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Way back in the cold depths of winter, Louis van Gaal looked like a man on death row.

A string of awful performances, a humiliating exit from the Champions League group stage and the spectre of an available Jose Mourinho looming large.

What Louis van Gaal can do to save his Manchester United jobUnited’s van Gaal experiment looked certain to be terminated prematurely.

But a team does not last 20 years at the top of European football if they are not made of sturdy stuff, especially in the kinds of environments in which van Gaal has forged his reputation. Now, in the most chaotic and unpredictable of league seasons, there is appears a slim chance the Dutchman could do what seemed so unlikely back in December and keep his job through to the end of his contract in 2017.

There are four criteria which will impact whether Louis van Gaal is still Manchester United manager in August next year. With just seven league games and a maximum for three cup games left in the season, the Dutchman will know his future is on the line every single week.

The League

The most obvious criteria for success for United in is the Premier League. The Red Devils have gone from perennial title challengers to top four scrapers in just three seasons. If van Gaal can secure fourth place, his case for staying is immeasurably stronger. Without it, he will be out of work.

Following their dramatic derby triumph United sit just one point behind their neighbours in the race for the last Champions League spot. City possess a sizeable +12 advantage in terms of goal difference, which few could argue United can overcome, but they have hit a run of form that will have their sky blue rivals looking nervously over their shoulder.

With tough games against Leicester and Tottenham still to come, the continuation of United’s renaissance is far from assured. There have been many false dawns in the van Gaal era, each more predictable and disappointing than the last. But there are reasons to believe this one could be different, especially while City’s league form remains apathetic.

The Cup

Three trophy less seasons is hardly a drought, but in comparison to the regular inundation of silverware which United fans had grown accustomed to, the post-Ferguson era has been bleak. A win the FA Cup would be a fitting cap to what has been an inconsistent and testing campaign.

Following their elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Liverpool, the FA Cup seemed to be United’s only remaining quest this season. Securing silverware never does a manager’s credentials no harm (although it might not always save their job). United still have a tricky quarter-final replay against a vastly underrated West Ham side, who have been successful against van Gaal throughout his time in England. But should they overcome that hurdle the draw opens right up.

With Everton waiting in the semis before either Crystal Palace or Watford in the final, it is fair to say the winner of the West Ham/Manchester United tie will be the overwhelming favourite to claim the silverware. After three barren seasons, the FA Cup would bring welcome relief to an increasingly anxious fan base.

Obviously winning the Cup and qualifying for the Champions League at the expense of Manchester City would make van Gaal’s case to stay strong. But there is another argument that should be in consideration whether or not these goals are achieved.

The Youth

The Dutch manager has dealt with an unprecedented injury crisis from the time he arrived in Manchester. His response to this crisis has been undoubtedly one of the highlights of his reign. Van Gaal’s willingness to back youth and give the untried a shot on the biggest stages is a bold yet proven recipe for unearthing gems. The rate at which they are being producing since his arrival is astonishing. United have blooded 14 of their academy graduates in just two seasons since the Dutchman took charge. This is an incredible rate of change when one considers the dozen or so players that have been brought in from other clubs.

Van Gaal may have fast-tracked the development of some of the club’s young talent by two or three seasons. He appears to have unearthed future stars in Marcus Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard and of course the highly rated Anthony Martial. We have seen this kind of emergence before. Adnan Januzaj and Federico Macheda are just a couple of starlets who burst onto the scene, only to discover that replicating the trick was more difficult than the initial act. But rarely have we seen such a diverse group of talented youngsters burst forth at once.

Certainly the football has been far from exhilarating, but what are you to expect when the average age of your attacking trio of Lingard, Martial and Rashford is scarcely 20. It is hard to expect those youngsters to outgun the likes of Aguero, Sterling and Navas for City, or Sanchez, Welbeck and Walcott for Arsenal. The results that Rashford and Martial in particular have been able to deliver have been a revelation.

The Successor

If Jose Mourinho is appointed as the next United manager at the end of the season, which still appears most likely, there is a genuine risk that the more conservative Portuguese opts for experienced veterans in favour of van Gaal’s precocious youth.

Wayne Rooney will return from injury and take his place in starting XI. Ed Woodward and Co. also look intent on signing another striker in the summer window. What will this do for the development of Rashford and Martial?

Perhaps they will be given complementary roles and asked to shoulder less of the match-winning burden, contributing more regularly from the bench than the starting XI. One could argue that would be healthy at this stage in their careers.

However, if they are starved of minutes and the match practice they desperately need to develop, will that prevent them from maximising their enormous talent. Young stars like Paul Pogba and Danny Welbeck grew impatient waiting for their chance. United cannot afford to keep allowing that kind of talent to slip through their fingers.

It is unclear how the next United manager will balance this dilemma. One thing is known though, the forthright Dutchman will back in his young stars, will give them every opportunity to prove themselves and develop and will go a fair way to ensuring the club is in a better place upon his departure than arrival.

United’s performance in the league and cup will be evident and easy measure. These are easy to judge. Whether Woodward and company decide they can tolerate van Gaal’s problematic possession-based philosophy with his redeeming features of fast-tracking the development of United’s kids, or they opt for a more pragmatic manager promising to deliver trophies, is the question that will be asked for the rest of the campaign.

Van Gaal’s future once appeared a fait accompli, now with perhaps 10 games left in the season, everything is now on the line.

Originally published at outside90.com

Post written by Ockie Daniell for Outside 90
Blog: outside90.com, Twitter: @Outside90

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