Poll: Is Jose Mourinho the right man to manage Manchester United?
'I can't imagine club have spoken to Jose Mourinho': Louis Van Gaal
Louis van Gaal brushed off suggestions Manchester United have approached Jose Mourinho to replace him at Old Trafford, but is the Portuguese coach the right man for the job should Van Gaal's services be dispensed with at the end of the season, as has been reported? Take our poll below.
Louis van Gaal smiles an awful lot when the television cameras are switched off. He likes a joke too, but then the public face of the Manchester United manager is very different to the one he projects behind the scenes at the club's Carrington training base.
This season has not been short on images of Van Gaal in confrontation mode in post-match interviews and press conferences - he admits he is "provocative" when entering the media bear-pit.
So it was a slightly awkward moment when a fan event at Carrington to honour Barclays Spirit of the Game hero Jack Fitzsimmons this week was halted by the Dutchman noting my presence in the room as he spoke of his wariness of the media.
"I must keep an eye on him," Van Gaal declared to his audience, before leaving the top table, pulling up a chair beside me and giving me a theatrical bear-hug to prove that, really, he is not so fearsome after all.
According to those who work with Van Gaal, the jocular side of his character is rarely far from the surface, from the ground staff who talk of his politeness to the jokes with Mike Donnelly, the club chef, who will inform the manager what he thinks about results.
"I hope that all the people who work with me remember me as a human being," Van Gaal says when we chat after the fans have left for home. "It is special here at Carrington, but I think it was the same for me in Munich and Barcelona.
"When you give your fellow employees attention, it makes a difference. I am empathetic to the job and I want to be a human being where I work.
"Sometimes players are fed up with my communication, but that's what I do and they know how I think. But they know I am very transparent."
Van Gaal is speaking the day after Diego Costa's stoppage-time goal for Chelsea denied United victory at Stamford Bridge and while his mood post-match was highlighted by a spiky press conference, the 64-year-old is in good spirits as he participates in the Q&A session.
But in our exclusive interview, he is also prepared to discuss the burning issues - his future, criticism from fans and former players, and whether United are preparing to replace him with Jose Mourinho, his one-time protégé from his time at Barca.
"I have not said that we have spoken, but he (Mourinho) is my friend," Van Gaal says. "But I don't know if United have spoken with Mourinho or not.
"I can only say that I have spoken with (United's executive vice-chairman) Ed Woodward and I cannot imagine that they have spoken with each other.
"I think that if they speak with another manager, they would tell me because our relationship is like that. But I think that, if they want to change, they have to prepare themselves. That is also a professional attitude in my opinion."
Having been a top-level coach for over two decades, Van Gaal (below) is pragmatic about the nature of his business, but insists he is comfortable with the trust he has built up with Woodward and United's owners, the Glazers.
"I not only have a strong relationship with Ed, but also with the Glazers," he said.
"And that is why I am annoyed with all the publicity. I have been 'sacked' three times."
When December came and went without victory and included Champions League elimination, Van Gaal's position was the subject of intense scrutiny and the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach spoke of the anxiety experienced by his friends and family.
Van Gaal's response since has been to go on the front foot, fight his corner and reject the notion of having offered his resignation, but he admits he does not enjoy the "battle".
"I am used to a lot of criticism," he says. "My performances in the media are provocative, but I have had to cope with the criticism. It is not any more stress or bother to have to deal with it.
"That is because, with the way I speak, my players are always protected. It is always against Louis van Gaal, it is never against my players.
"But do I enjoy it? No, because I am annoyed. I am very annoyed and there are a lot of people who know me who know that I am an honest guy and I will defend the good things and attack the wrong things.
"The Glazers are disappointed. Ed Woodward is disappointed and I am also disappointed because we are now further away from the top.
"But you have to analyse what is happening. It is not normal that Luke Shaw is out for a year, that (Antonio) Valencia, (Bastian) Schweinsteiger and (Marcos) Rojo are also out.
"Contact injuries happen in any country, but we have been very unlucky this year. It is not normal."
The injuries have been a pivotal factor in United's inability to mount a serious challenge for the Premier League title according to Van Gaal, with the club beginning to lose touch with the top four and prospect of Champions League qualification.
