Lucky Louis And The Missed Opportunity
While all and sundry laud Louis Van Gaal for Manchester United’s metamorphosis, there seems to be a large scale avoidance of the rather gigantic elephant in the room – the simple truth of the matter is that it has been more an accidental stumble into form rather than a world class operation transformation.
The mid-summer narrative had been set when Van Gaal took the reins at Old Trafford. The Dutchman – a renowned, revered world-class coach – would reinvigorate the club with style and panache and their return to the Champions League, at least, would be a formality.
In fairness, the latter target seems to have been met – expectantly so – but the former has been a struggle.
His rebuilding of the club and the integration of his coaching methods would always take time. No one was expecting miracles. Injuries to key plays haven’t helped, either – particularly Michael Carrick whose return, among other things, has lit the blue touch paper for a side that was struggling to put a cohesive performance together.
When you analyse the results over the course of the season, at a glance, things have actually gone quite well. The Red Devils sit in third, just a point off Arsenal in second, four points ahead of bitter rivals City in fourth. Had you offered that to United fans in August they’d have bitten your hand off.
Dig a little further, though, and United could conceivably have done so much more this season.
Despite scraping wins here and there through the sheer quality of player, poor performances have been one of the hallmarks of Louis Van Gaal’s team up for much of the campaign. Draws at Sunderland, Burnley and West Brom, coupled with defeats to Leicester and Swansea (twice) had United playing catch-up from the get-go.
Van Gaal’s stubborn insistence on playing variations of a 5-3-2 seemed to hamper and stifle the team with Rooney forced into playing the no.10 role and Maroaune Fellaini sitting back in central midfield. Possession was dominated but it lacked a cutting edge with creative players like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera reduced to bit-part players.
Robin Van Persie’s injury during the defeat at Swansea in late February would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
His absence, along with his lack of faith in Radamel Falcao, forced Van Gaal to play Rooney as his main striker, with Fellaini playing a more advanced role and Herrera coming back in at central midfield.
An injury to Angel Di Maria saw Juan Mata belatedly return to the fold against Spurs and the little Spaniard gave a virtuoso display, carrying on that form in the proceeding games against Liverpool, Villa and Man City with Rooney thriving on his link-up play.
A world class manager, playing his world class players in their best positions are now beginning to hit their stride – who’d have thought it?
Van Gaal has made this season much more difficult than it had to be.
Despite the pre-season goal of Champions League football now relatively assured, it’s highly arguable Manchester United should have been in contention for a surprise title charge. Despite numerous injuries, they have had no European football to contend with and exited the domestic cup competitions early.
The likes of Man City and Liverpool have paled in comparison to last season’s performances and with Arsenal being typically Arsenal, a sustained challenge to Chelsea was eminently feasible.
United supporters will not care a jot but it would be remiss to ignore the fact this late-season form is by accident rather than design and any effort to massage Van Gaal’s reputation or ego is plain naïve – he has been very fortunate.
The jigsaw has fallen together rather than pieced but, as the old adage goes, better to be lucky than good.