Louis van Gaal will have been under no illusion as to the size of the task that lies ahead of him at Manchester United. Floundering at times last season, the inglorious end to David Moyes’ period at the helm has determined that the giant supertanker that is United must be turned around as quickly as possible.
Not that Van Gaal is averse to adding even further pressure on himself. When asked by reporters in his first press conference about aiming for a top four position, his reply was: “For me, the challenge is always to come first, not fourth.”
He also talked of ensuring that he and the players click.
In contrast to the unveiling of Moyes, the fanfare seems greater this time around—almost a euphoric atmosphere surrounds the club and a shared feeling and determination among players and supporters that last season’s darkest days are surely destined to be remembered as but a blip.
Expectations have been raised higher thanks to the impressive showing that Van Gaal’s Netherlands side produced at the FIFA World Cup.
So far, the players that have been brought in to the club are those that were very much on last season’s watch-list. Jamie Jackson of The Guardian wrote that the signings of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were "approved" by the Dutchman, not actively sought by him. Last summer’s disastrous transfer window chase of Herrera bears witness to this.
The capture of reported targets Mats Hummels, per the Daily Mirror, and Arturo Vidal, per the Daily Express, would send expectations at Old Trafford through the roof. Although both would feature on many manager’s shopping lists, their signings would project the image of a Louis van Gaal team built for purpose.
Van Gaal’s World Cup campaign shows that he is a coach who can wring out every last ounce from his players, to great effect. He must now use that experience during the club’s US tour to make lightning-quick judgments on which players in the massive squad are surplus to requirements. Of course, he will have done his homework on the United squad already—the next couple of weeks will further inform his choices.
Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young, Nani, Darren Fletcher, Javier Hernandez—there is a long list of players that might just be playing for their futures at this pre-season tour, not to mention youngsters knocking at the door. Their future might already have been decided.
However, the successful deployment of centre forward Dirk Kuyt as a wing-back during the World Cup could mean that all is not lost for even the most derided of that bunch.
Another quick call that the new manager will have to make is who to select as club captain. Wayne Rooney was thought by many to be the man to take over from the departing Nemanja Vidic. However, Van Gaal’s relationship with Robin van Persie, his captain at international level, could provide a hint as to the destination of the armband.
A feature of the Netherlands' World Cup campaign was Van Gaal’s willingness to change tactics and formation. His favoured 4-3-3 formation was tweaked according to opponent and circumstance. The most important factor was that he knew that the players on the pitch were capable of working towards his demands.
A couple more transfers, whittling down the squad size and getting his players on side and working for him, as well as making sure that they "click," are the key targets before the new English Premier League season starts.
Mark Ogden reported in The Guardian that there are to be new pitches and wind-proofing methods installed at United's training complex at Carrington, as per Louis van Gaal's request. This shows that chief executive Ed Woodward and the club's owners are willing to execute the plans from their new manager’s playbook.
Now it is the players turn to show that they are also on the same page.