The first was Daley Blind, who subsequently arrived two months later from Ajax in a €17.5 million deal. The second was Kevin Strootman, the Roma midfielder who has made just seven appearances this season and continues to struggle with serious knee problems.
And the third was Memphis Depay.
At the time, the Dutch winger was the subject of huge interest from Tottenham. Van Gaal interceded, told him to sit tight, stay at PSV for another season, and wait for his call.
This week, that call came. Liverpool made the first move amid serious interest in the young winger while PSV have now said that Paris Saint-Germain agreed terms. But there was never any concern at Old Trafford. They knew the 21-year-old wanted to move to United and have been in regular contact with his camp throughout a season in which he has scored 27 goals.
On Thursday, more than a year in the making, the €30 m transfer was announced. Van Gaal has finally got his man.
More than a simple coup, though, the agreement to sign Depay highlights something far more significant; that United are learning their lessons from last summer and backing Van Gaal’s play in the market. United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been exploring a galactico signing in Gareth Bale, but Van Gaal has the man he always wanted. Depay is young and raw, but has the potential to become one of the best footballers on the planet.
The Dutch manager has continually insisted that next season Manchester United supporters will see a team truly playing in his image and ready to challenge for the title. Depay’s arrival is the perfect start.
And a start is exactly what it is. The club’s €200m spree last summer will be matched and possibly even usurped this time.
There was a sense last year that United’s transfer policy was muddled. Deals for Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were agreed before Van Gaal took over while the signings of Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao were largely driven by Woodward.
But the Depay transfer underlines that Van Gaal is undoubtedly now calling the shots, which is how it should be. It is also an encouraging sign for supporters that the club are again looking to complete their business early.
United are fourth in the Premier League, four points clear of Liverpool with three games to play, and look almost certain to return to the Champions League next season. Back at the top table, they will look to flex their financial muscles to buy top players this summer.
In addition to Depay, Van Gaal wants a right-back, centre-back, central midfielder and a striker to complete his squad before the Premier League returns in August.
United’s interest in Borussia Dortmund star Mats Hummels as their top central defensive target is well documented, while Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne has emerged as the most likely full-back to arrive.
In midfield, Van Gaal wants an orchestrator who can control games. Paul Pogba would be the ideal choice but United face competition from other elite European clubs to sign a €80m-rated player who left them for next-to-nothing in 2012.
Falcao is set to return to Monaco at the end of his loan spell but United’s striker plans will revolve around the future of Robin van Persie. If the Dutchman stays, the club are more likely to pursue someone like Danny Ings rather than Edinson Cavani.
Regardless of who arrives and who they miss out on, Manchester United finally have a clear and coherent strategy that matches the specific requirements of their manager - one who, as the Depay deal proves, can be trusted to oversee a much-needed summer overhaul.