Manchester United’s defeat to Southampton last weekend was heavily criticised by the newspapers on Monday morning. No surprise there, but even after such a poor showing it is nonsense to argue that little has changed at United over the past year. Still, the Louis van Gaal’s side has managed to win just 10 out of 21 games this season, with a points tally of 37 – now 12 shy of the league leaders. It begs the question: how much has Van Gaal really achieved?
At the same stage last season United had gained the same number of points – and David Moyes’ side was only 11 points adrift of the then league leaders. The stats certainly don’t scream change, although – in a way – the league table has something very different to say. Compared to last season when Moyes’ side were struggling to obtain a Champions League spot in seventh, Van Gaal’s men lie fourth in the table. Just enough change some might say.
When Sir Alex Ferguson’s replacement lasted only 10 months in the job United’s hierarchy must have realised that a fundamental change in direction was required; a coach both more astute and more illustrious – with the kind of unparalleled self-belief and confidence that the job requires.
Yet, it’s been a long first six months for Van Gaal at Old Trafford whatever the Dutchman’s past. Home defeat to the Saints underlines the fact that Van Gaal has a lot of work left to be done before United will again challenge for the title, despite United’s recent 11 match unbeaten run. Hampered by a chaotic injury list – but aided by a poor run of form United’s rivals for Champions League qualification – it’s been a campaign with both it’s highs and lows.
United’s summer spending has provided plenty of ammunition: Van Gaal spent £150 million and yet the points total is only on par with Moyes’ performance. It’s a critique Van Gaal dismisses – and the Dutchman is savvy enough to know that if a club could guarantee titles with money alone Manchester City would have held the Premier League every year since 2008.
Van Gaal is bullish not least because everybody knew United had to invest once again, especially with so many veterans leaving last season – and with Chelsea and City pooling talent over the years. After securing Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in the past two summers even Arsenal has joined the big-spenders now. United had to play catch up or would have fallen further behind.
Yet, after last year’s torrid season Van Gaal was left a group of talented youngsters with zero experience and clutch of world-class players with almost zero confidence. In the context the Dutchman has led United to a comfortable position halfway through the season, integrating new faces and attempting to build his so called philosophy.
Luck has played a part of course, especially in some very important games, such as victories over Arsenal and Southampton at St. Mary’s. Although many will argue that any luck is balanced out by the long injury curse that has haunted the squad.
There is hope too. Specifically five areas that point to Van Gaal heading in the right direction, despite Sunday’s defeat to Southampton.
The captaincy choice was the right choice
Among the first and perhaps most important decisions Van Gaal made last summer was to make Wayne Rooney captain when faced with the choice of trusting his compatriot Robin van Persie or extending the captaincy to the player who defines United’s past decade. The unstable relationship Rooney had with Sir Alex and Van Gaal’s regular arguments with players was a concern, but Rooney has taken up the role so pragmatically.
Youngsters are being given a chance
Van Gaal has used a group of youngsters this season, bringing them to the first team in the way Moyes did not. It is a policy that has benefited Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and James Wilson in particular. They are, if not household names, on the road to it. And the way this group has performed, given the lack of experience on offer, is commendable. Breeding youth talent is one of United’s core foundations and it appears to be in harmony with Van Gaal’s philosophy, leaving the future of the club in safe hands. But it would be amiss not to note that a few talents have been overlooked too – the sale of Danny Welbeck and the Adnan Januzaj’s situation in particular.
The team ethic comes first
Football is a team sport and Van Gaal appears to have little regard for a star name. In fact he recently said that he needs “balance in the team” and when asked about Rooney’s selection as he claimed the Scouser’s involvement is “dependable on how the balance in the team is.” It is becoming clear that the Dutchman cares less for individuals than the team as a whole. This is a good thing.
Reinventing fallen idols
Van Gaal has developed a reputation for exploring hidden talents in players and in the process reinventing them, much as he did for Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern Munich. There have been numerous examples of this trait in evidence already this season, with Marouanne Fellaini and Ashley Young – once considered outcasts – now playing pivotal roles in United’s campaign. Whatever else, when players who were once considered dead wood find some new vigour, something is heading in the right direction.
Van Gaal wants more from the team
Most importantly it’s the way that Van Gaal assesses United’s performance in this first half of the season that matters. His side is fourth in the league table and, albeit with some jitters, into the fourth round of the FA Cup. But Van Gaal understands that his team has not performed close to it’s capability yet, even if many of its failings could be pinned upon the long running injury crisis. But now with injuries coming to an end, Van Gaal should be able to play a more stable 11 in the coming games – perhaps pinning down a consistent formation as well.