Ashley Young, left, and Wayne Rooney, centre, and Marcos Rojo, right, in action for Manchester United against Sunderland earlier this season. Carl Recine / Reuters
Ashley Young, left, and Wayne Rooney, centre, and Marcos Rojo, right, in action for Manchester United against Sunderland earlier this season. Carl Recine / Reuters

Amid the inconsistency, there is a sense of real progress at Manchester United under Louis van Gaal



Only next season, Louis van Gaal finally decided, will you see a true Van Gaal team at Old Trafford. Judge him then, he said.

It is just as well, because trying to judge this season has been almost impossible.

The question is whether the true United is the one that stuttered through the first two-thirds of the season, the one that won six games in a row from early February until mid-April, or the one that has lost their past three games without scoring a goal?

There was an understandable sense of optimism during that six-game run.

It seemed to be evidence that United had clicked, that they had undergone the sort of sudden transformation Bayern Munich had under Van Gaal when they put aside an indifferent start to hammer Juventus 4-1 away in 2010.

In the games against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City, the passing was crisp, the movement good, the lack of pace in midfield more than compensated for by speed of thought.

With Marouane Fellaini providing muscle and Juan Mata drifting in from the right while Ashley Young shuttled up and down the left, there was balance to the side.

Then Michael Carrick got injured during the win over Manchester City, which would be the last game in that winning run.

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United’s dependence on Carrick has been remarkable. In the 16 league starts Carrick has made this season, United have won an average of 2.44 points per game, while they have taken 1.37 points per game when he has been absent.

That sort of reliance on any player is dangerous, but when that player turns 34 in the summer, it is hugely problematic.

Perhaps Daley Blind, ostensibly a similar player in his capacity to read the game and circulate possession, could come to enact his role at the back of midfield, but, at present, he does not seem to have either the range of passing or the authority of ­Carrick.

Blind operating in midfield would allow Luke Shaw to play at left-back, but given United have money to spend — as seen in their purchase of Memphis Depay this week — the arrival of a deep-lying, play-making midfielder seems likely this ­summer.

Carrick’s absence meant a reshuffle, which in turn brought a reminder of how disappointing Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria have been this season.

Falcao simply does not look the same player since his knee injury and his loan spell will surely not be made permanent.

There were signs last season that age was catching up with Van Persie and this season it clearly has.

Those early performances at the World Cup last summer for the Netherlands showed what he is capable of when fully rested and it may be that United decide that, at 31, he is worth keeping on.

If that is the case, though, he will surely have to accept a reduced role.

The case of Di Maria is more complex. He was man of the match in last season’s Uefa Champions League final for Real Madrid and, after becoming the most expensive player in Premier League history when he arrived for £59.7 million (Dh338.3m), he started well, his pace and drive meaning Van Gaal could use him as he had used Arjen Robben during the World Cup.

After Di Maria’s house was burgled, though, all confidence seemed to melt away.

Both Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have been linked with moves for the Argentine and it may be that Depay, a quick, unpredictable wide man, has been bought with half an eye on replacing him.

The consolation for United is that there has been something slightly freakish about two of the past three defeats.

Against Chelsea, they dominated possession, hit the post late on and could on another day have pinched a draw.

They were well-beaten at Everton but went down to a deflected free kick against West Bromwich Albion, having had by far the better of the game.

There may have been a loss of momentum after the good run, but the evidence of that brief golden burst in March suggests that the underlying structures are good.

The future of goalkeeper David de Gea remains unclear, while United still probably need a top-class scorer and somebody to take the burden off Carrick, and a truly commanding defender would not go amiss, but at the very least, amid the inconsistency, there has been a sense of progress.

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