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Manchester United

Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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 By Andy Mitten

Van Gaal arrives and gets to work

The ESPN FC crew discuss the missing pieces to the puzzle at Manchester United as Louis van Gaal begins his new role.

In November 1986, the new Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, gathered his players in the cramped gym at the old Cliff training ground in Salford.

Ferguson was nervous, having never managed in England or at a club as big at United, but he tried not to let it show. Unaware that the players had been out drinking heavily the night before -- an example of the culture he would seek to end -- and with a game the following day, Ferguson made a brief speech.

"There was no trumpeting of my ambitions," Ferguson said years later. "I told them that I hoped they regretted the departure of Ron Atkinson, since that would show they had proper commitment to the man who was managing them. If they did, we would have a chance."

United had gone 19 years without a title, their average home attendance had slipped below 40,000 and the players weren't fit enough or good enough to impress their new boss. The squad was demoralised and undisciplined and lost Ferguson's first game 2-0 at Oxford United in front of 13,545.

Ferguson found the job far harder than he expected. United were in the second tier financially -- Paul Gascoigne's agent claimed his client had gone to Tottenham because United didn't have the power to match the Spurs' offer.

Ferguson would need time to get to grips with a job he nearly lost. He built an empire and helped make United unrecognisable from the club he inherited. Trophies rolled in and average crowds rose to 75,000 sellouts. He passed that empire over to David Moyes, who appeared bewildered by the task. He didn't always have the players onside and suffered for it. There were mitigating factors -- there always are -- but Moyes' reign was disastrous.

United's new manager, Louis van Gaal, took charge on Wednesday, when he met the squad at the Carrington training ground (officially the AON Training Complex, named after a commercial deal, the type at which United excel), following a briefing on their progress in training by his assistants Ryan Giggs, Albert Stuivenberg and chief scout Marcel Bout. Van Gaal was in contact with them all from Brazil, where he led Holland to a third-place finish at the World Cup.

Four days after securing a third-place finish at the World Cup, Van Gaal started his new job.

At lunchtime on his first day, Van Gaal introduced himself to players individually in their dining room (there used to be one for all Carrington staff, but the players now have their own) and took his first training at 6 p.m. -- a new time for players who will have to adjust. Carrington is also having floodlights fitted so players can train at night.

Under Moyes, double sessions were a first this time last year and weren't greeted with enthusiasm. Twelve months on, players know they have to be more amenable to change than they were, rather than grumble about training clashing with the time they usually pick up their children from school.

Van Gaal will be introduced to the media Thursday and will fly to Los Angeles Friday ahead of United's preseason tour of the USA. The games will be played in the country's biggest stadiums and attract crowds six or seven times bigger than those Ferguson's side got for friendlies when he took over. Tickets for the game against Real Madrid in Ann Arbor's 114,000 capacity Michigan Stadium, nicknamed "The Big House," sold out quickly.

Madrid may boast higher overall revenue, but United are now the global football commercial power, as the announcement of a 10-year, 750 million pound kit deal with adidas illustrated this week. It's twice that of any other club, while the new shirt sponsorship with Chevrolet is double that of Barcelona's.

With the huge revenues come vast expectations. United underperformed woefully last season and Van Gaal is expected to get the club back on track -- initially with a top-four finish -- and a flourish to the football they play. He faces many issues before he can think about working on the 24-point gap which champions Manchester City had over their rivals last season.

He wants every player to feel as if they have a chance to impress, but how many chances does he give them? Moyes was generous with opportunities to the staff he inherited but starting Anderson against West Brom last September was also a factor in United losing the match. The midfielder's United future was decided that day and he was loaned out soon after, but he's back at the club now, no doubt with the best intentions. Van Gaal can't afford as many failures, but he has several advantages over Moyes.

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The Dutchman's trophy-winning experience means he's instantly more respected and his no-nonsense persona will engender the same type of fear as Ferguson in his players, which will lead to a control Moyes never enjoyed. Further, those players need Van Gaal. After the shambles of last season, their own reputations were damaged and need to be rebuilt. Some won't have a future at Old Trafford and the big issue is finding a club which can match their huge wages. Money and the prospect of more minutes playing football will tempt players away, if their form is good enough to attract top buyers.

Moyes is a good man, but not all the staff at Carrington warmed to him or his coaches. It was partly because he wasn't Sir Alex Ferguson. They'd become used to what they knew, creatures of habit reluctant to change.

Moyes' departure means they too must realise that Van Gaal -- not Ferguson -- is now in charge -- something that will be easier second time around. United's backroom and office staff continues to change, but comparisons between Ferguson and Van Gaal are futile. Those staff who worked with Van Gaal away from the media glare talk of a personable man at odds with the hard-faced public image. Ferguson will have no influence over what Van Gaal does.

A great bank of playing experience has been lost with the departure of club legends such as Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, with Patrice Evra set to follow. Another defender, Alex Buttner, was sold at a profit. The assessment of Van Gaal's fellow countryman of his time at Old Trafford differs greatly with the view of those who saw him actually play. Buttner's teammates saw his diet and wondered how he could be a professional footballer at a big club.

Ryan Giggs is no longer a player but he'll be around to assist. He, too, needs to learn from Van Gaal as much as the Dutchman needs the club legend to be the faithful conduit between players and manager.

Van Persie was Van Gaal's captain at the World Cup, where he scored four goals.

The futures of some players seem certain to be at Old Trafford. David de Gea, a rejuvenated Robin van Persie, highest earner Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj have solid enough futures at the club, as do new signings Juan Mata, Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera.

Michael Carrick, Phil Jones, Rafael, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia will feel reasonably secure too.

But there is a lengthy list of players who will be less certain of their future: Nani, Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa, Anderson, Bebe, Nick Powell, Wilfried Zaha, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young. The majority have a year or two left on their contracts and will have to do enough to win new ones.

United don't have European football next season and Van Gaal needs to trim his massive squad of 37 players to the 20 "solid" performers he wants and feels that he can rely on in any match.

More new signings are expected before the transfer window closes. The club have money to spend and will keep their intentions very close to their chest, while Van Gaal is said to be keen to encourage young players such as striker James Wilson, who made his debut under Giggs at the end of last season.

Van Gaal starts life at Manchester United in a swirl of optimism, the start of a honeymoon period which any manager is afforded at a new club. Moyes received it to a lesser extent a year ago, though any good feeling he felt evaporated when he saw the fixture list and games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in his first five league matches.

Moyes -- and those close to him -- correctly predicted that it would be very, very tough to start with wins. Unfortunately for the man who lasted only 10 months, the early form set the template for the season ahead. United never got going and Moyes' job never got any easier.

Nobody knows if Van Gaal has a relative in the Premier League's fixtures department, but United's opening six games under their first-ever continental boss are against Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, Queens Park Rangers, Leicester and West Ham. With respect to all, they'd settle for a top half finish next season. United wouldn't settle for anywhere outside the top four.

However, teams quickly realised that United were eminently beatable under Moyes and those first two opponents both caused United serious problems last season. Swansea won at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, while Sunderland knocked United out of the Capital One Cup at the semifinal stage after a farcical penalty shootout.

Those debacles, and too many others, also showed United fans bloated on two decades of success that nothing can be taken for granted. Not that Van Gaal is in any danger of doing that.

Andy Mitten

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, at age 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide.