‘Easier than expected’: Louis van Gaal has Manchester United right on target with resurrection ambitions

The stewardship of Van Gaal and the failings of competitors, writes Richard Jolly, have Manchester United making a quick and comfortable return to England's elite.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal shown before his side's Premier League win against Liverpool on Sunday. Oli Scarff / AFP / December 14, 2014
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal shown before his side's Premier League win against Liverpool on Sunday. Oli Scarff / AFP / December 14, 2014

Manchester United had not won a competitive game under Louis van Gaal. They had lost 4-0 to League One’s MK Dons in the League Cup. They had drawn 0-0 with Burnley, who had calculated that, in their 132-year history, they had spent less on transfers than United paid for Angel Di Maria alone.

Then executive vice chairman Ed Woodward revealed they had banked on finishing third. It seemed presumptuous, given they had limped in seventh last season and the beginning of Van Gaal’s reign seemed a transitional time. It looked as though their ambitions were already putting the Dutchman under pressure.

Actually, United’s aim, disclosed by Woodward to Wall Street analysts, was the sort of financial projection that is common in big business rather than an explicit footballing target. United also banked to finish third last season.

Three months later, United sit third. They are on course to achieve their objective. While Van Gaal had warned he tends to be a slow starter, given the time it takes to educate players about his methods, United’s worst beginning to a Premier League campaign has given way to a run of six successive wins.

They are shedding their reputation as a crisis club; that unwanted tag is being passed to the side they beat on Sunday, Liverpool.

It is a swift transformation in their fortunes. It is not a tale of perfect decision-making or wonderful football.

While United merit sympathy for their extraordinary injury list – 44 and counting – the reality is their most impressive player in their sequence of victories has been goalkeeper David de Gea. It is quite conceivable that, with a lesser shot-stopper, those fixtures would have produced between nine and 12 points, rather than a maximum 18.

The temptation is to brand them lucky winners. The demanding Van Gaal is right to ask for better performances.

Moreover, United’s unprecedented £152 million (Dh874.8m) spending spree cannot rank an unalloyed triumph. Radamel Falcao’s wages render him the most expensive bit-part player in the division. Ander Herrera has lost his place to 2013’s midfield misfit, Marouane Fellaini.

It is scarcely their fault, but each of the other four additions is injured. Were a list of the season’s top 10 signings compiled, the chances are that it would not feature a United player, despite their record-breaking outlay.

Yet, as a glance at the league table shows, it is hardly mattering. In De Gea, plus Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, United have quality at either end of the pitch.

The impetus behind their push to return to the Uefa Champions League places is to secure a chunk of next season’s European riches, not least because it affects United’s considerable commercial income. They now are well-placed to rejoin the continent’s elite.

It has been easier than expected. It is partly because of others’ failings.

Their current return puts them on course to end the season with 74 points. Arsenal finished fourth in May with 79, the biggest tally for the position, just as fifth-placed Everton’s haul of 72 was a historic high.

Yet the context has changed now. It would rank as a major surprise if either Chelsea or Manchester City did not reach the 70-point barrier, but the chances are that both will exceed 80, probably comfortably. But, Arsenal apart, it is hard to see anyone other than United getting there.

Liverpool’s stunning decline, Everton’s stuttering campaign, where the Europa League campaign sometimes seems a greater priority, and Tottenham’s decidedly mixed performances under Mauricio Pochettino mean each is unlikely to get close.

When three of the seven clubs with the greatest resources underperform, it amounts to an opportunity for the other four. United, with their colossal financial power and the talent in their squad, do not look like squandering it.

Moreover, while this has been a season of endearing overachievers, their feats should be placed into perspective. Southampton have never won more than 56 points in a Premier League season, or West Ham 58. Both could have their finest year in the division’s history without coming close to the points total required for a top-four finish.

Meanwhile, Newcastle are already eight points behind the more famous United. Alan Pardew won the Manager of the Year award for taking the Tynesiders to fifth in 2011. They amassed 65 points then.

To put it another way, that is only one more point than United mustered last year, when David Moyes engineered their worst season for a quarter of a century.

It is reasonable to expect rather more this time around. With a serial winner, in Van Gaal, replacing the Scot, with the ability to invest huge sums, with some players putting last year’s underachievement behind them, Woodward’s confidence looks justified. Projection should become reality.

sports@thenational.ae

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Published: December 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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