Manchester United supporters couldn't wait to begin life under the charismatic Louis van Gaal, but not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined that their team would endure such a miserable start to the 2014/15 Premier League campaign.
Sunday's 5-3 defeat against newly-promoted Leicester City will go down as one of United's most embarrassing Premier League defeats. A team containing the likes of Wayne Rooney, Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie allowed a 3-1 lead to slip, conceding four second-half goals in the space of 20 devastating minutes to leave serious question marks over the extent of the impact Van Gaal is currently making at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal has third-place target
Manchester United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward recently revealed that Van Gaal has been set the target of securing a third-place finish - but on the evidence of Sunday's performance, the 20-time Premier League champions will be lucky to finish in top half of the table.
Brilliant going forwards, but woeful when asked to carry out any sort of defensive task, Van Gaal failed to address a fundamental issue in the United squad during the summer months - and it may end up costing the veteran Dutch coach his job before the transfer window re-opens in January.
Van Gaal signed the wrong defenders
Van Gaal would argue that he purchased the right players to solve United's defensive problems. He spent a combined £57 million on Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind - but none of them could be classed as talismanic centre-backs.
And following the departures of both Rio Ferdinand and club captain Nemanja Vidic this summer, that's precisely what United were crying out for.
Phil Jones has proved at the start of this season that he's up to the task, but the same can't be said of Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling.
Van Gaal made a half-hearted attempt to sign Thomas Vermaelen from Arsenal - not that there were any guarantees the Belgium international would have been a success - while Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels was continually linked, but it seems the Dutchman was content to play out the first half of the season with what he had.
Pre-season results were misleading
Perhaps he was convinced to keep faith in United's current batch of central defenders because of the team's impressive pre-season performances. After all, the Red Devils managed to record eye-catching victories over the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Valencia. Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 system appeared to be working like a charm.
But pre-season is never a reliable indicator of what to expect when the competitive action gets underway. United began their new campaign with a 2-1 home defeat to Swansea City - and, rather than a one-off, that result proved to be a taster of things to come.
United picked up two points from their next two league fixtures - against Sunderland and Burnley - while a humiliating 4-0 defeat to MK Dons in the Capital One Cup second round was sandwiched in between those results.
Losing 4-0 to a team from League One would have led to untold criticism and abuse from the United faithful towards the hapless David Moyes, but Van Gaal got off relatively lightly thanks to his world-class reputation and the fact Di Maria had been signed on the same day.
United brought crashing back down to earth
His first competitive victory as United's head coach came against a QPR side in disarray, but the Red Devils were brought crashing back down to earth by the well-organised Foxes this weekend.
United's vulnerable defence cracked at the slightest hint of pressure, and this will continue to happen until Van Gaal brings in a top-level centre-back to partner Jones.
Had United taken five points from five matches having played the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City then fair enough. But Van Gaal has come up against five clubs who United should be beating comfortably.
Even tougher tests await Man Utd
The most worrying thing for Van Gaal is that the tough matches are just around the corner. This weekend they take on a resurgent West Ham at Old Trafford, before hosting Everton a week later.
After the international break they travel to the Hawthorns - never an easy away ground to pick up points - to face West Brom, and six days later they go head-to-head with Premier League title favourites Chelsea.
It doesn't get any easier for United after that. A week later they play reigning champions Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, before taking on Crystal Palace and Arsenal in November.
United must secure top-four finish
It's no exaggeration to suggest that Man United could enter their league fixture against Hull City on November 29 with a pitiful two or three victories on the board. This would heap severe pressure on Van Gaal's shoulders, considering the financial losses the club will make should they spend a second consecutive season outside of the Champions League.
Those back-to-back league games against Hull and Stoke City could prove pivotal in Van Gaal's Manchester United tenure. Although we're still a couple of months away, these two fixtures should be highlighted as potential must-win games for the Red Devils' manager.
After that United travel to Southampton, who are performing above expectations at the moment, before a crunch match against Liverpool at Old Trafford on December 13.
Van Gaal not immune from being sacked
Van Gaal must get it right - and quickly - to avoid an embarrassing early dismissal. United proved last season that, contrary to popular belief, they are not a special club in the sense that they give their managers time.
Moyes was handed a six-year contract and lasted 10 months; Van Gaal signed a three-year deal and could last five months in the job.
There's no doubting Van Gaal is a coach of immense talent, complete with a CV to rival that of any other manager in the sport. But that doesn't make him immune from being handed his P45 earlier than anticipated if he fails to delver this season.
Can he save his job?
He was backed to the tune of £157.7 million in the summer transfer window - and for that kind of investment, Woodward and the Glazer family have every right to expect a return to the Champions League.
But the chances of United getting back into Europe's premier club competition could be left in tatters before the New Year unless Van Gaal gets it right over the forthcoming weeks.
Failure to improve results, drastically, could see United begin the hunt for yet another manager in this topsy-turvy post-Ferguson era.
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