Manchester United’s return to the Champions League was regarded as the crowning glory of manager Louis van Gaal’s very first season at Old Trafford.
After the ill-fated decision to appoint David Moyes as successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Netherlands coach brought a measure of stability, albeit without silverware, and a location in the Premier League’s prime 4.
It has proved an inglorious, embarrassing comeback to Europe’s elite tournament United not even scrambling out of the group stage after defeat by Wolfsburg in Germany on Tuesday.
What now for Louis van Gaal?
It will come as a large shock to United’s hierarchy, as well as Van Gaal, that they will have their noses pressed up against the Champions League window when it resumes in 2016.
The feeling inside Old Trafford was qualification would have been assured just before they even reached the industrial heartland of Wolfsburg for the finale. This was a vain hope.
United’s elimination came soon after a valiant displaying against Wolfsburg but a colourless performance in the home game against PSV Eindhoven left them with a hurdle that was too high to negotiate.
That poor show was more representative of United than any of the small positives that can be taken away from their final, decisive game.
This was not a testing group for a team of United’s economic and footballing stature – and Van Gaal can not realistically be taken seriously if he tells any hard luck stories.
United were as very good in attack as they have been all through the group stages in Germany but they defended abysmally and eventually did not deserve to attain the knockout phase.
And, with growing discontent amongst United’s support about Van Gaal’s pragmatic style, the prospect of preparing for Europa League action on Thursday nights will not improve his standing.
There is no suggestion that even a failure of this significance will put Van Gaal’s position in jeopardy, but to have spent in excess of £250m and slipped out so tamely is bound to raise concerns about how comfy a fit he is for the demands of Old Trafford.
It is fully expected Van Gaal will see out the final 18 months of his contract but football is a fluid game and he will need big outcomes among now and the finish of the season to stem increasing unhappiness about United’s style of play.
In Van Gaal’s defence, it ought to be pointed out that United have suffered a dreadful run of injuries, from the moment in-form Luke Shaw broke his leg in the opening group defeat against PSV. Wayne Rooney was also missing in Germany, along with defenders Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo as well as midfield man Ander Herrera.
It was nonetheless startling, nevertheless, to see Michael Carrick’s expertise ignored until he came on for the labouring Bastian Schweinsteiger and the nearly missing-in-action and forgotten Nick Powell replacing Juan Mata when targets have been needed.
Van Gaal has probably not been provided the credit he deserves for stabilising United and restoring them to the top four final season but, offered the continued outlay, the veteran coach wants to increase on that and give the club a return on their vast investment.
The Dutchman, unlike Moyes prior to him, sounds complete of conviction with each and every statement he makes. The big difficulty he has is his team are utterly unconvincing.
Does this speed up United’s succession arranging?
Barring the steepest of declines, the full intention of Old Trafford’s power brokers is to hold Van Gaal till the finish of his contract in 2017. Benefits like Tuesday’s, nonetheless, may properly imply they will train their eyes even much more keenly on who will succeed him.
It would stretch credibility to breaking point to think United’s prime brass have not given some thought to who will be the subsequent man in the manager’s office at Carrington.
Former AC Milan, Paris St-Germain, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti is out of function and has admitted he would like to operate in the Premier League again. The name of Pep Guardiola will entice any Premier League club as he considers his future at Bayern Munich.
The solutions could however be discovered closer to property and these graduates from Ferguson and youth coach Eric Harrison’s well-known ‘Class of 92’.
Ryan Giggs is the quietest second fiddle around – a seemingly silent companion to the single-minded, practically dictatorial Van Gaal, but events elsewhere in the past couple of days have perhaps shifted emphasis drastically.
Although Giggs is regarded as getting created progress by some inside the club in his assistant’s function – although it is difficult to see how he can endorse the current playing style given his Old Trafford upbringing – there is no doubt those inside the club will be maintaining a close eye on how Gary Neville develops having taken more than at Valencia, with his brother Phil on his backroom employees.
Another member of that renowned group, Paul Scholes, has emerged as one particular of the fiercest critics of the Van Gaal regime – so it is perhaps Neville’s ascent that has offered this narrative its most exciting twist.
As with Giggs, Neville knows United, knows the Premier League and the club would nevertheless be an attraction for any manager of ambition and good quality.
So while there is no heat on Van Gaal, that is unlikely to cease those in handle at United pondering of the framework for the future.
What is Van Gaal’s next step?
The very first priority is to get back to winning techniques at Bournemouth this weekend in the Premier League – then devise his technique for the rest of the season.
Although the instant prospect of the Europa League is not appetising, with former United defender Rio Ferdinand describing the notion of those Thursday evening games as “embarrassing”, it might but form a essential component of United’s season.
Van Gaal have to weigh up the possibility of not taking it seriously, understanding Premier League rivals such as Liverpool and Tottenham have currently proved they will, against its attainable influence on league form.
Will involvement help or hinder United’s Premier League campaign? It is at present an imponderable and a trophy in the cabinet is nevertheless sufficient to warm the hearts of most disgruntled fans.
It is a tough balancing act, particularly as Van Gaal is wrestling with that injury list – Chris Smalling the most recent casualty as he limped by means of these closing minutes in Wolfsburg.
United are only three points off the Premier League summit, so have the possibility of becoming genuine challengers in an unpredictable season, but Van Gaal should uncover the way to balance his group amongst attack and defence.
They have the best defensive record in the league, conceding only 10, but have scored only 20 – 12 fewer than leaders Leicester City.
In 53 league games Van Gaal has overseen seven – draws – at a percentage of 13.21% that is more than twice that of Ferguson (five.56%) and Moyes (five.88%).
This was one of several puzzles Van Gaal had to solve as the devastated and dispirited United celebration flew out of Germany and into the perceived oblivion of the Europa League.
Are Man Utd now basically European second-raters?
United supporters like to sing about their standing as “The pride of all Europe” – the truth of the matter is they had been not even that in the latter days of Ferguson’s regime and this exit just underlines their lowered status.
United last won the Champions League against Chelsea in 2008, but additional final appearances against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 ended with Ferguson’s side utterly outclassed on both occasions. They did not even created it out of the group stage in 2011-2012.
Given that these days, Europe’s elite such as Barcelona, Genuine Madrid, Bayern Munich and now even Paris St-Germain have got away from United.
The European decline has been setting in for years, so possibly this campaign was simply one more reality check.
United’s name does not strike worry into Europe’s best teams these days and, on the evidence of this doomed group stage, will not daunt the bigger names in the Europa League either.
The feeling inside Old Trafford is that, in terms of priority, the Premier League makes up 80% of their season and Europe the remaining 20%. Everybody at Manchester United should hope, for their sakes, that Van Gaal can make the sums add up.