Man United in the Europa League and miles behind the elite

Louis van Gaal’s job is safe but he is showing no signs of returning United to the summit

For Manchester United, it might be that the embarrassment really starts to sting their cheeks when the Europa League draw comes around on Monday. They are at least spared the possibility of a trip to Azerbaijan now Qarabag and FK Qabala are dropping out, but how about FC Krasnodar in southern Russia? Or some of the other teams, among them Belenenses, Slovan Liberec, FC Midtjylland and Viktoria Plzen, who might provide the opponents for a club where, in happier times, they peered down their noses at this competition in the way a Michelin-starred chef might regard a Pot Noodle appetiser?

"Thursday night, Channel 5," the chant used to go. These days, the competition is shown elsewhere but, wherever the pundits turn up, it is fair to say Louis van Gaal is starting to feel persecuted by the people he calls "the legends", none of whom seems to have a good word to say about him or his team right now. He should probably just be glad Roy Keane was not on television duty on Tuesday as United were dumped out of the Champions League by Wolfsburg. Instead, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand offered their biting analysis of the man who reputedly used to march around the dressing room at Bayern Munich, saying "I am like God! I never get ill and I am always right."

A full XI could be made up of the former United players who have publicly questioned or disparaged Van Gaal's work this season, featuring enough input from Class of 92 members it is striking that Ryan Giggs has said nothing to counter the criticisms of so many close friends.

Van Gaal still gives the impression that his opinion counts more than everybody else’s put together. Yet what does he expect when he has spent £250m on players and, a year-and-a-half down the line, the progress has been so stultifying that, in the worst moments, it is not always easy to know whether he actually comprehends the size of his club, and what should be reasonably expected of them?

Van Gaal had initially told everyone it would take three months for everything to click and he would be mistaken to think it was just a clutch of fickle former players and an impatient media arguing there should have been considerably more. Three of United’s supporters’ websites ran polls earlier in the week asking what should be done. On Red Issue’s website, 58.8% wanted him fired, with 35.3% saying he deserved until the end of the season and only 1.4% enjoying his time in charge. The other 4.5% ticked the box marked “he’s cured my insomnia”.

United We Stand's vote had 39.1% recommending the sack, 43.6% saying it should be judged in May and only 17.3% in favour of him staying until 2017 to see out his contract. And perhaps the most alarming part is that these polls were taken before the game in Wolfsburg when, finally, United discovered some of the old excitement but in such a wild, chaotic manner it left the distinct sense that they might be even further behind Europe's elite than had previously been thought. His players certainly made for a sorry sight as they slunk away from the Volkswagen Arena. Those moments are always a good time to judge a team's character and it was notable how nobody was willing to front up. The captain, Chris Smalling, said nothing. Nick Powell, whose talent has stagnated to the point it was his second appearance in three years, shuddered at the idea. A team should always be judged on their performances on the pitch, rather than in the area marked for interviews, but a few well-delivered words can help to shift the mood. In the past, it would have been Keane or Ferdinand, or Gary Neville or Nemanja Vidic. The current team had nobody.

United, we were told later, were unhappy about the temperature of the away dressing room, believing it to be a few degrees too high, and complained about it before kick-off. Thankfully, they did not use it as an excuse after the match, perhaps realising there was the potential to look like prima donnas, but Van Gaal's complaints about the match officials were almost as unimpressive. Of all the reasons why United have not made it to the knockout rounds, the refereeing comes a long way down the list. Van Gaal has a tendency to veer off on some strange tangents and it was odd to hear him lamenting Bastian Schweinsteiger's performance for the second time in a week when there have been other players this season, most notably Wayne Rooney, who seem to exist in the manager's blind spot. "I have changed [SUBSTITUTED]him," Van Gaal said of Schweinsteiger. "I don't change players for nothing. We're all human beings and he is just a human being. But I cannot say that today this was the Schweinsteiger I had at Bayern Munich." No, but Schweinsteiger was 26 when Van Gaal left Munich. He is 31 now and, for all his football intelligence, there is a reason why Bayern let him go for a mere £6.3m.

Equally, the lost confidence in Van Gaal was hardly replenished when it was put to him that the team were not showing real signs of progress and he began his answer by pointing out they had done better in the Capital One Cup this season. Strictly speaking, it was true. It was just bewildering to hear the manager of Manchester United thinking it was a legitimate point of defence that they had played two games in that competition this season, rather than the one they managed last year. United beat Ipswich at Old Trafford and then went out in the next round to Middlesbrough on penalties; last season it was a 4-0 defeat at Milton Keynes Dons. It is, as Van Gaal says, an improvement, just maybe not one that should be cited by anyone working for England’s biggest club, having just spent a quarter of a billion pounds.

Something is clearly not right and the timing for Van Gaal, as well as the people above him, feels awkward in the extreme bearing in mind the disclosure at the weekend that United’s board rated him so highly they were relaxed about the idea of Pep Guardiola going elsewhere in the Premier League, quite possibly Manchester City, when his contract at Bayern expires at the end of the season.

Van Gaal was described as a "genius manager" but is simply not showing it. He is not going to be sacked, barring a complete slide, but it is understandable why many supporters are looking at Van Gaal's performance and would appreciate a proper explanation why, for instance, he thought it a good idea to take off Juan Mata and bring on Powell in those moments in Wolfsburg when United were desperately needing a goal.

The chief executive, Ed Woodward, has previously thought the criticism was overblown, noting that he had received fewer letters and emails of complaint than when David Moyes was manager. Woodward's inbox was surely heaving when he returned from Germany. Van Gaal might need to win the league not to be seen as a lame duck and on Monday, when the balls are drawn for the Europa League's round of 32, one of the old superpowers will be reminded how far they are away from where they really want to be.

(Guardian service)