Manchester United have splashed the cash; now they must improve fast
Miracles take time. That seems to be the message from Manchester United's new manager, Louis van Gaal, after another limp display in their goalless draw at Burnley on Saturday. But how much time do United have? Vital ground has already been lost and the financial consequences of another failure to reach the Champions League do not bear thinking about.
It is clear that for all his pedigree and aura, Van Gaal did not walk into Old Trafford with a magic wand or an instant fix kit.
The misleading summer tour wins in the USA over the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Roma were proof that there are "lies, damned lies and the results of preseason friendlies." Any confidence gained on that trip was -- to use Van Gaal's dramatic word -- "smashed" by an opening-day home defeat by Swansea as his team tried to come to terms with an unfamiliar 3-4-1-2 system
The draws at Sunderland and Turf Moor only added to the impression of a team desperately short of ideas, tempo, dynamism or belief.
Van Gaal told reporters Friday: "Don't laugh, but we can still win the title." And he remains convinced that all will be well.
After seven titles in three countries and his tactical triumphs in taking Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals, there is no question that the Dutchman has to be cut some slack. He has forgotten more about the game than most of his critics will ever know.
Van Gaal is still in a honeymoon period with the English media, though you sense the calm might be about to be broken. Last week he berated reporters for failing to point out that United had 10 players injured, including new signings Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, as well as Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick. Then there is the protracted work permit problems which have prevented Argentinian defender Marcos Rojo from making his debut thus far.
Yet United have spent close to 150 million pounds and need to improve fast.
As well-organised as promoted Burnley were, it is not good enough for a team with Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Angel Di Maria to be drawing against a team assembled for little more than 4 million pounds.
For this observer, a major problem has been the failure of United's younger brigade to blossom into the big stars Sir Alex Ferguson thought they would be. Phil Jones, Smalling, Rafael, Tom Cleverley and even England regular Danny Welbeck simply have not been convincing enough on a regular basis, and it looks like one or two may have played their last game for the club.
Van Gaal must now consider abandoning a three-man defence, which often gives the impression of suffering from a collective neurosis. The system relies on the defenders being able to come forward with the ball, looking comfortable. None do.
When everyone is fit, might Van Gaal add to the pace and creativity by using Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj out wide with Carrick and Herrera in the centre? Behind them, a four-man defence of Jones, Smalling, Rojo and imminent new signing Daley Blind might be an option, leaving Rooney to play just behind Van Persie in attack.
Such a team would surely have more solidity, punch and menace than the sputtering team we are watching at the moment.
The top four is not only an aim -- it must be mandatory for a club of United's standing.
Van Gaal is too good a coach not to take on board what he is witnessing, and change accordingly. Surely the club has too many top players to carry on failing for very much longer. The job of the new boss is to deploy all that talent and find a beauty in the blend. He should be the first to realise it is not happening yet.