It is an uncommon narrative this season, but this is a Manchester United side very much on the up. Just shy of half way through the campaign, United’s recent good form – fours wins in four – will elevate Louis van Gaal’s side to third in the Premier League should the Reds complete a fifth at Southampton on Monday night. The Saints offer no easy victory, of course, with Ronaldo Koeman having enjoyed a fine start to his reign at St Mary’s, but this, perhaps, is the death of United no longer.
The Dutchman’s side is yet to have truly established consistency, let alone a ‘philosophy’, in the season’s opening 14 matches, but momentum counts – and much has been gained in victories over Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Hull City and Stoke City in the past month.
Talk of United lavishing yet more millions on the transfer window, once a favourite supporters refrain, now appears shortsighted with the Reds enjoying the best set of results under Van Gaal. Indeed, the Dutchman bristled at suggestions he is set to build a new galáctico regime at Old Trafford with another £100 million plus spree in the coming months, calling tabloid gossip “disgusting and disrespectful” to the squad he already enjoys.
Still, United’s recent improvement, after the worst opening 10-game spell since 1986, counts for little unless momentum is maintained through a busy Christmas and new year period. It is a scenario of which Van Gaal is acutely aware.
“I am happy with where we are. We are doing better, but where we are now doesn’t count,” said the 62-year-old on Friday.
“It is where we are at the end of the season that matters. We have had a lot of injuries and had to make a lot of changes but the important thing for me is that the players want to follow the philosophy. That is why, despite the many changes, we have been able to continue.”
Van Gaal will be grateful too that a lengthy injury list is finally beginning to subside, although he will be without star performer Angel di Maria at St Mary’s. In addition to the Argentinian winger Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Rafael da Silva remain on the sidelines for the trip to the south coast.
“It’s not a bad injury, but I am not a doctor, but I think he shall recover very quickly,” said Van Gaal of Di Maria.
“Evans is coming back. He is fit to play. Jones is coming back but not fit to play. He needs training sessions and maybe also matches in the second team. But he is coming back. He is fit to train. That is also very good. We are seeing already light in the tunnel.”
Despite Evans’ recovery Van Gaal is likely to retain centre-back pairing Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo, with emergency full-backs Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia also likely to continue. Wayne Rooney’s recovery from a minor knee injury means the Englishman will partner Robin van Persie in attack, with Radamel Falcao once again on the bench. In midfield United’s manager could deploy a diamond including Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marouanne Fellaini. Juan Mata’s star-turn in victory over Stoke last weekend seems unlikely to have gone unnoticed.
Meanwhile, Koeman faces injury problems of his own, with half-a-dozen key players set to miss Monday night’s game. Midfielder Jack Cork has been ruled out for more than a month with an ankle injury while defender Toby Alderweireld has a hamstring problem. Morgan Schneiderlin, James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez all miss the game, although winger Dusan Tadic is fit to play and could partner in-form striker Graziano Pellè in attack.
Koeman has bucked the consensus by driving Southampton into the top four this season despite losing a clutch of players over the summer. Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert departed for somewhere in the region of £100 million after a fine 2013/14 campaign under Mauricio Pochettino. Yet, Koeman’s arrival, allied to an extensive squad overhaul, has not led to the Saints expected downfall this season.
Still, the 51-year-old former Van Gaal protegé enjoyed a favourable fixture list in the opening weeks of the campaign and recent defeats to Manchester City and Arsenal may put Southampton’s status in some context. Few imagine the Saints will qualify for the Champions League next season despite picking up 26 points to date.
“Southampton have more points than Liverpool,” said Van Gaal. “Their sequence of results has been good but I never doubted that Ronald Koeman would be able to make a success of the club. He is a very good coach and even if Southampton lost a lot of players before the start of the season I knew he would still do a good job.”
Not that Van Gaal has ever doubted his former assistant’s ability despite a decade-old breakdown in the pair’s relationship. Van Gaal acted as Director of Football to manager Koeman at Ajax before the elder man departed from Ajax in aggravated circumstances.
“I will never have dinner with Ronald Koeman again,” said Van Gaal in the aftermath. “He engineered my departure.”
Nor will the pair enjoy a post-match drink. “I don’t know where managers find the time,” claimed Van Gaal. Yet, after the obligatory opening handshake the result of English football’s first ever head-to-head between two Dutch managers will set the narrative for both in the coming weeks. Should United claim a fifth win on the bounce Van Gaal will enjoy credibility much restored. Koeman, by contrast, will face the first real pressure of his tenure.
Then again Koeman has rewritten many storylines already this season. Van Gaal is just beginning to do the same.
United (4-1-3-2): de Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Herrera, Fellaini, Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Southampton (4-4-1-1): Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Bertrand; Long, Wanyama, S Davis, Mane; Tadic; Pelle
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Evans, Anderson, Pereira, Fletcher, Januzaj, Falcao, Wilson
Southampton: K Davis, Cropper, Gardos, Targett, Reed, Hesketh, Isgrove, Mayuka
Southampton 23 – Draw 48 – United 94
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: S Ledger, A Garratt
Fourth Official: R East
Southampton 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie to score first @ 6/1
Running total: £(-)13