was expected to produce.
Characteristically, Van Gaal would not have any of it. He tends, as befits a man who reportedly hears himself described as a "genius manager" by United's own board, to posture as some omniscient being while regarding any detractors as intellectually inferior.
Rather than acknowledging the shame of tumbling out of the Champions League group phase to Wolfsburg, he berated journalists for not giving sufficient praise to the performance last Tuesday night of his two young full-backs.
"We also played with Memphis Depay, 21 years old, Jesse Lingard, 22, and Anthony Martial, 20, and still we could have hurt the No 2 side in Germany."
To listen to Van Gaal, you would have thought he had fielded some ramshackle youth side at the Volkswagen Arena.
There was no admission that Martial was a talent for whom United had paid £36m, plus add-ons, or that Depay had hardly been a steal at £25m to judge by his meagre haul of five goals since arriving last summer from PSV Eindhoven.
Van Gaal cannot keep this facade up much longer. He is losing plausibility by the day, and already there are suggestions that Ryan Giggs - once considered a United 'lifer' - could yet be tempted by the vacant managerial position at Swansea City, in the wake of Garry Monk's sacking.
Intriguingly, Van Gaal did not dispute the possibility. "I cannot speak about the 'if' situations," he said. "First I have to speak to Ryan himself to see if it is true."
This evening, Van Gaal will send his team out to play Bournemouth, still cock-a-hoop after their vanquishing of Chelsea, conscious that even his most loyal disciples are becoming restive.
A run of three defeats and a draw in four matches is bad enough, but a sequence of five goalless draws in the last 10 league games is borderline unconscionable.
The natural logic is that United, deposed from the European aristocracy that was once their natural domain, must win the Premier League title if the manager is to save his job. But Van Gaal is so incorrigibly stubborn that he refuses to be held to any specific targets.
"We shall do everything to win something, but it is very difficult. It is not as easy as everybody thinks."
Van Gaal insisted that he had not lost his managerial touch and that at the age of 64 he was still capable of turning the team's season around.
When asked if he felt any uncertainty about his job, the Dutchman responded: "No doubts. You can lose and win in sport. You have to accept it.
"The problem is that we have to meet with the expectation. At a club like Manchester United they are very high."
In the wake of the club's embarrassing exit from the Champions League many have questioned how relevant his brand of sometimes stultifying possession football is in the age of the counter-attack.
But Van Gaal remained on the offensive: "When you say I was hired to make a difference, you are right," he said. "I can make a difference in tactics and everything but I cannot score goals.
"I have already read in the media that at 64 I am too old but last year I was good enough to take Holland to third in the World Cup."
He also insisted that, despite the poor football, if United were to win the Premier League it would silence the critics - just as it did when he was at Barcelona in 1997.
"When we went out at the group stage with Barcelona, they wrote the same thing - that my touch has gone," he said.
"We are out at the group stage and I am very sorry but I have done everything I could. My players have done everything they could." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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