Results will dictate the Van Gaal effect
The Premier League season starts in five days and, as it was a year ago, Swansea City are the first league opponents for a Manchester United side with a new manager. While David Moyes' first game in Wales' second city went to plan on a rain-lashed August afternoon, almost everything thereafter didn't.
Moyes repeatedly cursed the fixture list which paired United against, among others, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in his first five league matches. After six games United had won two, drawn one and lost three. The season never did get going.
Nobody expects United to have such a record after six games of 2014-15. After Saturday, a kinder fixture calendar sees the team that finished seventh last season play all three promoted sides, plus West Ham and Sunderland.
As the new campaign approaches, United have signed only two players: Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, both of whom had been lined up long before Moyes departed. Significant departures have been Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra.
Meanwhile, Chelsea have signed Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Felipe Luis -- three players United would have bought had Moyes had his way. Edinson Cavani would have been another if he hadn't asked for the Earth and a couple of planets.
United are in the market for more players, but fans have heard all that before and are tired of seeing links to players who don't come to Old Trafford. United don't make the links, and some of the transfer speculation is generated by agents of selling clubs using their name, but executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has still tried to attract players who've ended up going elsewhere. Thomas Vermaelen was the latest, the defender Louis Van Gaal wanted to sign before he joined Arsenal's usual trading partners, Barcelona.
There was a case made last season that United needed a big-name manager to attract big-name players. It's only true to a point, and a lack of European football makes United less attractive to many players. The club have money to spend but parting with it is proving more difficult and, unlike Barca, they're struggling to get rid of the players without a future at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal is in the process of telling several about their future face-to-face so their agents can look at suitors, but while Barca can get top money and even profit from perceived underperformers such as Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, United's unwanted men are harder to shift.
They're on big contracts and are also damaged goods after last season. Anderson cost 22 million pounds and Nani 18 million seven years ago but the club won't come close to recouping those fees for two footballers who are only 26 and 27 respectively and who should be in the prime of their careers. More likely is the chance to profit on the seven million paid for Javier Hernandez.
United fans would love to see more signings. Football fans do, especially the transfer fanatics who crave the hit of a signing (usually a player they've scouted extensively through a computer game). Van Gaal ignores the clamour and laughs off the rumours, but he's told Woodward about other signings he'd like to make.
Extracting a gem such as Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund isn't easy if the proposed selling club don't want to do business. United are looking at other targets, chiefly a left-footed central defender and a winger. Ajax's Daley Blind, 24, can play in the former position in a Van Gaal 3-5-2 or as a winger as he has for the Netherlands. But once the season starts, results dictate.
Preseason has been excellent. The club -- not just the players -- look reinvigorated under their new manager with wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia impressing on the United States tour. That doesn't guarantee their Old Trafford futures, but they should get another chance in the final preseason friendly against Valencia on Tuesday (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 & WatchESPN.com).
Another La Liga side, Sevilla, visited Old Trafford a year ago and shredded the home defence in Rio Ferdinand's testimonial. At the time, it was laughed off as only being a preseason jaunt against a weak United side, but there were already signs of the troubles which would follow as well as the potential of a Sevilla side which would go on to win the Europa League. (They too play tomorrow -- against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup in Cardiff.)
Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney also excelled in preseason. Ditto Herrera, Juan Mata and David de Gea. Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck had their moments, and Tom Cleverley is far happier. There are several highly promising youngsters in contention for places, too.
Nobody will be complaining about only two transfers come November if United are top of the league and Van Gaal has found space for James Wilson -- scorer of all four goals in last Thursday's Manchester Senior Cup final victory over City's reserves -- or the giant defenders Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane, though the latter is set to go out on loan. Reece James also deserves a mention for his impressive preseason, but there's always a youngster or two who impresses and then barely features. Would any of them start at Chelsea away?
Van Gaal knows his mind and what he wants. He won't find all the solutions in a single transfer window, and he's still forming opinions of the players he has. He'll do what he thinks is right, not what the supporters think.
United fans were huge critics of their own club in the summer of 1995 after Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince were sold. New signings were scarce and, though the BBC's Alan Hansen was later derided for his "you don't win anything with kids" comment after a 3-1 opening day defeat at Aston Villa, he echoed much of what was said by many of the travelling United fans spilling out of the away end into Witton Lane that afternoon. Nine months later, those kids had helped United win the double.
Van Gaal has long put his faith in kids. He's also injected a shot of confidence into the club drained of such for a year. Speaking in an interview in the next issue of United We Stand, last season's captain Nemanja Vidic explains:
"The preseason was good. We trained hard; we were positive and full of energy to do well. We had pride to show that we could play at the same level without Sir Alex [Ferguson]. Then we had a really tough start with big games and the results were not as we expected. Pressure started to build more and more. Pressure on the manager, players, directors. That had a big effect on the team. If we'd won six or seven games then everything would have been different, but we couldn't manage to win six or seven games in a row."
Van Gaal will try to keep pressure off the team, and the early signs have been encouraging. He'll also benefit from Fletcher being 100 percent fit and Mata having bedded into his favoured position.
The Dutchman also knows that football isn't just about signings. Real Madrid, for example, signed some of the best players in the world a decade ago and won nothing. Van Gaal's European Cup-winning Ajax side was full of young players who cost almost nothing.
Like Ferguson, he's a great motivator who can get the best out of his men, though he usually falls out with a key player, as he did at Barcelona with Rivaldo and at Bayern Munich with Franck Ribery.
The big question is whether United, with their current squad, are good enough to get back into the top four and even win the league, as Van Gaal hopes.
Everyone has strong opinions as to whether they are or not but the manager is better qualified than all those judging him. He, too, however, will be judged by the results of his team and those will start to come in from this Saturday afternoon.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.