Louis van Gaal’s answer was short and will sound the sweetest of music to worried Manchester United fans. “No. No. I am sorry,” the manager said, requiring only five words to discard the notion he could ever doubt his own ability.
Yet there should be no mistake: now is the time for Van Gaal to prove his brilliance. As the 20-times champions roll into Turf Moor to face Burnley in Saturday’s early kick-off Van Gaal enters full fire-fighting mode only three games into his tenure.
His challenge already appears Sisyphean. The league campaign has started miserably with five dropped points from six. United have been sluggish and tentative on the field with players unsure of the Dutchman’s 3-5-2 system. Victory is yet to be grasped as Van Gaal prepares for his fourth match, with only two goals scored and seven conceded.
Confidence was further “smashed” after Tuesday’s scarcely believable 4-0 humiliation by MK Dons in the Capital One Cup. The manager’s injury list runs to 10, including three front-line midfielders, with a £16m signing, Marcos Rojo, also unavailable as he is yet to be granted a work permit.
As the clock ticks to Monday’s closing of the transfer window the sense of turmoil is increasing. The A-list central midfielder and central defender he desperately needs are still to arrive – although reports in Holland on Friday night said that Daley Blind was close to joining from Ajax – and some are questioning if the £59.7m paid for Ángel Di María might have been better spent in these areas.
All of this comes as Van Gaal admitted the bottom line is whether he can “survive” to be granted the time required to build United “step by step” into a side that can regain Champions League football this season, win the Premier League next term and claim the European Cup in his third year.
Yet the Van Gaal on show is the bullish manager United hoped they had hired for precisely this kind of moment.
“You don’t have to think that I am playing a role. I am confident,” he said. “Because everywhere I have been before I have showed it. That’s why. Not because of other things. I don’t believe it [my philosophy] won’t work at Manchester United. I believe that at the end of the process I think everybody will be happy that I was here. You too, I hope.”
The last sentence was one of the quips Van Gaal aimed at the gathered media that illustrated his relaxed mood. “We can be the champions still in England now, in my first year. Maybe you shall laugh but also in my former clubs I have started like this, so for me it’s not big news or different, because I have already said: you have to survive as a trainer-coach, as a manager you have to survive, because nowadays the fans are asking for results and that is the question. Can I receive enough time to do all the steps we have to do?”
Then, another quip: “Maybe you can support Louis van Gaal when you believe in him? OK? What a fantastic end.”
For a manager who has won titles at Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and Ajax plus the Champions League at Ajax, the landscape before him is one to enjoy. There was another shrug when Van Gaal was asked if the state United are in offers the biggest challenge of a glittering career. “I would never compare jobs because when I started with the Dutch national team for example no one believed we could qualify. After that they said we wouldn’t have any chance to get through the first group at the World Cup and after that we’ll lose against every opponent,” he said of a journey that ended in Holland’s third place at Brazil 2014. “You cannot compare it to Bayern or Barcelona – they are different cultures. AZ too – it’s a minor club like Burnley, more or less. But at the end they were the champions of the Netherlands.
“Every challenge is a challenge and you cannot compare them. There are different levels too and the clubs are differently managed. As a trainer-coach or a manager you have to adapt to the culture of the country and maybe you can give some influence but that’s up to other people at the clubs I’ve managed to say that.
“No [it’s not harder here than I thought it would be] because you are referring to the start here. I am the same Louis van Gaal with the same record and same philosophy and I am very confident I will succeed here.
“I have said many times that I need time. It always takes three months. Players are used to other philosophies. We have made steps in our process. Before I started I said that I shall give every player a fair chance and I have done that. Also the players that were not in the States – they played against MK Dons. I never thought it was a good idea that I came here as manager and said: ‘I want 11 new players.’
“We are building up a new team, I hope we will succeed. I hope we are in the top four this season because the Champions League suits a club like United and then maybe the next step is to be champions and then the next step is to be the winners of the Champions League. But that takes time. A lot of clubs have fought to win all those things for many years and never succeeded.”
Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Javier Hernández are available to other clubs. Resources are particularly stretched in central midfield. Yet despite injuries to Marouane Fellaini – he could also have departed before an ankle problem struck – Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick, Van Gaal again showed his intent to follow only his way when explaining why Cleverley and Anderson can leave.
“I am not a short-term coach,” he said. “I am thinking always for the long term. You have to take measures that are not good for the short term but are better for the long term for the club. That may not be good for me as a coach but I am not here for me myself as a coach – I am here for the club.”
Van Gaal merely listed the 10 injured players – the others are Sam Johnstone, Rafael Da Silva, Chris Smalling Luke Shaw, Kagawa, Jesse Lingard and James Wilson – rather than using them as a mitigating circumstance. In doing so he refused to offer his squad a ready-made excuse for underperforming at Burnley.
There is one shaft of light. Di María, man of the match in Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph in May, should take to the Turf Moor field. “He has impressed me,” Van Gaal said. “The first training session was with all the boys and he was very impressive. The second was a little bit less so but he has to adapt to the culture and the players. I believe he is ready.”
So, too, sounds Van Gaal for what could be an arduous season.