When Manchester United hired Louis Van Gaal as coach in May, it was hoped he would breathe life into a team that often appeared comatose last season.
But that resurrection got off to a slow start in Van Gaal's English Premier League debut Saturday in a 2-1 loss to Swansea City, United's first season-opening loss at home in 42 years.
"It's very disappointing. We didn't reach the level that we can bring," Van Gaal said. "In the second half, we never played as a team. And therefore I am responsible.
"You have to play in the structure and they didn't do that so much. And that is a pity."
It was also prescient, though, since Van Gaal spent the last month predicting United's rehabilitation from its worse season in a generation would be longer and more difficult than the club and its fans had thought. Because in addition to rebuilding the team Van Gaal is also replacing a legend in Alex Ferguson, whose long shadow undoubtedly contributed to the short, disastrous campaign of his hand-picked successor, David Moyes.
Ferguson won 38 trophies with United before retiring in 2013 after 26 seasons. Yet, he's still very much a presence around the team, from the larger-than-life bronze statue outside the north grandstand, the Alex Ferguson Stand, at Old Trafford to the owner's box, where he sat stern-faced and disapproving through most of Saturday's game.
Moyes never could escape Ferguson's long, dark shadow, moving gingerly through much of last season, uncertain whether United was his team or whether it still belonged to Ferguson. And the old coach did little to ease that discomfort, sitting where TV cameras were sure to find him staring disapprovingly as the team struggled to a seventh-place finish, its worst in the English Premier League era.
That led to Moyes' firing 316 days into a six-year contract.
Van Gaal, 63, won't be so easily intimidated. After he was hired for his first coaching job, he congratulated the club on signing "the best coach in the world." And in his native Holland, where he won four league titles, complementing championships in Germany and Spain, his unshakeable swagger has inspired a joke: "What is the difference between Van Gaal and God? God knows he is not Van Gaal."
And though Van Gaal has yet to walk on water he has performed some soccer miracles, most recently when he inherited a Netherlands team that was winless in the 2012 European Championships and took it to within a goal of the World Cup final.
The first man from outside the United Kingdom to lead United in the club's 136-year history, Van Gaal said coaching in the Premier League had been No. 1 on his soccer bucket list. And he moved quickly to put his stamp on the league, dumping the traditional, staid formations United had long favored for an attacking 3-5-2 alignment. He also ordered an expensive overhaul of the team's 100-acre training base, a facility Ferguson designed.
Van Gaal wasn't so much rewriting Ferguson's blueprint as he was tearing it up. And at first it appeared to be working, with United thumping European giants Real Madrid and Liverpool, and outscoring opponents, 16-4, during an unbeaten five-game preseason tour of the U.S.
But as Saturday's loss proved, rescuing United, one of the richest and most high-profile sports franchises in history, could be the biggest challenge in an already accomplished career. It's certainly one that will test Van Gaal's confidence and attention to detail as well as a force of personality that has made him highly successful and irritating to nearly everyone with whom he has had contact.
"I hope I fulfill the expectation. But it shall be difficult," said Van Gaal, who described the team as "broken" and "not in balance" when he took over.
"The owners and the CEO have a lot of confidence in me. They have come to me and I explained my philosophy and they were excited. Because of that I'm here. We have to wait and see if I can fulfill this expectation. In the world of football you cannot predict."
But you can guess. And with Liverpool weakened by the loss of league scoring leader Luis Suarez to Barcelona and defending champion Manchester City struggling to regain its rhythm, it seems likely that Van Gaal will get his reconstituted team back into the Champions League by finishing in the top four in the Premier League, by force of will if nothing else.
"I think the [new] system suits the team, not only myself," said captain Wayne Rooney, who scored Saturday. "The manager came in and had a look at the players we've got. He's done what he thinks is best suited for our team.
"He's a tough manager. He's given us all a different way of looking at football, which we haven't had before."
Now if he could only do something about the results.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times