Well it really couldn’t get any worse at Manchester United after David Moyes’ disastrous freshman – and only – year at the club. In the context Louis van Gaal could hardly fail during his opening six months at Old Trafford, although there have been times that the pressure on the Dutchman has steadily creeped north. Not least after United recorded the worst opening 10 league games since the mid-1980s.
That pressure mounted in no small part because of the club’s about-face in the transfer market last summer – spending £150 million on Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind, Radamel Falcao and, mostly extravagantly, Angel Di Maria. This high quality was in stark contrast to the final years under Sir Alex Ferguson and Moyes’ wasteful outlay on Marouane Fellaini.
Yet, in recording a nine-match unbeaten run through late autumn and winter, including seven victories, Van Gaal has increasingly won hearts and minds. The narrative has evolved: Van Gaal’s United, no longer in crisis, is a club on the rise once again.
It was always essential that the Dutchman stamp his authority on the squad in a manner that Moyes never managed and then establish that much-vaunted ‘philosophy’. The Dutchman has undoubtedly achieved the former, although the latter has proven more troublesome. Indeed, it has been a half-season of, well, two halves, with United far more Moysian than many fans would care to admit through the late summer and autumn despite the outlandish squad refresh.
Lost amid the drama of Van Gaal’s arrival and United’s lavish spending has been the rank inconsistency over the past five months – in results, performances, tactical approach and strategy employed. So little of it has been the ‘United way’ let alone the Van Gaal way. The Dutchman has changed systems almost by the week, while giving so little indication as to his end-game. Is Van Gaal’s United destined to play possession-based football in the Dutch mould? To counter-attack? Or is Van Gaal’s 2014 vintage purely pragmatic – the result of more than 40 separate injuries to his squad? To date the only consistent indication of the future is Van Gaal’s past.
Yet the turnaround in performances and results since the early winter has been stark. Van Gaal’s side has touched new heights almost by the game from early November onwards. Performances have varied – the Reds were excellent against Hull City, Liverpool and Newcastle United, less so at Arsenal, Southampton and Aston Villa – but results have been better than almost anybody expected.
In this there is hope that results in the second half of the season will exceed those in the first. There is no little intrigue too. Will United finally discover Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ and will it live up to expectations? 7/10
Louis van Gaal
If personality is the answer then United’s post-Moyes predicament was undoubtedly English football’s most pressing question. Van Gaal has it and then some, quickly establishing his authority at Old Trafford and a sense of aura the insipid Moyes always lacked. It took very little time for the Dutchman to revolutionise his squad, by shipping out deadwood, not just acquiring new talent. Then he set about establishing the kind of meritocratic pattern to his team selection – an area where Moyes always fell short. Van Gaal is open, to a point at least, direct and has left few in doubt about the scale of his ambition. The Dutchman has brought in a world-class coaching team and, in retaining Ryan Giggs, harboured some link with the past. And in doing so Van Gaal has steadily squeezed more out of players who offered little in recent years, especially Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Fellaini. Yet, he is also in crisis mode: the idiosyncratic use of tactics and systems, often changing week-to-week, has been positively Fergusonian. In the context Van Gaal has done well, but there is more to come. 7/10
David de Gea
United’s outstanding performer last season is also the club’s best player this term. The Spaniard’s contract situation is steadily creeping into the conversation with just 18 months left on the deal. Will United seriously risk losing a stopper yet to reach his peak after demonstrating so much patience over the past four years? On the the pitch De Gea has been faultless; his performances against Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool secured United nine-points that may well be the difference between Champions League football next season and otherwise. 9/10
Rafael da Silva
Whatever the merit of the young Brazilian’s growing maturity there little value in the full-back when he spends so much time in the treatment room. Rafael offers much, but too often this is limited to the realms of theory. Yet more injury problems this season have restricted Rafael to just six Premier League starts and forced a tactical switch to a three-man defence. He simply must stay fit or his time at Old Trafford will surely come to an end next summer. 6/10
It says something for Shaw’s talent that United paid almost £30 million for the teenager last summer. There is little doubt that the former Southampton player has all the tools to become a full-back of world repute – pace, a modern attacking instinct and sound defensive qualities. Fitness concerns and then injury have blighted Shaw’s season to date, but the youngster remains central to Van Gaal’s long-term planning – and a flat-back four! 6/10
In keeping with Rafael – and for that matter Phil Jones and Chris Smalling – Evans spends far too much time on the injury list and not in the first team. Just seven league games this season points to another campaign blighted by injury. Bad luck, poor training, a lack of professionalism? The answer is unclear, but as in so many campaigns Evans cannot progress when his game time is so limited. Unfortunately time on the pitch has also come with a clutch of mediocre performances this season. 5/10
