But only six months into his United career, Memphis Depay is struggling to force himself ahead of Jesse Lingard in Van Gaal's pecking order, let alone justify comparisons with Messi and Ronaldo.
The Dutch winger was expected to blaze a trail in the Premier League. He showed flashes of quality on the summer tour of the USA and was handed the number seven shirt once worn by the likes of Best, Robson, Cantona and Ronaldo.
“He's a goalscoring winger and there aren't so many of them in the world. Messi is one of those,” boasted Van Gaal of his new signing in the summer. And while many onlookers likened him to Ronaldo because of his direct bursts of pace, Depay said he was keen to dazzle the fans in his own way.
“I don’t want to say I can be like somebody as that, but I think I can excite the fans,” said the 21-year-old at his unveiling.
But his clumsy loss of possession at Chelsea on Sunday in the build-up to the home side’s injury-time equaliser prompted the latest wave of anti-Depay sentiment on social media and among United fan groups as a difficult first season in England reached its lowest ebb.
Having begun the season as one of the first names on the teamsheet, Depay’s general lack of form was highlighted by an anonymous first-half display in the 3-0 hammering by Arsenal in October. After being substituted at the break, he found himself sitting on the bench for the next six weeks.
He was recalled for the Premier League trip to Watford as a main striker and turned in perhaps his best performance in a United shirt, netting in a 2-1 victory which, for a few hours, sent his side to the top of the table.
But his own form has fallen away just as dramatically as United’s in the last three months. After a short spell back in the first XI coincided with a four-game run of defeats which constituted the Red Devils’ worst run in decades, he has since been left to pick splinters on the bench week after week.
One of his last acts as a starter was to attempt an ill-judged header back to David de Gea at Stoke on Boxing Day, inadvertently teeing up Bojan Krkic for the home side’s opener in a 2-0 United loss.
That incident and a lack of threat on the ball helped to make up Van Gaal’s mind at half-time, with the manager bringing on dropped skipper Wayne Rooney for the Dutchman at the break. In the nine games since, Rooney has netted seven times with Depay failing to so much as start a game, and on Monday he suffered the ultimate indignity of being dropped to the under-21 side for the 7-0 win over Norwich at Old Trafford.
While each Depay error is met by a stream of negativity from the United fan base and beyond, there are also those that long for the former PSV star to be given a chance. They know he has the potential to add an extra dimension to United’s attack if he can find his feet in the English game, as evidenced by his 28-goal season in the Eredivisie last term, but with every costly mistake the group of empathetic followers shrinks.
Perhaps it is United’s own precarious form which has magnified Depay’s struggles so far. Such are the fine margins between relative success and abject failure at Old Trafford right now, the customary downsides usually accepted as part of the package when adding a flair player to the mix are instead being viewed as examples of abject mediocrity.
Rooney was quick to defend his struggling team-mate on Sunday after seeing his side drop two points which could have put them in with an outside shot of a title push.
“Memphis is a fantastic player and that happens, we all give bad passes away,” reflected the England captain. “A lot of things happened from when you give the ball away to when they've scored the goal, so I don't think we can stand here and blame Memphis.”
But ‘Blame Memphis’ is a game that the critics are taking great pleasure in playing right now. The worrying thing for those United supporters who initially had such high hopes of Depay is that it is a game which is becoming increasingly easy to play.