Manchester United risking future by sticking with Van Gaal
Man United 0 - Southampton 1
Ed Woodward, Manchester United's executive vice-chairman, faces a decision over Louis van Gaal which will not only affect the club's prospects of success this season but also Old Trafford's hopes of once again becoming the heart of the action during the remaining years of this decade.
Does Woodward have a strategy for life with, and after, Van Gaal - whose side lost on Saturday as Southampton's Charlie Austin grabbed a late winner at Old Trafford - or is he a man without a plan?
The answer to that remains a mystery but there has been little evidence in recent months of any clear direction being pursued by the man at the top.
After two-and-a-half years of drift and expensive failure since Woodward succeeded David Gill as United's most senior official, the inability of both Van Gaal and David Moyes to breathe new life into the team of champions left behind by Sir Alex Ferguson is as much down to him as his two managers.
Now he must decide whether to appoint a third, be it Jose Mourinho, Ryan Giggs or A N Other, with Van Gaal having lost the faith of the club's supporters following Saturday's dismal 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton.
Woodward stuck by Van Gaal when he could have dismissed the Dutchman during an awful December, which brought no victories and Champions League elimination.
Perhaps there was an element of wanting to display the same sort of resolve and backing for Van Gaal which Ferguson received from Martin Edwards during his own winter of discontent during the 1989-90 campaign.
But Ferguson was making progress, the youth system was beginning to bear fruit and he emerged from the storm.
Van Gaal, in contrast, walked into one last month and shows no sign of being able to escape it.
His football is grim. A run of no first-half goals for United at Old Trafford dating back to September says everything about the risk-averse, stultifying philosophy being imposed on the club's players.
Woodward has insisted that Van Gaal will remain until his contract expires in June 2017, but that in itself is a naïve position to take ahead of a pivotal summer for the club.
If United have a plan and are taking a strategic view of the summer transfer market, they will realise that it should be one dominated by themselves and Manchester City.
Real Madrid are out of the game, having been issued with a 12-month transfer ban by Fifa, while Barcelona's financial problems mean they are more likely to sell than buy.
Bayern Munich cannot compete with United or City in terms of transfer fees, while Arsenal will not go head-to-head with either on fees or wages. Chelsea are unlikely to be able to offer Champions League football, so only Paris Saint-Germain can legitimately challenge.
But while City are almost certainly going to be able to sell themselves to prospective new signings by dangling the carrot of a three-year magical mystery tour with Pep Guardiola, what is United's pitch? If Van Gaal stays, that pitch will be to work for a manager who will be gone in 12 months, to be replaced by... well, that is anyone's guess.
If he goes, then United must act now, because transfer deals are set up months before the window even opens.
Five more months of drift over the manager and United will see transfer targets move elsewhere, so whatever Woodward does now with Van Gaal will have implications for the summer and beyond.
City could secure the best manager and players while United and Woodward decide what to do and that would set the club back even further.
If Mourinho is ready and willing to move to Old Trafford, Woodward can at least devise his own three-year plan with the Portuguese.
With Van Gaal, uncertainty clouds everything and United have already spent too long fumbling around in the fog.