If Louis van Gaal is staying, he must focus on the job he was tasked with in the first place
Ask Manchester United supporters about Louis van Gaal and they'll tell you a chilling tale. They'll stammer through stories of sideways, slow-paced football, of goalless first halves and a broken philosophy. It's been dull, so dull, and worst of all it has never been in danger of getting noticeably better.
Still, it's coming to an end now and the summer will surely see the Dutchman shuffle out of Old Trafford and his time at the club be reduced to a harrowing memory.
Or will it?
Stay of execution
The axe never swung, and four months later there's still no guarantee that it actually will
Back in December, change was afoot and Van Gaal's departure seemed inevitable.
With United eliminated from the Champions League by a defeat to Wolfsburg, then beaten by Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke in successive weeks, the Dutchman was on borrowed time by Boxing Day. His reign had become an agonising struggle and, rather than a team in transition, Manchester United looked to be stuck in a lifeless stasis.
But the axe never swung, and four months later there's still no guarantee that it actually will. The uncomfortable truth is that United, seemingly, are not an attractive home for the managerial elite.
Between December and the beginning of April, Pep Guardiola has agreed to join Manchester City and, more recently, Antonio Conte has confirmed that he will be moving to Chelsea after Euro 2016. Equally, while Mauricio Pochettino has been mentioned in dispatches as a possible successor, it seems incredibly unlikely that he would trade the fertile grounds of north London for the Lancastrian scorched earth and, as yet, there is no suggestion that Diego Simeone is in a hurry to leave Atletico Madrid.
So while it's been assumed that there will be a Van Gaal-shaped hole at United by June, there can be no certainty as to how it can be filled – even Jose Mourinho, who has supposedly coveted the job for over a decade, appears only mildly enthusiastic and is, in any case, now fluttering his eyelashes at Peter Lim in Valencia.
Consequently – and more so now than at any other point in the last year – Van Gaal looks likely to complete his three-year contract. Whether by design or because of that dearth of alternatives, United look content to defer the beginning of their new era until the end of next season.
There's some sense to that, too. They are a club who can't afford another wayward step. With the arrival of Guardiola and Conte – and the likely progression of Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp – United can't be too quick to embrace change just for the sake of it.
David Moyes was an error, Van Gaal was a misfire and another poor appointment threatens to turn this malaise into a semi-permanent decline. Whoever Ed Woodward appoints next must succeed, and must begin to take back some of the ground which has been lost.
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But if Van Gaal is to be afforded a reprieve and is tapped to bridge this uncomfortable, 14-month gap to 2017, he will have to calm the disquiet which surrounds him.
United, of course, may yet qualify for next year's Champions League and the Dutchman may then be able to point to a degree of superficial success, but that won't be enough to quell the acrimony. His vulnerability, after all, stems more from style and mood rather than it does the basic realities of the league table.
Van Gaal's appointment was essentially a preparatory exercise for the future. In football parlance, that meant filling the many holes in the squad, pointing the club towards future silverware and then handing over the keys
So the objective, really, is to correct the flow of momentum. Van Gaal's appointment was essentially a preparatory exercise for the future. The reasoning behind it being, presumably, that his personality, ego and acumen would help to steam-clean the carpets in preparation for a new, long-term direction. In football parlance, that meant filling the many holes in the squad, pointing the club towards future silverware and handing over the keys to his office when Moyes's ghost had been driven from the halls.
That's really been his biggest failure – and, quite naturally, the problem he most needs to tackle if he is to be allowed a final year.
Much is written about Manchester United fans and their intolerance for anything less than tangible success. Outside of extreme cases, that's a fallacy. United fans didn't demand – or expect – Van Gaal to mount a serious title challenge, or anticipate seeing their side in a European Cup final during his reign. They simply wanted evidence of a progression.
They accepted the Dutchman for the temporary solution that he was and hoped that he would help them to forget what had gone before; he would return the positive football and the sense that, not today but sometime soon, there would be something to celebrate again. He was, for want of a better expression, an agent of change.
The summer of 2016 must be Van Gaal's Year Zero. It can be the point at which he detoxifies his mini-legacy in England and starts to sow seeds for his successor
Viewed from that perspective, his task isn't particularly tall. While the lunatic fringe may not conform, United's fanbase have a fairly generic set of aspirations: they want to win without needing to, but they demand that the team in front of them is worth supporting. Trophies, finals and title contention can be left to the future, because all that is really required of Van Gaal is the restoration of belief.
The last 18 months, however, has been the opposite of that. The stale football has become more entrenched and the perception that United have abandoned the principles which made them what they were has never been stronger.
The summer of 2016 must be Van Gaal's Year Zero. It can be the point at which he detoxifies his mini-legacy in England and starts to sow seeds for his successor. Build a team which is bold and based around the stylistic principles which actually matter to that crowd. Those traits – the United Way, as they're collectively referred to – are often dismissed as jingoistic rhetoric, but how can that be if they're the source of so much genuine affection?
Tellingly, it's also the absence of those same ideals which has created an emotional vacuum between the pitch and stands. Winning alone doesn't energise a club like Manchester United, and that was evidenced by the joyless away victories over Liverpool and Manchester City this year.
When victory in those kind of matches feels hollow, that's typically because a team have been allowed to drift too far from their emotional moorings. They were standalone victories which felt like one-offs and, respectively, nice days out which were the catalyst for nothing in particular.
Should he get the time, that has to be Louis van Gaal's challenge: to begin something. To separate United from the boardroom silliness, the attention-grabbing rumour games and the commercial deals, and to make them feel like a football team again.