What a difference a year makes. Exactly 12 months ago yesterday, Manchester United sacked David Moyes after a defeat to his former club and after confirmation that United couldn’t mathematically make the top four. Five points from a possible 24 against the Premier League top four of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal was indicative of a season that saw United crumble when it mattered most.
Now united sit with an almost certain top four finish, a footballing identity, 12 out of 15 points in a run of games that has included Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and an improved Villa. Despite the recent loss to Chelsea, confidence is high and there is an audible positivity around Old Trafford. United fans have opened their eyes and the bad dream that was David Moyes has almost disappeared.
The biggest positive to take from Stamford Bridge was the lack of any fresh negatives. The few flaws that were present in United’s performance were centred around gaps in personnel. The very gaps that Louis van Gaal will already have penned in his notebook. The fickle nature of football can often blind critics into believing that these types of problems re-surface as a result of poor management, or that theres a fresh problem that must instantly be dealt with.
Louis van Gaal knows Jose Mourinho as well as anyone that cares to suggest otherwise and the notion that van Gaal was somewhat unaware of Mourinho’s plan at Stamford Bridge is absurd. There have been various suggestions that the Dutchman was schooled in the art of tactics, defeated by a Mourinho master-class and out-manoeuvred by a Premier League stalwart. All of which are absolute nonsense and nothing short of insult.
It would have been a betrayal for United to turn their back on the style of play that has served them so well through a tough run of fixtures over the last few months and the fact that a 1-0 win was seen as a success for Mourinho shows that United have made huge progress under van Gaal. There is a tendency to take the score as gospel and disregard the context of the game for either side. Chelsea required a result and Mourinho got them that. United required proof that they are making progress and Van Gaal got them that.
Arguably, some of United’s poorest spells this season have been when they have faced exactly the same injuries that they did on Saturday. Yet, despite that, there was little drop in performance from recent form. That in itself highlights the holistic and balanced approach that van Gaal has imparted onto his players.
The Dutchman’s buzzword ‘philosophy’ has been debated, dissected, even mocked by some. The idea of a football ‘thinker’ has seemed alien, perverse. In Mourinho, we see a man that wins battles. He’s a fighter, albeit an intelligent one. But in Louis van Gaal, we see a man that wins wars. He’s a general, a tactician. Arguably, van Gaal may have fully expected to lose at Stamford Bridge. Sometimes you need to drop the microscope, take a step back and look at the grander image.
Three wins out of the final five games would almost certainly see United finish in the top four and, dependent on the specifics, second or even third. Everton will pose a stern test, but have increasingly little to play for. The ability to completely disregard the opponent and focus entirely on themselves has proven invaluable to United and therefore, in keeping, I’ll do just that.
This seasons’s Champions League has lacked an English club with any real cohesion, without a footballing pedigree that can really rival the most successful clubs of the modern era. The Premier League has been crying out for a manager that looks beyond the apathetic traits that have embodied English football for such a long period of time. Knock-out competitions have to be won, they can’t be ‘not lost’. In the coming years, it might not just be Manchester United that are thanking Louis Van Gaal for his progressive ideals. It’s quite possible that the Premier League will benefit from a man that sticks up two fingers to the ordinary and embraces the potential.
There is something special happening at Manchester United. A consistent upward trajectory, confidence and increasingly beautiful football. In van Gaal, United fans see potential, they see a future. The future’s bright, the future’s Oranje.