Strange season this. Back in August Louis van Gaal declared his players’ confidence “shattered” after Swansea City won at Old Trafford on the opening day. The Welsh side deserved victory against a pensive Manchester United that had been fluent during the summer tour of the United States. If the pattern was not often repeated during the late summer to autumn, then three defeats by October left Van Gaal’s side in 10th with no obvious path back to the top. More than 20 matches later and the Dutchman is now emboldened – calling his side the “best in the Premier League” this week.
Yet, there is also a strange phenomenon brewing; United’s run of one defeat in the past 19 games – at home to Southampton – is impressive, albeit one that includes eight draws. The performances have been far from slick though. Indeed, the veteran Dutch coach has come under fire for United’s style in recent weeks – West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce dubbed Van Gaal’s team “Long Ball United,” while former player Paul Scholes said that he was “struggling to watch” the side.
United’s direct, often painfully slow, style has alienated some despite that good run of results. After all, it has been rare since United’s 5-3 defeat at Leicester City in September that the Reds have thrilled. Few supporters expected Van Gaal to bring a brand of ultra-pragmatism to the club; this is the manager that built a vibrant Ajax side in the mid-1990s and the pre-cursor in the early 2000s to Barcelona’s tika-taka kings.
While the critique is mitigated by United’s results, former Red-turned-pundit Gary Neville’s says that supporters should now “let go” of the past and embrace the manager’s less-than-attractive style of play. Results, says Neville, justify the means – a “play-style” that has taken the Reds to third in the Premier League and into an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal.
And while the path to success is not always obvious, with deficiencies in almost all sectors of the team, more than 80 per cent of United’s supporters understand Van Gaal’s direction, according to a recent poll in the Manchester Evening News. Credit, apparently, where it is due, although the Dutchman says that it is his players whose praise he seeks the most.
“The credit I get is from the players, the highest credit what I can get,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “That is the most important thing: that my players, my staff and myself can work together at the way we work now and that gives the spirit.
“Now I think every player knows the philosophy. Everyone wants to follow that philosophy and you can see that in the team spirit of the team. But that doesn’t say anything about the match because you have to play that match and we have seen that against Swansea City in the first match. I think only the difference is now the players know and have experience of playing in the system with my philosophy.”
United’s trip to Swansea this weekend is a reminder of the difficult days past – and possibly of those to come. Gary Monk’s side will comfortably avoid relegation this season even if mixed results keep the Swans in mid-table. The game also recalls the transition under Van Gaal – six of United’s 10 outfield players who featured in the 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford in August are no longer at the club or regularly playing. Four of seven substitutes have also left.
The uptick in results has been largely due to United’s sound home record; 13 Premier League victories have come at Old Trafford with just three on the road. Style can wait, says the Dutchman, until he finds the “balance” that has become a season’s cliché.
“We can play much better. I am looking for the balance and I can see a team who are also looking for the balance,” adds Van Gaal. “It is never good enough – not for me, not for the players, not for the fans. We have to improve and we are in the process. We haven’t won so much away, but when you draw, you are very close to the victory. It’s not so far away that we can win away matches regularly also.”
The Dutchman has few excuses now with only Michael Carrick on the sidelines. Phil Jones and Robin van Persie are fit to play and could both feature this weekend. Carrick trained this week, although he is not expected to start at the Liberty Stadium. Whether Van Persie partners a labouring Radamal Falcao in attack is open to question, although United’s manager is seemingly reluctant to drop the Colombian striker despite a desperate run of form that has brought only four goals this season.
Van Gaal will also persist with the largely failed experiment of deploying Rooney in midfield, while Ander Herrera drops to the bench despite an impressive showing against Preston North End in the FA Cup.
Meanwhile, Swansea manager Monk welcomes back creative fulcrum Gylfi Sigurdsson, who returns from a three-match suspension. Defender Kyle Bartley is out with a knee problem, but Monk has a predominantly fit squad with which to work.
Swansea has suffered mixed results in recent weeks – losing at West Bromwich Albion last weekend, while securing victory at Southampton last month. There was also a chastening 5-0 loss at Chelsea together with defeat in the FA Cup to Championship side Blackburn Rovers. A reminder, perhaps, that it has been a diverging path for both clubs since that opening day fixture.
“That feels like a long time ago,” admitted Monk this week. “But it was a fantastic day and the pleasing thing for me is that we won the game on merit. We put in a great performance and it was a superb start to the season for us. But they have changed a lot since then. They have climbed the table and are in a good position. They have world-class players and can mix it up and change their style of play accordingly. It is a massive challenge for us.”
A challenge too for Van Gaal. To keep securing positive results – and to progress United’s performances.
United (4-1-3-2): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fellaini, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie, Falcao
Swansea (4-5-1): Fabianski; Naughton, Williams, Fernandez, Taylor; Dyer, Ki, Sigurdsson, Carroll, Montero; Gomis
Swansea: Cornell, Tremmel, Amat, Rangel, Tiendalli, Britton, Cork, Fulton, Grimes, Routledge, Sheehan, Shelvey, Barrow, Emnes, Oliveira
United: Valdes, Evans, Rafael, James, Smalling, Blackett, McNair, Januzaj, Young, Herrera, Pereira, Wilson
Swansea 8 – Draw 5 – United 11
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: S Ledger, M Perry
Fourth Official: L Probert
Swansea 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Marianne Fellaini to score in 0-1 win @ 35/1
Running total: £2.50 up!