Van Gaal remains bullish despite loss
Louis van Gaal was receiving special treatment for what had been a truly special evening. MK Dons' home -- stadium:mk -- had converted a "break-out room" of their adjoining hotel into a temporary news conference suite. Managers usually speak to press at pitchside when Karl Robinson's team play their home games in League One.
Manchester United's manager was disarmingly unbowed by a 4-0 defeat, which might have been by more. His tall stride down the corridor to face the media was as confident as ever; the Dutchman is not in the business of making excuses. He offers reasons instead.
"I am not shocked," the Manchester United manager said, never flinching. "Milton Keynes played very well, very aggressively. And we had nine injuries. We also had to play within 48 hours so I could not play with the same squad as on Sunday."
In Van Gaal's world-view, there are reasons for everything. Three winless competitive matches into his reign, however, how long such rationalisations can wash already seems a leading question. United are spending money -- and fast. So far this summer, 136 million pounds has been spent. Such outlays usually demand rapid results.
If it was the most wondrous day in the short life of professional football in Milton Keynes, it was, for United, probably the most humiliating moment of the worst 12 months they've endured for the 25 years since Alex Ferguson turned the club around.
Perhaps it might one day be recalled as the night that United bottomed out and could slide no lower in their darkest hour before the dawn. Though if both teams continue to play with the quality they showed on Tuesday evening, then United might be facing MK in the Championship.
The visitors' performance really was that bad. The home support, though swelled by 20,000 extra to see the circus come to their new town, never suffered a moment's tension. This was an exhibition of footballing atrocity from United. None were blameless. Aside from Danny Welbeck, not long for the club if reports are to be believed, all others played as if they could not appreciate a rapidly unravelling situation. Urgency was a foreign country.
The League Cup was for many months last season a possible salvation for David Moyes, until a confidence-killing penalty shoot-out defeat to Sunderland in the semifinals. It shall be no such distraction for his successor.
Van Gaal usually looked without cares as he remained in his dugout for 90 minutes. Beside him, assistant Ryan Giggs' usually unreadable expression was pained. His eyes darted in alarm. United were never this bad when he was playing, not even under Moyes. And when the final whistle sounded, Van Gaal kept opposite number Robinson waiting to shake hands while he was signing autographs for fans around the dugout. Perhaps this was the new man's way of suggesting that he will not be getting worried for some time yet.
He voiced regrets neither about his selection, nor for a continuing perseverance with a 3-5-2 formation that his scratch selection found even more confounding than his first team. "You have to analyse the problem, and I've done that," he said. "We have nine injuries and had a very young team. I have seen them trying to do their utmost best, so you cannot expect more from players.
"Fans have to believe in our philosophy; we are building a team which we cannot make in one month or even one year. It's very disappointing, but I hope they maintain their confidence in our club."
Angel Di Maria's purchase, announced an hour before kick-off, is a beacon of hope and consolation. Yet the Argentinian can surely not cure United's defensive problems. Only teenager Tyler Blackett, left out here, has looked to have any understanding of playing as one of a three. Jonny Evans, now the club's senior defender, was culpable for both of MK's first two goals. "When you make errors like that, you give the match away," noted Van Gaal, a typically bald explanation. He is never less than unsparing in criticisms of mistakes.
"I am a coach who always takes risks," he said, veering into territory of stating the obvious. English football's usual doctrine is that a new coach builds from the back, yet Van Gaal's strategy currently serves to expose a lack of quality personnel in defence, while, with Luke Shaw injured, he cannot call on a single player capable of playing properly as a wing-back.
"You cannot switch to another system and it works like that," said Van Gaal, clicking his fingers, when asked how his 59.7 million-pound signing fits into a strategy that currently seems clear to him alone.
"You have to train it; it's a matter of time because the process needs time, so we shall see if with Di Maria we have to change the system or not."
Worldwide, fans' panic buttons have probably been pressed already. Yet they might be tranquilised by Van Gaal remaining utterly unshaken by his Manchester United reign so far. At MK, he acted as if it were all part of the plan.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.