Up until the last couple of Manchester United matches, Louis van Gaal must have been fearing for his managerial legacy. The Dutchman had arrived at Old Trafford as one of the most successful coaches in recent footballing history, and looked set to depart after after two seasons in which he'd spent big and achieved disproportionately little.
Van Gaal may be stubborn, but he's not stupid. He's a very shrewd operator, to the extent that perhaps only he could've emerged from a Netherlands penalty shootout victory over World Cup minnows Costa Rica as a brilliant tactical mastermind. And so at United, he played the one remaining card up his sleeve: he's giving youth a chance. The man who gave debuts to Clarence Seedorf, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Thomas Müller is now handing them to a handful of academy graduates, and in both morale and results, it's paying dividends.
If you can't make the present look bright, making the future look sufficiently so may be enough to quell concurrent discontent. It's a familiar historical edict, one that has the potential to explain countless historical conflicts in which the promise of a return to national greatness is the mobilizing and motivating factor. And, while admittedly van Gaal hasn't (as far as we are aware) looked to colonize any foreign territory, his recent team selections are indicative of a man who'd taken a populist gamble, and it's paying off. Whatever happens from here on in -- and, it must be said, the likeliest scenario still seems to be the arrival of José Mourinho in the summer -- van Gaal has managed to cement a legacy without lifting any silverware.
Of course, it hasn't all been his own doing: he could just have easily thrown a bunch of academy products into the United first team with disastrous consequences. It's partly a credit to the quality of United's academy -- the recent overhaul of which now seems rather premature -- that several players have managed to slot into the first team have done so with little fuss. Right back Guillermo Varela appears to be growing in confidence with every passing week; in the weekend's win over Arsenal he turned in an excellent attacking performance. On the other side of the defense, Timothy Fosu-Mensah was as solid as could have been expected when called upon, and impressed just as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson at left back this season.
Borthwick-Jackson makes up one of the three Mancunians that have featured regularly of late: Jesse Lingard has now made 14 league appearances for United this season, and is looking ever more confident in doing so. At 23, it would've been easy for van Gaal to dismiss the Warrington winger as too old to ever make his mark. But he's added an energy and an unpredictability to a team that had, to that point, been completely devoid of such traits. His finishing's not great, and his technique still needs improvement if he's to make it long-term, but his career trajectory has headed sharply north over the last few months. He is the anti-Oxlade-Chamberlain.
That brings us to the final of the three Manchester-born players who are beginning to turn heads: Marcus Rashford. In the space of two matches he's gone from academy unknown to a rising star, and is now the subject of a worrying amount of attention from both the supporters and the media. But despite fears of hasty expectation, there's no denying Rashford already looks confident on the Old Trafford pitch. He took his two goals against Arsenal superbly, and his link-up play showed an excellent understanding of space, as, much to the consternation of the Arsenal back line, he floated everywhere and anywhere.
Aside from the aforementioned, Regan Poole, Donald Love, Andreas Pereira, James Weir, Will Keane and Joe Riley have also all been given game time. It would now be not just a disappointment, but a surprise if none of these players go on to establish themselves as regulars. But given Mourinho's rather poor track record of gambling on ill-disciplined youngsters, as well as the sheer statistical improbability of all going on to feature regularly for United over the next decade, it's a possibility for which United supporters should be more than prepared.
And yet, not even that can now tarnish van Gaal's unimpeachable legacy. He'll leave Old Trafford having given United fans a tantalizing glimpse of a bright future. A future in which their team is made up of Mancunians or adopted Mancunians, living out the dream of donning the colors of their boyhood club. A future in which United are capable of swatting aside Europe's best clubs with a motley rabble of local exports, for whom every goal means more than it could to anyone else. A future that will, in all likelihood, gradually disintegrate as the recent debutantes file away to Hull City and Sunderland. But van Gaal's unlikely to be United manager when that happens.
In the interim, the Dutchman has given United fans a dream. And if that's not a legacy, then what is?