On the back of now somewhat accustomed scousebusting, Louis van Gaal revelled in beating Liverpool at Anfield - and reckoned "this game will give a big boost to the players and the fans and the environment of Manchester United." The following match, at home to Southampton on Sunday, felt like a nadir in his time at United.
A lifeless game with few redeeming features, bar the merest flurry following a change in midfield at half-time when Mata replaced Fellaini moving Herrera further back, and a late goal conceded to hammer home the malaise. "You know it was not good today," offered Van Gaal. It really wasn't, and the environment of Manchester United takes two steps back, however the jolt was enough for some of the more patient fans to lose faith entirely. Van Gaal appears resigned and against the tide, "... it is not happening."
It is sad seeing a strong manager with a big reputation withdrawing into his own risk averse approach regardless of the opposition. A simple mismatch of style doesn't explain the full demise and the focus should be shifting towards politics playing out behind the scenes.
United's executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, is currently in a tricky situation. Sacking his man now would look bad for him, much easier to wait until the summer when, with a year left on his contract, Van Gaal could slope off without too much fuss. Problem is the team are well off the pace in a gimmie of a league season and the players are typically hiding behind the increasingly forlorn manager. Meanwhile, a January transfer window is passing them by, not that a quick mid-season player fix is likely to change a great deal, as Van Gaal himself tellingly highlighted. United could no doubt cover the worst-case freefall financially for a season but that seems intolerable and unnecessary pressure for everyone concerned, and, along with not being completely adrift in the league, there are also a couple of cup competitions soon to lighten the mood if a change happens. The alternative and cowardly face-saving solution for Woodward would be to distastefully do nothing and bank on Van Gaal quitting sooner rather than later.
The obvious interim choice if needed again, therefore, is Ryan Giggs but - plot twist - with Ferguson as an official advisory. This apparently terrifies Woodward and, if it were to become a permanent affair which the duo are apparently demanding, I'm inclined to agree with him. Giggs is woefully underprepared to cope with the job in its still post-Ferguson state, comically with Ferguson pulling the strings like the club's succession plan pontifications and Sir Matt Busby's handover never happened. The other looming factor in Woodward's predicament is Jose Mourinho. Mourinho arguably should have cleaned the slate immediately after Ferguson retired in 2013 but the club's combined arrogance decided to ignore him. Three years and many millions later, Mourinho is again the realistic outstanding choice and is clearly desperate for it. There are valid reservations, however, despite his protestations, and Woodward would have to potentially overlook entirely or remove a Ferguson-backed Giggs in situ for Mourinho and his merry men, hopefully sans Rui Faria.
A cursory glance at Mourinho's managerial career suggests he would not normally take a job mid-season, but the combination of both his and Woodward's paranoia of a Ferguson power grab could conceivably result in a sensationally swift appointment. There is still plenty to play for as of now and, having missed out before, Mourinho would surely be tempted even with the risks diving in mid-term. Given the objections from some senior figures at United, the intense scrutiny without the customary cushion of a summer to ease in and implement his plans might be too dicey for someone whose reputation is in need of a polish and appearance of a long holiday. United could give him that sheen, no question, he could even fancifully go on to build a dynasty, in return including youth and only being risk averse when absolutely necessary. There are big spoils for whoever firstly wins a cup post-Ferguson, even greater for a league title and beyond.
Van Gaal was a good choice at the time and a welcome antidote to a club unable to move on from Ferguson's bubble. The scorched clear-out of the squad has left Van Gaal short when he needed it most but the decks are more appealing now than in 2014. If Woodward has the stones to contemplate sticking with Van Gaal until the summer or when he quits, his stubbornness is misplaced and he should instead concentrate on United's next major appointment, whether now or at the end of the season. Embrace the dark side and Mourinho - the club, for better and then usually worse, deserve him, and cannot afford to get this one wrong.