To state that Louis Van Gaal can be a little spiky in his press conferences is somewhat of an understatement. An unfortunate journalist felt the Dutchman’s wrath recently, in the wake of United’s home defeat to Southampton, when he alluded to the fact that Van Gaal’s team now had the same amount of points that his predecessor David Moyes had at the same stage last season. The current United manager angrily retorted that the journalist in question had been waiting all season for that specific situation to arrive. He may have had a point.
If the Twitter explosion was anything to go by, this statistic also brought delight to non-United fans – and there are lots – the length and breadth of the country, but this is one of the occasions in football where fans may need to look beyond statistics.
United are currently fourth in the league, compared to seventh at the same point last year. In January 2014, United fans were already resigned to the fact that Manchester United would not be playing against the elite teams of European football the following season. Their hopes of a top four finish were slim – Moyes was doing little to inspire with his dour public speaking – and there was no chance of United lifting the European trophy that May. Even the signing of Juan Mata failed to shake the gloom from Old Trafford.
In contrast, Van Gaal’s United have every chance of securing a top four position, and prior to the Southampton result were enjoying a ten game unbeaten run. Even the defeats have produced more reason for optimism than those of the Moyes tenure. A slim derby defeat at the Etihad, after playing a large portion of the match with ten men, brought more positives than the 4-1 drubbing (and it could have been more) played out during the 2013/14 season.
United are still in the FA Cup, compared to last season, whereby they had already been knocked out by Swansea. The Red Devils were of course humbled in the League Cup this season by MK Dons, yet made the semi-finals under Moyes. A painful defeat at Old Trafford at the hands of Sunderland however, ensured that the Community Shield remained Moyes’ solitary trip to Wembley as Manchester United manager.
Another stick consistently used to beat Van Gaal with is the £150 million United have spent reinforcing the squad. It’s true that Moyes wasn’t able to enjoy such an extravagant budget, but he inherited a squad that had won the Premier League quite comfortably the previous season. A squad full of experienced players, winners who knew what it took to win the league: Giggs, Ferdinand, Evra, Vidic, Carrick and Rooney to name but a few.
There was a confident start to the 2013/14 season, but the confidence soon flooded away from Old Trafford in months, and Moyes never regained the dressing room. There were replacements needed to the squad of course, but it’s easy to overlook when the very same squad had won the league by 11 points the previous year. To put it simply, a team of United’s stature should not have finished seventh.
Van Gaal wasn’t in such a fortunate position when he took over the reigns in July this year. The Dutchman had to rebuild confidence from within the squad, as well as replacing United legends Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra and Ryan Giggs. This took time, as shown by United’s poor run of results at the start of the season.
In addition, despite many viewing it as an advantage, the lack of Champions League football has been a hindrance to Van Gaal as he has pointed out on several occasions. It has meant fewer matches for his new team to gel, and he even discussed the possibility of midweek friendly matches to address this.
Yes, Louis Van Gaal has spent £150 million to date, and his great friend (!) Ronald Koeman recently pointed out that any team with that much investment should be winning the league, not just competing for fourth, but there are flaws in the argument that this investment should provide instant success.
Of United’s summer signings, only Luke Shaw had any experience of playing in the Premier League before the 2014/15 season. In addition to this, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind were involved in the latter stages of an intensive World Cup, as Angel Di Maria would if it weren’t for an unfortunate injury.
Speaking of injuries – and it wouldn’t be an article on Manchester United without discussing them at some point – all of the summer signings have missed parts of the season so far with injury. The 2012/13 champions have played 21 matches in the league so far this season, and Angel Di Maria has made the most appearances of the new recruits, despite his various injuries, starting just 57% of United’s matches. Not a high figure for a player still adapting to his teammates, and the English game. Marcos Rojo has featured in 48% after dislocating his shoulder, while ankle, muscular and knee injuries have meant that Luke Shaw and Daley Blind have started just 43%. The much discussed Radamel Falcao has been included in the starting line up in just 33% – one third – of matches, while bottom of the pile with a figure of 29% is Ander Herrera.
Van Gaal is a big advocate of consistency when selecting his starting eleven. His tactics may constantly evolve during matches, but he is not particularly renowned for his squad rotation. The sheer scale of injuries – both to the new signings and existing squad members – means that, so far this season, the United manager has been embroiled in a constant battle for consistency. Therefore, to constantly refer to the millions spent on transfers, despite only one of the new faces starting more than 50% of United’s matches is misleading, and unfair.
Manchester United only have one absentee before the Southampton match, the impressive Ashley Young who is out with a hamstring injury, though Robin Van Persie may also be set for a spell on the sidelines. Van Gaal can now truly discover his preferred starting eleven, and the formation that best suits these players. Hands up if you love 3-5-2?
I firmly believe that Manchester United will finish both higher up the table, and with more points on the board, than they did after the utter debacle of last season’s campaign.
Judge Van Gaal at the end of the season. I’m sure he’d love you to.