Uncertain times for Manchester United players, staff and fans
These are uncertain times at Old Trafford. Manchester United's players and staff are told that it's business as usual, but they know it's not. Trust levels are diminishing and people don't quite know who to believe, nor which rumours are credible. Did the club talk to Pep Guardiola? Are they talking to Jose Mourinho?
Maybe uncertainty can get the best out of people. Maybe there were too many "jobs for the boys" in certain areas of the club and players like Anderson were given too many chances to get their act together. Few questioned the way the football side of the club was run when it was successful, but there has been a massive change after decades of glory under Sir Alex Ferguson.
With a third of this season left, some employees are looking at their next move. Twelve-month rental contracts for properties are not being signed: "Can we do six months?" ask tenants. "Or even month-to-month?"
Players think about their futures and speak to their agents seeking assurances but the only guarantee is the contract they've signed. Michael Carrick, who has four months left on his current deal, was concerned about his United future a year ago and doesn't yet know where he'll be playing football next season.
Carrick has won five Premier League titles and the European Cup in 10 years at the club. If he signs a new contract, he'll get a testimonial. He played well at Chelsea as recently as Sunday, but no 34-year-old has the luxury of security at any club... except at United under Ferguson.
Ferguson had the power to make those decisions, to reassure and protect players and to plan ahead if they did things his way and trusted him. Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes had no worries about their futures when they were 34.
United's staff saw Ferguson as the voice of the club, the public face ready to confront all-comers. They believed in him, even if they didn't always agree with him. Now, though, it is felt the club is without a strong voice.
The Glazer family, who own the club, don't speak publicly and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward only does so rarely, such as on Thursday when United's second-quarter financial results, which showed another surge in profits for commercial and broadcasting, were announced via the New York Stock Exchange.
Meanwhile, when Van Gaal speaks at present, it's usually to defend himself in a truncated press conference. His mood had soured, though he remains good value with his idiosyncrasies. The manager seldom shirks questions, but everyone knows he's going to live in Portugal -- be at the end of this season, as expected, or the end of 2016-17, when his contract is up.
There would doubtless be collateral damage but Mourinho would be a popular choice with fans. He has said nothing himself, although he's got enough people around him doing the talking, which is not a tactic that endears him to the traditionalists on the United board.
Fans are thinking beyond Van Gaal and there's no clamour for him to stay. While he may yet end this season on a high, the fact is that it is February and United are fifth, six points off fourth and out of the Champions League. He's been given time, money and support in his 18 months in charge.
Van Gaal has confidence in his job and Woodward, but he's not stupid. He knows football is a results business and despite his bullishness, that results have not been good enough. He reads the newspapers and wonders who said what. Did a senior player really say that they are playing with more freedom?
Van Gaal can put out some fires -- or people close to him can -- such as when Ferguson phoned him to say that stories he'd be coming out of retirement to manage the team were nonsense. Ferguson built up a massive bank of credit and became the club's bedrock, but he's the past.
United now need to be decisive about the future. Across football, decisions about next season are being made now as clubs identify the players they want to sign and set about doing so. With few exceptions, most transfers don't happen overnight. United signed Morgan Schneiderlin in June 2015, having first approached Southampton the previous August, though that was denied.
It is fanciful to think that they could dismiss Van Gaal at the end of May and everything would be fine for a new manager to come in ahead of July's preseason trip to China. Real business is done in April -- off the pitch and on it. In that month two years ago, United sacked David Moyes. They also approached Toni Kroos, thought that too was denied.
Woodward knows that United must think ahead. He knows City are likely to be stronger and better next season -- he suspected Guardiola had fixed his future before anyone wrote it -- and that United can't be left behind. So who is the best man with which to counter?
If Mourinho arrives then Ryan Giggs would almost certainly leave. 43 in November, he feels ready to become a manager in his own right. If that's not to be at Old Trafford -- a job that he and most managers in world football would love -- then it will be elsewhere.
Giggs feels like he's served his apprenticeship but his stock has been damaged by working alongside Moyes and Van Gaal and fans view him as part of the problem. Maybe a change of scene would be good, to go away and show his talents and see if he can make it on his own.
Moreover, even if he does arrive then Mourinho isn't going to stick around for long. He doesn't do longevity because he's a collector of clubs who falls out with too many people and so, if Giggs is successful then he can possibly come back to United with a stronger CV.
The idea that he or his peers would oversee a youth system in need of attention was something Ferguson liked in 2013, but Giggs wants to prove that he can be a boss. He has had offers and has options. He'd have ideas if he stayed at United. Maybe bring back Rene Muelensteen as coach and promote Carrick to coach, to keep those with United DNA active.
But nobody knows for certain what is happening; not Giggs, Van Gaal or Mourinho.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.