As Manchester United soundly thrashed their near neighbours at the Theatre of Dreams on Sunday afternoon, the mood changed. No longer were the great Manchester United, 20 times champions, simply fighting for a top four finish. The belief has come back. Chelsea are seven clear with a game in hand, but that won’t matter. United will keep fighting until the bitter end. They still have to play Chelsea at the end of the week, before meeting Arsenal in the penultimate game in May. Stranger things have happened in football, and United are no strangers to luck. Make no mistake, United are back in business, and it’s Louis van Gaal pulling the strings.
When he was first announced as United manager, there was great enthusiasm, but no small amount of doubt. Of course, LvG had managed the Dutch team that had thrashed Spain in the World Cup, but he also had managed the Dutch team that needed penalties to beat Costa Rica. At 63, van Gaal is entering the latter stages of his career, having won a Champions League (1995, with Ajax), and a series of league titles across Europe. What could he gain from a Manchester United side that was out of Europe, needed serious rebuilding and still had Phil Jones?
On one hand, van Gaal likes a challenge. He was often a divisive, argumentative man but also a shrewd and decisive tactician. Compare him with contemporary managers. Jose Mourinho’s first thought, in any game, is not losing. Brendan Rodgers’ tactic is to pack the midfield, depend on explosive pace and then put anyone in defence for a bit of comedy. Good man. Wenger’s tactic is short passing with a quick tempo, rather than crossing or shooting from range. Until the 3-0 defeat of Liverpool in December, van Gaal had no long term tactic in mind, and was widely criticised that his spending hadn’t translated into results. Wayne Rooney was shifted from attack to midfield and back. Fellaini was a back-up if United were forced to play the long ball. Shaw was unfit, inexperienced, and chubby. Angel Di Maria faded in about October. Falcao was a gamble that wasn’t paying off. Rojo is a little hit-and-miss. On top of that, van Gaal got rid of Danny Welbeck, a fan favourite who, despite not being blessed with abundant talent, was a workhorse and good for a couple of goals. Ander Herrera was undoubtedly the best transfer of Manchester United’s season, but spent a lot of it out through injury.
Since that game in December, though, it’s all begun to click, very late on, for United. They have won seven league games on the bounce since their loss to Swansea, and, an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal aside, have looked like a new team. Of course, they haven’t had many classic performances, but the ends justify the means. That weird 3-4-3 system which worked against absolutely no one has been scrapped. LvG now seems to know who his favoured 11 are.
Much of this has been due to David de Gea. Since his torrid first season since his arrival in 2011, de Gea has gone from strength to strength to become one of the foremost keepers in the Premier League. This season, he has marshalled United’s shambolic defence, and his saves have contributed to the majority of their points. A hat trick of saves against Everton or his eight against Liverpool are evidence of his value to Manchester United.
But van Gaal has done more than crate a new formation, he has created a stronger work ethic. I said earlier that the ends justify the means. Van Gaal would play Fellaini in all eleven positions if that won him the game. Fellaini, the overpriced, sulky, Moyes buy who looked out of place in a red kit has become quite possibly United’s most influential player. He links the midfield and attack, is strong on both feet, a tireless runner, and an excellent header of the ball. Alongside him, Wayne Rooney looks much more like his old self. Rooney hit his peak incredibly early, having his very best years between 2005 and 2009, however he was never the same player after handing in his first transfer request. Despite signing two contracts since then, Rooney’s often mercurial form has seen him go on runs of games without scoring. However, he has flourished under van Gaal, who has made him the focal point of his attack. As captain, Rooney has gone from taking everything on into maturing into a calmer player and finding the space. This, coupled with the renaissance of Juan Mata, whose perfect finishes against Liverpool showcased again his value to the Premier League, have once more recreated United into a driving force. Michael Carrick, at 33, is nit he form of his career, and has been an excellent foil for the marauding Ander Herrera.
Van Gaal has been most helped by the low expectations surrounding the club this season. IN choosing Moyes, Ferguson placed his successor under the greatest pressure imaginable, and it was clear to see how overwhelmed Moyes was. Ferguson was meticulous, he would read every scout report, he would be at every training session, he would want to know what was being said, and thought, and done, at every second. Moyes unfortunately couldn’t keep up. Van Gaal is different. He strikes me as a man who doesn’t care what owners or players say. He knows what he has done. He knows what he is capable of. He has managed some great players and made enemies of them (Johan Cruijff, Miroslav Klose), he wouldn’t let something as trivial as the Manchester United fan base get to him. At the same time, his main aim was a top four finish, a task made easier by United’s loss of European football and the early defeat to MK Dons in the League Cup, which was more of a hindrance than a help. The ease with which they dispatched Liverpool and Manchester City in successive weeks is evidence how far they have moved on since that disappointing night.
It’s foolhardy to think that van Gaal could recreate the team and win the title in his first season (barring a spectacular collapse from Chelsea), but he has got them firing again, if not on all cylinders. A fitter, leaner Luke Shaw will be expected next season, and possibly the acquisition of Mats Hummels or even Thiago Silva will upgrade United’s famously leaky defence. Of particular importance is to keep David de Gea at the club. Falcao will go back to Monaco, and they can focus on a more consistent striker. Di Maria has the mental strength to recover from a disappointing first season to become an excellent player for United. The shadow of Sir Alex still hangs heavy over Old Trafford, but if there’s one man who won’t feel the pressure, it’s Louis van Gaal.