Arsenal defeat leaves Van Gaal with difficult questions
As Manchester United come to terms with elimination from the FA Cup on Monday night, so goes with it their only realistic chance of silverware this campaign.
With the Red Devils exit also arrives the stark reality over whether United have made any real progress since the dismissal of David Moyes last summer. Louis Van Gaal faces the task of having to answer some difficult questions from all sides.
The reality is, that the responsibility has to fall somewhere and that place appears to be at the feet of the Dutch tactician.
United's performance versus The Gunners at Old Trafford was indicative of Van Gaal's tenure in Manchester since his appointment post-World Cup. The balance of attacking verve and defensive solidity sought by the Dutchman once again deserted Louis Van Gaal.
Unlike the performance however, was the result. For weeks now, United have flattered to deceive under LVG's confused and unsuited system, yet his troops have always - much like under Sir Alex Ferguson - managed to get a result, or more commonly get out of jail through good fortune.
Since his arrival, LVG has spent approximately £107m on talent, plus the £24m-odd deal for the year-long loan of Radamel Falcao from Monaco. It is entirely fair to say that both the contribution and performance of his signings have been mixed. That is in no small part to due to his stubborn desire to utilise wing backs. Lately we have seen Van Gaal willing to modify the system he has rolled out during much of his managerial career, but even then such is the way that his philosophy has been entrenched at United, it often looks misplaced in th Premier League.
For example, Marcos Rojo was purchased from Sporting Lisbon as a left sided defender but as we have seen during the World Cup this past summer, the Argentine was best operating as a left wing back. Van Gaal has opted to position Luke Shaw and Ashley Young in this position. Which would be fine, except Rojo is a mobile defender, and cannot perform as a stationary centre back as his defensive teammates are simply not good enough. Even if Young has discovered a new lease of life as a wing back, it does not suit United's game.
Louis van Gaal's latest system rotation appears to be more of desperation than of a tactical genius.
During the World Cup, LVG's tinkering and ballsy approach to changing things around was admired and acclaimed, with particular reference to his move to bring on Tim Krul to replace Jasper Cillessen for penalties in the quarter final. What was thought of versus Costa Rica as masterful, has been replaced with doubt by the sheer fact that his methods do not reach the level of success his style has had from an international standpoint, than with Manchester United's game.
Often in the last few weeks, we have seen Rojo pushed out to more of a left-back role and he has began to look more at home, but still he has been moved across the whole left side of play. Rojo can simply not find any consistency. Which poses a bigger question of why Van Gaal has not gone out and bought an out-and-out world-class centre back.
Daley Blind was consistently used in Brazil as the Dutch left back but more of a wing back for United. Blind has however, come up with the goals to dig United out of sticky situations. A bigger issue for United, is Van Gaal's persistence with his formation has regrettably turned United into a long ball team and for all his clipboards and diagrams, despite trying to disprove Sam Allardyce's claim, it would be a task in being able to do so.
With the sheer amount spent during the summer, it was always going to be difficult trying to accomodate everyone in the squad, hence why Danny Welbeck was sold. Juan Mata has become a permanent fixture on the United bench post-Christmas and £28m arrival Ander Herrera has suffered from Wayne Rooney's position in midfield. Which poses a further question of LVG; Why try to force a player out of position if he simply performs better in his defined role.
Sure Rooney for a time looked like he could hold down his new running role from the left side, but like Angel Di Maria has discovered, the period of discontent is never far away and is often a longer and more unforgiving one.
The forward line is perhaps where Louis Van Gaal should be held most accountable. Recently, Van Gaal came out to state that his side lacked a 20-goal-a-season forward. Robin van Persie's injuries have returned and his form has dipped, for that LVG can be afforded some sympathy. But the way he has chosen to play Falcao is poor mismanagement. Like any player - world class or not - he needs game time. True, Falcao has only scored three league goals, but he hasn't been afforded the time to adapt on the pitch with his new surroundings. The Colombian has lost a yard of pace since ACL surgery but to get any semblance of it back he needs the faith of his manager. Falcao does not have that.
It was indeed poetic then that it was a mistake by one of his makeshift wing backs - Antonio Valencia - that led to the man that was released by United - Danny Welbeck - to score the goal to send Manchester United crashing out of the FA Cup.
The defeat was a long time coming for United but critically throws their qualification for next season's Champions League into huge doubt. An achievement that with all their financial frivolity was surely mandatory.
As Louis Van Gaal approaches the latter stages of his first year in charge the Dutchman is beginning to discover the sterner side of life in the Old Trafford hotseat and the subsequent questions that are coming his way.
However if Van Gaal does not does not see a change in both philiosphy and performance, these posers will become ever more pointed.