Louis van Gaal saw his Manchester United side crash out of the Champions League after a pulsating, yet ultimately deflating, 3-2 defeat against Wolfsburg in Germany.
This is the fourth time the Red Devils have been sent home at the group stages but never has it been more disappointing and puts a huge exclamation point on the end of what has been a difficult four days for Man United and their manager.
Following the drab 0-0 with West Ham at the weekend which prompted the chants of “attack” followed by disgruntled murmurs at the final whistle the onus was on van Gaal to deliver a victory against their German opposition to try and get the United faithful back on his side. Instead the pressure will only have cranked up and his position, while not under serious threat, is being questioned – mainly in terms of if he was ever the right man for the job.
To win at Wolfsburg to ensure qualification was always going to be a tall order but if truth be told it is a position that such an expensively assembled squad and a vastly experienced manager should have never have found themselves in – even in a group that would be labelled as ‘tricky’. United attacked valiantly after conceding their third goal of the evening but with PSV winning their efforts to grab two goals in five minutes seemed almost an impossibility rather than a flicker of hope as it was under the never say die attitude of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ferguson saw his side finish third in the group stages in 2011/12 season when his side amassed just nine points from six games in a group containing: Benfica, Basel and Romainian side Otelul Galati. That year United threw away a two goal lead at home to Basel and were particularly lacklustre in the return game in which their fate hung in the balance.
However, van Gaal sees his side crash out after pumping £251m worth of talent into the squad since his reign began at Old Trafford. United did recoup around £70m in the last summer window but the expenditure is too great, as is the club, to see it collapse so soon. Players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger – a World Cup and Champions League winner looked hopeless to resist the German opposition, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial were hailed as Europe’s next biggest stars when van Gaal brought them in during the summer window but they could not provide a moment of individual inspiration that earned them so many plaudits before which played a part in bringing the pair to Old Trafford.
When the group was announced United fans would be forgiven for feeling confident. They’d spent heavily for the second summer in a row, confident that van Gaal’s system would finally click and they managed to avoid any real contenders for the title. The European campaigns of 2008 and 2009 when United made back to back Champions League finals and knocking out some European powerhouses in the process and looking every bit of the best team in world football seems a very distant memory. What we are left with is a club with great European history but mediocre credentials at this moment.
While van Gaal has stubbornly guided his team into the thick of a title race with the Premier League this set back in Europe cannot be ignored. Ferguson oversaw three group stage exits but throughout his body of work he’d earned the occasional off campaign in the Champions League. Van Gaal is yet to earn that with United fans and it is always worth remembering that his predecessor, David Moyes, took a starkly weaker United team to the top of Group A in 2013 and guided them to the quarter finals.
Van Gaal openly said throughout the season that this current United squad were not up to winning the whole competition and it is a reasonable assumption that no United fan expected that. But they did expect to navigate themselves from out of the group stages and bring some of Europe’s elite back to Old Trafford for another famous Champions League night.
Ferguson often made the most from his sides when in transition and this current side of van Gaal’s are certainly in just that. However Ferguson always did it with more limited resources and nearly always saw them get to the last eight – sometimes with inferior personnel than what is on offer to the former Bayern Munich boss. The Dutchman has splashed the cash on some of Europe’s biggest and brightest players and still seems to be scratching his head as to how to use them – a problem not exclusive to United under van Gaal, he previously has problems with Rivaldo at Barcelona moving him from playing up front to the left wing.
Questions will rightly be asked about van Gaal throughout the next week and even more so in January when the United boss enters the January transfer window. The timing of this latest disappointment will undoubtedly add more pressure and van Gaal will now have deliver the title or come a very close second if he is to confidently see out the remainder of his contract.