But the flipside to the personnel problems has been the emergence of home-grown youngsters such as Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and the eye-catching progress of Anthony Martial, the August arrival from Monaco.
Having given youth its head at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern, Van Gaal insists he will always take the risk of trusting young players.
"It is always good that you educate your own players, in the culture of Manchester United and also the playing style of Manchester United," Van Gaal says.
"It is important, but I have taken a risk in minimising my squad to accommodate young players because when you have a lot of injuries, you have problems. But now I have given the chance to Lingard and Borthwick-Jackson, while Martial and Memphis (Depay) are also very young.
"You have seen Xavi and (Andres) Iniesta, for example, I gave them their debuts at Barcelona. Also Thiago Motta, but they (young players) have to do it themselves.
"But when I leave, I cannot help them anymore, they do it by themselves and that is also very good because I am only a means to an end for them. They do it by themselves, but maybe I can be a very good means for my players."
Having insisted he will retire from coaching at the end of his United contract in June 2017 - "I have promised my wife because she has helped me for 20 years now" - Van Gaal accepts that his successor will reap the dividends of his readiness to turn to youth.
But he also admits that United's choice as the club's next manager will have implications for the youngsters.
"I hope that people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy, but you can never tell," Van Gaal says.
"The next manager would also have to show the confidence in the younger players. So I cannot judge. If United, after I retire, hire a manager who does not give the benefit of the doubt to youngsters, then it shall be very difficult.
"It is also very important for the United board to look at the profile of the new manager. If they ask (for a recommendation as manager), I shall give my opinion.
"But I never reign beyond my grave and, when I am gone, I cannot influence or contribute.
"It is up to the young players to take their opportunities, though, and the main factor in that is the player himself.
"It's here (he points to his head), but also his attitude, how he deals with negative things, because it is not always sunshine.
"You have to deal with a lot of things when you are a football player and that is not so easy. The talent is about technique and tactics and physics, but you also have to cope with a lot of other aspects and it is not easy."
Now at the halfway stage of his three-year contract, the future is uncertain, with Van Gaal admitting he can't claim that progress towards achieving his stated aim of winning the league is on track.
"It is not a straight line in football," Van Gaal says. "It is always up and down. It is possible, but it's a process that has ups and downs."
The Dutchman's belief remains intact, however, that he can improve the team's fortunes and prove his detractors wrong, particularly those who once played for the club.
"In Barcelona, the fans were more critical. In Ajax, too," Van Gaal says. "In my first year at Ajax, it was not a happy year. At the end, we won the Uefa Cup, but it was not a happy season.
"I took over from Leo Beenhakker and we lost the first three matches, so what do you think the fans were yelling? 'Cruyff,' for a whole year.
"I have always coped with that kind of thing. In England, it is more the result than performance, only when Paul Scholes started he influenced a certain amount of fans."
Scholes' comments about United's "boring" football, which coincided with the team's worst run of form, hit a nerve in the stands and within the club, but despite the former Old Trafford midfielder's close friendship with assistant manager Ryan Giggs, Van Gaal insists he has no reason to ask his No.2 to step in as a peacemaker.
"No, I don't think that I have to give Ryan stress in his friendship with Scholes," he says.
"I have managed all of my career, so it would not be good or honest of me to ask Ryan to say something.
"What Scholes is thinking, he has to think it. Every human can give his opinion. But my problem is when you create a very negative atmosphere for somebody, so maybe he should be more positive."
Until United reclaim their position as English football's leading power, however, the criticism and scrutiny will rain down on every occupant of the manager's seat.
One defeat in eight games suggests a corner has been turned, with the display at Chelsea also a reason for optimism, but as the name of Mourinho (left) continues to swirl, Van Gaal remains focused on the football.
"We have to finish games off," he says. "We have to develop and improve further because we played very well at Chelsea, but did not finish the game. This year, we lost goals in the last minute against Newcastle, Southampton and Chelsea. It has cost us five points, so we must learn how to finish games."
If United learn that, gain points and climb the table this softer, light-hearted Van Gaal, who is convinced the sun is ready to shine on Old Trafford again, might appear more often in front of the cameras as well as behind.
Louis van Gaal was speaking at a Barclays event to inspire the next generation of fans to fall in love with football. To win Barclays Premier League tickets search: Barclays Spirit of the Game.