Manchester United have achieved their pre-season goal of securing Champions League football for next year.
In this sense, Louis van Gaal’s first season as Man United manager can be viewed as a success.
After a tumultuous 2013/14 campaign, which saw David Moyes lose his job following failure to finish in the top four, returning to Europe’s elite competition at the first attempt was paramount for a club of Man United’s stature.
Despite only winning one of their last six games, Man United held onto fourth position. Their closest opponents, Tottenham Hotspur, finished the season six points adrift of Champions League contention.
However, ensuring a pesky qualifier in August is hardly something to wildly celebrate. Progress is undeniably observable within the Man United squad, but several issues still need to be urgently addressed and new reinforcements are needed for a title challenge next season
Man United’s poor patches under Louis van Gaal mainly surfaced when Michael Carrick was absent from the team. A tricky start to the season and an underwhelming finish was personified by a lack of control and efficiency in the middle of the pitch, a feature ceaselessly supplemented by Carrick during prosperous spells in the 2014/15 season.
The scarcity of consistent goalscoring strikers has been a severe problem for Man United. Finishing the Premier League season with a meagre 62 goals (which is actually two fewer than last season) isn’t good enough.
Man United’s failure to cope without Carrick and shortage of goalscoring potency has marred their hopes of a title challenge this season.
United’s boss endured a difficult start to life in the Premier League. While constant tweaking of formation and failure to successfully ease in new signings might’ve been the underlying issue behind the underwhelming collection of 13 points from the opening tengames, it was certainly exacerbated by a mammoth injury crisis.
Man United have suffered from a staggering 68 injuries this season, the bulk of which occurred in the opening months. Constant chopping and changing in response meant that any important early season momentum was in short supply, allowing Chelsea to build an imperious lead at the top of the table from the outset.
Much has been made of Van Gaal’s training methods in relation to United’s astronomical injury count. The notoriously demanding regime has been dovetailed with the struggles of Luke Shaw and Angel di Maria in their opening season at Old Trafford following constant spells on the sidelines.
High intensity training sessions have been vital to United’s newfound compactness which has seen them become adept at controlling the latter stages of matches under the Dutchman.
However, a side effect has been noticed with several players spending too much time on the treatment table and not enough time on the pitch. Di Maria and Shaw’s failure to build momentum following constant injury has meant that they haven’t been able to endear themselves to supporters.
Regardless of constant injury grievances and occasionally ludicrous tactics, United have shown elements of true menace under Van Gaal.
A six game winning run, hallmarked by a momentous victory at Anfield and comfortable home victories against Manchester City and Tottenham, demonstrated a supreme level of conviction in big matches.
Van Gaal was seldom able to field a settled team in his first year as United boss. When he finally could the result was emphatic.
Given the way these players were so often maligned by supporters last season, their progression, as well as United’s prowess in big matches, is indicative of things moving in the right direction under Van Gaal’s tutelage.
The 2014/15 season was always going to be slightly challenging under a manager trying to impose a new ‘philosophy’. Players have experienced a tricky learning process but a necessary process for bigger things next year.
Inconsistency in performances and results is largely connected to the extra pressures of having to deal with a steep learning curve, which has precluded the opportunity to properly challenge Chelsea for the title this season.
The Dutchman has turned things around at Old Trafford but hasn’t been able consistently deliver in his opening season, much to the understanding of supporters who appreciate the fledgling nature of his squad.
However, as Van Gaal’s first season draws to a close, the learning process is over. No more excuses can be made. The manager now has the luxury of being able to assemble a settled team from the very start of the season.
Finishing fourth is an adequate achievement for this term. Anything less than a title challenge next year will be considered below par by all connected with United.