Manchester United: Where does Champions League exit leave Louis van Gaal?

Credit: @ManUtd
Credit: @ManUtd /

After Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages, Louis van Gaal is under severe pressure to deliver this season.

Two weeks ago, Manchester United had the opportunity to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League and move top of the Premier League with wins over PSV Eindhoven and Leicester City.

Now, following a 3-2 defeat to Wolfsburg, Louis van Gaal’s side will drop down to the Europa League after Christmas and is fourth in the league.

The Dutchman, who inherited a squad that missed out on European football after finishing seventh, has clearly made progress – but the level of performances this season suggest that he has perhaps made as much progress as he ever will.

At the time of his appointment, Van Gaal had two objectives: to regain Champions League football and then challenge for silverware.

The 64-year-old delivered on the first of those two targets, which is why the uninspiring performances of last season were generally accepted by the club’s supporters. There was a realisation that sacrificing some flair for solidity was the best way to re-structure the team.

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This season, however, United fans have become increasingly frustrated with the philosophy that the Dutchman encourages. Pass after pass, the ball is moved from player to player without any real sense of purpose. Simply put, United don’t create enough chances, take enough shots and score enough goals.

There is a feeling in some quarters that Van Gaal’s prescriptive style of football was the perfect remedy to the chaos of David Moyes’ short tenure, but that such a conservative approach won’t win a Premier League or Champions League title.

That view was only reinforced in the wake of United’s Champions League exit in Germany. In what should have been a fairly straightforward group to navigate, United scored as many goals in six games against PSV Eindhoven, Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow as they did in two qualifying games against Club Brugge.

With just eight points accrued from those fixtures, even accounting for a series of injuries to mirror last season’s crisis, United simply didn’t play well enough in a single Champions League game this season.

The tone was set in United’s first game away to PSV. Luke Shaw’s horrific injury understandably shook the players and resulted in a tactical reshuffle, but to go from 1-0 up to 2-1 down so meekly was perplexing.

The real damage was done at home against the Dutch champions. Needing only a win to quality from the group, United laboured to a 0-0 draw and rarely looked like scoring in the game.

Similarly, despite Anthony Martial’s equaliser in Russia, United were unable to kick on and win away from home against CSKA Moscow.

Such performances and results were unacceptable given the financial investment in the team over the last 18 months. Suggestions that Van Gaal’s technical and tactical style of football might suit European football were ultimately quashed in the space of six games.

Thoughts now will inevitably turn back to the Premier League. Irrespective of how unconvincing United’s title challenge might be at this stage, a three-point gap to leaders Leicester City is all that matters in December.

If Van Gaal can manage the busy festive period effectively in the next month, United could yet head into 2016 top of the pile, especially as Manchester City and Arsenal face one another just before Christmas.

However, after 15 Premier League matches this season, United have scored just 20 goals at an average of 1.33 per game. That number hasn’t been lower in the Premier League era. In fact, no team has ever won the league scoring fewer than 1.60 goals per game – and that was in 1992/93.

So despite having a platform from which to launch a serious title charge, it’s clear that United will need to improve drastically in an attacking sense.

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The big question, though, is whether Van Gaal is capable of instigating such positive change at a time when injuries have left the squad so depleted.

Midway through Van Gaal’s three-year contract, United seem to have plateaued. It’s at this point the Dutchman’s methods and style prove more divisive than ever.

On the one hand, some fans recognise the structure and organisation Van Gaal has instilled, pointing out that he is laying the foundations for the club’s next manager as part of a lengthy transition.

On the flip side, other fans suggest that United aren’t making progress quickly enough, that (potentially) three years without a trophy represents decline rather than transition.

For Van Gaal, the fact that there remains a split – for now at least – shows he is doing something right.

And that’s an important point to make, because there are positives to take from what has been an underwhelming season: young players are getting a chance, the defence looks organised and the team has only lost five out of 25 games.

But this feels like a crucial month for Van Gaal.

More draws, goalless games and uninspiring performances will alienate the club’s fans to the point that the elephant in the room – Pep Guardiola – is seen as the right move next summer, not only to prevent him from joining Manchester City, but to fast-track the progress that Van Gaal has undeniably made.

Next: Double injury blow for Man Utd ahead of Bournemouth clash

The short-term effect of United’s Champions League exit means United face the embarrassment of Thursday night football. The long-term effect might be that this represents the beginning of the end for Van Gaal.