We all knew Louis van Gaal’s season would get off to a slow start – because he told us it would and that’s been his experience at other clubs in the past. At these other clubs, Van Gaal has been notably successful, but it’s taken him a number of games to get the players into the groove. We’ll talk more about this in a moment, and particularly the manager’s experience at Bayern Munich. But first, focusing on United, there was clear evidence from Sunday’s draw away at West Brom that the team is beginning to click. The real season starts here and now.
If you look at the basic result, a 2-2 draw away at West Brom is mediocre by United’s Premier League historical standards, obviously. But any stats you care to look at on possession, attempts on target, corners and all the rest of it – United were completely dominant. But it was more the flowing passing way in which United played during the good spells that were the real reason for encouragement. At times – the team really did look sublime.
What’s more – Van Gaal’s substitution – bringing on Marouane Fellaini at half time for Ander Herrera looked like an encouraging masterstroke. OK, any player can come on and score and the boss takes the plaudits. But this was a little different. Van Gaal could be seen giving the fuzzy haired Belgian animated instructions before he came on and within three minutes he’d levelled the scores of course. But it was more than that; Fellaini’s presence changed the whole balance of the game. And in those few moments, we all suddenly became aware that this strange player who floats around the pitch as a some-time forward when the team wants him to be – is very much part and parcel of Louis van Gaal’s plans and a very capable player who still has the ability to upset the opposition’s equilibrium.
United and Van Gaal got away with the result in the end courtesy of Daley Blind, whose long range curled shot from 20 yards out was the fourth goal during his entire club career. Had that shot happened to have turned just wide but everything else been identical – you can bet your bottom dollar that Van Gaal would have been completely lambasted by the fans and media. This serves to illustrate just how fickle we all are; it really boils down to results only rather than the way we’ve played, even for a game or two.
But it was also clear, on the down side, that problems remain at the back. The way United were torn apart against the run of play on two occasions remains a real cause for concern. But on the whole, United’s glass is half full rather than half empty with the draw and there were the first signs yet of the true team that Van Gaal has in mind. It will be interesting to see what moves he makes in the January transfer window – for there will surely be some. Whilst a number of players are looking part of the new regime, others aren’t quite seeming to gel just yet. Whether this is a permanent problem or part of the settling in period in playing the Van Gaal way is hard to tell. In particular, Radamel Falcao, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo have looked a little bewildered at times.
Overall, though, Sunday’s game has the keener football observers full of optimism as far as United are concerned. A top four finish or better is still essential though; United without a Champions League campaign is like having a cool glass of alcohol-free beer, it just doesn’t hit the spot somehow. We have to face the facts and say, as much as we hate to do so, that the top two places in this year’s Premier League campaign look something of a forgone conclusion. But third and fourth are most definitely up for grabs. Arsenal are looking decidedly weak, Liverpool haven’t got motoring yet and this is beginning to look like a season of transition for them too, whilst Spurs’ season is all over the place. It’s difficult to see exactly what’s happening at White Hart Lane – but Tottenham will assuredly lose some games that look easy on paper and vice-versa.
All in all, then, United look like they will finish third come next May. The betting market seems to have woken up to this fact. United are a best priced 2-1 with Betfair to finish in the Premier League’s top three, at the time of writing, so the screaming value this wager presented just a couple of weeks ago has now evaporated. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting and optimistic punt for United fans and encouragingly is beginning to look very achievable.
The Chelsea game may have come at just the wrong time though. Obviously – it all depends on what transpires on the pitch. But if José Mourinho does his usual and sets his team up for a 0-1 smash and grab raid, then it will do nothing to bolster United’s already fragile confidence. On the flipside, the opposite may be true. But one thing you can bet safely on is that United will be trying to play real football.
The pundits and media will no doubt view the Man U – Chelsea game as some form of battle of wits between the two men who are, without doubt, two of the most astute managers in world football. As usual, this will probably be overstating the case, but that never stopped good journalism.
But let’s put things into a slightly wider perspective whatever happens against Chelsea. If we look back at Louis van Gaal’s career, the same pattern is repeated over and over. He gets off to a mediocre start, then the team starts to play his way and things move on. At Ajax as head coach from 1991, the club won three Eredivisie titles, one UEFA Cup, and a Champions League. The story was similar at Barcelona but it’s at Bayern Munich where we really need to look for the best comparison. He took charge at Bayern on July 1st 2009 and got off to a bad start. By November, Bayern looked like exiting the Champions League at the first stage following two defeats to Bordeaux. Meanwhile Bayer Leverkusen were top of the Bundesliga and Bayern were seventh. Speculation was rife that Van Gaal would get the boot, but he turned things around.
Bayern’s form improved in both competitions, including a 1–4 away win over Juventus, which allowed them to go through to the Champions League knockout stages. They also moved steadily up the Bundesliga and by March were top. They were crowned champions in May, won the German Cup to make it a double and got to the Champions League final. This proved a bridge too far for the Dutchman, where (ominously perhaps) Internazionale managed by José Mourinho beat them 2–0.
But United fans would surely settle for a similar season this year and it’s now beginning to look like it’s taking shape.
This time next year, give patience, United will surely be competing in the Champions League and will be at or close to the Premier League lead. We have to give the man the time he needs.