So Jason Burt runs the rule over a manager who was dealt a difficult hand
Manchester United have won only half of their Premier League matches this season, have endured a horrific injury list, are playing inconsistent football and are dauntingly adrift of top?of?the?table Chelsea. Senior sources at the club, however, say there is a genuine feeling that they are on the verge of something "really significant".
Four consecutive league victories have helped, but insiders have given The Sunday Telegraph a ringing endorsement of the effect Louis van Gaal has had throughout the club as United head to the south coast to face Southampton tomorrow in the hope that they will leapfrog Ronald Koeman's side in the Premier League table.
Van Gaal, the sources say, is a "world-class coach" who has lifted morale after the traumatic campaign last season which ended in United finishing seventh and David Moyes being sacked.
Van Gaal has impressed with his "inner calm, self-belief and vision". The Dutchman has also been hugely backed in the transfer market and United have already indicated that they will spend heavily again next summer.
Signings next month are also possible - especially if United can land one of their central-defensive targets such as Diego Godin. However, the club are not hopeful that Atletico Madrid will agree to sell the Uruguayan next month.
Given the outlay last summer of more than pounds 150?million, United will not look for any short-term solutions next month and also do not want to be saddled with a signing who is not part of Van Gaal's long-term plans. But United have the money and will spend if the opportunity arises before accelerating the overhaul of a squad that started last summer once this season is over.
Van Gaal has not been set any specific targets this season - despite initial indications that the club would demand a title challenge - although it is inconceivable that United would accept missing out once again on the Champions League places.
Fourth place would appear to be a minimum and anything short of that a damaging failure even if the claim at the club is that although spiritually and, in sporting terms, they need to be in the Champions League it is not necessary financially. Not for another season at least. Van Gaal has spoken of the scale of his task - and it has helped him buy time in turning things around. But he did have opportunities to go elsewhere before he signed a three-year deal at United.
"I could have chosen other clubs but this was the challenge for me and why I am here," Van Gaal said. "But I know, of course, it is a big challenge, not so easy, but I accept that."
Van Gaal certainly exudes the persona of a 'big club' manager. His management style is a fit while he is universally regarded as a world-class coach. United are delighted with the way he has conducted himself and the overall effect he has had at the club. Staff morale has been repaired and there is a renewed belief. "There is a real unity about the place which is noticeable and he is certainly taking people with him," one senior source said.
The players have bought in to Van Gaal's approach. It helps that the Dutchman has such an impressive track record but there is more than just the 'Iron Tulip' to him. He is not just someone who has great self-belief but there is an inner calm that has helped him carry the club through a patchy first third of the season. Nothing fazes him and one of his biggest successes is the ease with which he has won the PR war. It once again confirms the belief that at a club like United the way a manager handles that aspect of the job is an increasingly key component to success. GRADE A+
United were fourth in the Premier League before the latest round of fixtures. It is surely the minimum requirement that Van Gaal has been set - although expectations have been lowered since the time he was appointed when the indications were that the club expected a title challenge. They sit 11 points adrift of leaders Chelsea. Fourth place is the minimum - but then does Van Gaal accept the minimum?
Results have been patchy with three defeats and four draws from 14 matches. That does not appear too bad but United have had an easy landing to this campaign with a highly winnable opening sequence of six matches resulting in just two victories. It could be argued that despite their problems they should have been top by then - or closer to it. They will hope that the win away against Arsenal - a first significant result under Van Gaal - is a turning point and it had the feel of that even if the performance was not convincing.
Four wins in a row have changed the mood and slowly started to eat up some ground but the next set of six fixtures will decide whether United are simply scrapping for that final Champions League place or can achieve more. They are also out of the Capital One Cup and with no European football there is little excuse for United over fixture congestion. Their attitude to the FA Cup will be interesting. C
This has been one of the most confusing areas of Van Gaal's management. He began by replicating the 3-5-2 formation he had used to success with Holland at the World Cup and which was imposed because he lost his key midfielder Kevin Strootman - who he wants to bring to Old Trafford.
At United Van Gaal said there were "too many No?10s" and not enough ball winners so he tried the same approach. After an encouraging pre-season tour it proved an abject failure. The defenders were unable to adapt, partly because they were not comfortable enough on the ball, and the midfield struggled for possession. Teams pressed United and preyed on their mistakes.
United reverted to a back four although, against Arsenal, the back three was brought back in a new 3-4-3 approach and, after an initial vulnerability, it appeared to work to greater effect. Despite a flourishing partnership between Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo uncertainty still afflicts United at the back where they have become hugely reliant on goalkeeper David de Gea.
In fairness to Van Gaal formations only go so far. He cannot be accused of not trying to make United exciting and there is a clear commitment to attack. It seemed his approach was: 'I have not got the defenders to protect a lead so we will simply have to out?score our opponents'. But that was always reckless. Recently he has tightened things up defensively, in truth some recent results have been ground out, but United do attempt to go forward. Curiously the team, given United's tradition, lack width. C+
Much has rightly been made of United's summer spending - with pounds 150?million committed to bring in Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Rojo and, initially on loan, Radamel Falcao.
United are undoubtedly stronger than they were last season even if the squad is clearly, undeniably and confusingly unbalanced. Even if there is a dearth of top-notch central defenders in world football there is no excuse for United not acquiring at least one more player in this area of the team.
In fairness to Van Gaal there has been a significant clear-out of players, with 14 leaving in the summer, to add to the additions, and it has created a big turnaround in the squad which was nevertheless long overdue. At the same time he has been good to his word - partly through necessity - in blooding young players such as Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair and James Wilson.
The players certainly appear to like and respect Van Gaal. He has improved the likes of Smalling and certainly Marouane Fellaini although Robin van Persie's loss of form, given the bond between the pair, is a mystery. "Despite the injuries we've had, we are at the right way," Van Gaal said. "I think the main important thing is that the players want to follow the philosophy which is why despite the many changes we could continue." B+
Van Gaal has admitted he has never suffered an injury crisis like this. United have been hampered by an horrific run. The website Physioroom.com lists the total at nine - with Arsenal top with an astonishing 11 players out - and there has been a ridiculous roll call of players out this season. Defender Jonny Evans has defended Van Gaal's training methods, saying they are not to blame for the injuries, but they cannot all be down to bad luck. Some injuries have undoubtedly been - such as Rojo's shoulder dislocation and Wayne Rooney hurting his knee by colliding with an advertising hoarding.
Van Gaal has very clear ideas. He demanded changes to the Carrington training ground with the pitches ripped up to replicate the surfaces at Old Trafford, changes to the sports science and coaching staff and further investment in equipment to monitor the players.
Van Gaal has also taken a completely different approach to Sir Alex Ferguson with double training sessions and has undoubtedly worked the players hard.
There have been more hamstring and groin problems and there does seem to be a pressure to get players back quickly. Maybe players switching positions has also been a factor?
Injuries have had one positive effect. It has allowed Van Gaal to use more young players. Would Blackett and McNair have been given the opportunities they have been had Phil Jones, Smalling and Evans been fit? But it has not been an acceptable situation and questions should be asked.