The soundbites have been the same. The statements about goals and wins and proving themselves. The absolute belief that what he’s doing is the right thing. It’s seemingly forever been thus.
But if Manchester United fail to beat Wolfsburg tonight and exit the Champions League at the group stages, then Louis van Gaal will be looking at the first tangible failure of his 18 months in charge. He will quite simply have nowhere to hide.
He’ll be exposed. He won’t be able to point towards a seemingly healthy position in the league table or rivals who are just as guilty of dropping points as his own side are.
Going out tonight would mean that Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven would have gone through in his team’s place, two clubs who should be mere specks in United’s rear view mirror and not anywhere near overtaking them.
Until now, Van Gaal has been able to justify his side’s methodical, underwhelming football with results which – in the long-term – have worked out in their favour.
The Dutchman was brought in to restore order following nine months which saw David Moyes clatter and career his way through Old Trafford like the clumsy, Inspector Clouseau-esque waiter who refused to say ‘chowder’ to Mayor Quimby’s nephew Freddy in The Simpsons, and that’s exactly what he did.
Van Gaal got United back in the Champions League after a year away, and whilst the doubters pointed out that he was fortunate to be up against a Tottenham side acclimatising to a new manager and style of play, and a Liverpool slowly imploding under Brendan Rodgers, such statements were met with directions to the final 2014/15 league table.
His team finished fourth then and are fourth now. It’s not a great place for a United side to be but it’s not the worst one either. The post-Sir Alex Ferguson years were always going to take some getting used to, but clinging on to modern football’s loosest definition of success would do for now.
Crashing out tonight, though, would not.
A Dutch club has failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League since PSV Eindhoven made it to the quarter-finals in 2006/07, whilst Wolfsburg entered this season’s competition having just lost their best player in Kevin De Bruyne. United fans don’t need telling where he ended up.
Any trip to Moscow – where United drew 1-1 with CSKA – is never easy, but this was seen as an negotiable group for Van Gaal and his players. It should never have come to the final night in Lower Saxony, where United have to win to be sure of qualification.
The fact that seven of the 10 matches in Group B have ended in home wins tells you everything you need to know about how the section has panned out.
United, instead of exerting their authority, have been sucked into a dogfight, with their conservative style of play – limiting the attacking potential of Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and others – being largely responsible for that.
Taking one point from an available six against PSV is the sort of thing which would have resulted in rolling heads in the Ferguson era, but instead it has just been grudgingly accepted under Van Gaal – whom reports indicate is still safe in his position at Old Trafford, where he is under contract until 2017.
Failure tonight might result in more questions about that future, but it is extremely unlikely that he’d be sacked.
In United’s corridors of power they’ll be counting the millions from this Champions League campaign and quietly plotting an assault on a Premier League title that no-one outside of Leicester seems to want to win. Fans’ concerns will be of secondary importance. Actually, they’ll probably be a lot lower down the list.
Old Trafford will still be full for the next home match against Norwich City and beyond, that won’t change.
The perceptions of Van Gaal might, though, and the seed of doubt which is already planted in many minds would suddenly experience a growth spurt.
Failure tonight won’t be the beginning of the end, but it would mark the end of the beginning.