Another player whose season has been ruined by injury. Still, Smalling has enjoyed some creditable performances in central defence when fit. His distribution has improved and those defensive instincts come to the fore without the restrictions placed on the former Fulham player when he is deployed at right-back. That ‘brain-dead’ moment against Manchester City was unfortunate, but an exception and not the rule. 6/10
Alongisde Marcos Rojo, Jones is United’s best defender this season, although injury has limited the 22-year-old to just eight games. There is no limit to the Lancastrian’s ability and with a settled position in central defence now established Jones needs only to stay fit to become a mainstay of United’s defence for the next decade. It has been a decent half-season to date, but there is better to come. 7/10
United’s best defender this season in his first campaign in England. This is some testament to how quickly Rojo has adapted to the challenge of a big-money transfer to a new club. Aggressive yet cultured on the ball, Rojo needs only to learn the art of positioning to become a top-class central defender. Unfortunately a dislocated shoulder and a thigh injury have limited Rojo to 10 appearances. Fitness permitting the Argentinean will be a fixture in Van Gaal’s side for the rest of the campaign. 8/10
It was almost Blackett’s breakthrough year, but in the end the Mancunian’s six Premier League appearances firmly place the 20-year-old in the ‘promising’ category. Composed in central defence, Blackett has seemingly suffered for Van Gaal’s switch to a back-three in recent weeks and has rarely been selected since seeing red against Leicester in late September. Out of contract next summer – a situation the club should resolve. 6/10
It is no contradiction to state that McNair is both composed and nervous in a United shirt. The Irishman’s defensive instincts are sound enough yet big game nerves obviously affected the youngster at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur. Experience should polish those rough edges, but has Van Gaal discover a new diamond or not? The jury remains out, but the early signs are hugely positive. Also out of contract next summer. 6/10
Valencia has enjoyed the campaign to date in a wing-back role that benefits from his athleticism. At full-back Valencia is too often caught in the wrong position, although he has performed creditably in the new role this season. Valencia’s ability to beat his man and deliver a cross has long since disappeared, although there was that one moment against Newcastle United! Van Gaal has plenty of room for upgrade here. 6/10
Young’s turnaround is remarkable. So often the butt of supporters’ ire, Young’s persistent mediocrity has been replaced this season by a player reborn at wing-back. Part of this is expectation of course; supporters realise that Young has a dual attacking and defensive role and expect less from each. But the former Aston Villa player has also delivered in both roles and saved his United career in the process. 7/10
It has been an unfortunate season for the Basque midfielder. Injury has limited the 24-year-old’s appearances just as the £28 million acquisition looked to be settling in to the team. Neat on the ball, technically sound and a dynamic addition to United’s squad, Herrera offers so much more to the team than, for example, Fellaini. Yet, the Herrera is often left on the bench when Fellaini is selected – and should ask himself why it is that Van Gaal appears to trust the Belgian more? 5/10
Angel Di Maria
Another player for whom injury has affected the campaign, although the Argentinian has demonstrated enough in 12 games for the club to show just why United paid Real Madrid almost £60 million last August. Di Maria’s drive from a central midfield position is absolutely essential in an otherwise ponderous attacking line-up. Fitness permitting Di Maria should prove he is United’s best player in the months to come. 8/10
Ladies’ favourite Blind settled into a defensive midfield role in Michael Carrick’s absence during the early months of the campaign. Blind’s distribution is sound, if less penetrative than Carrick’s, although the Dutchman enjoys a strong range of defensive skills. Still, there remains something just a touch of incisiveness lacking in the former Ajax midfielder’s game for the very top level. Can he find it before the end of the campaign? 6/10
That word expectation is relevant once again. Fellaini’s debut season for United was little short of a £27 million disaster. A player without pace, technique or semblance of a sound passing game is of so little use at the very highest level. Yet, some of the Belgian’s performances this season have drawn praise from his manager and supporters alike. The latter expected little and gained more, but the midfielder will surely never become a key part of United’s team. 6/10
How Van Gaal missed Carrick through the late summer. The Geordie’s ability to both create and defend is essential to United’s cause and has remained so for almost nine seasons. It is often said that to misunderstand Carrick is a failure to understand football itself. Yet, Van Gaal has no misconception and through the early winter the 33-year-old has done enough to earn a new contract at Old Trafford. An outstanding campaign to date. 8/10
United’s most creative player has, unfortunately, developed a reputation for performing at home yet missing his mark away from Old Trafford. That is not always a fair assessment, although it is true that the Spaniard struggles to influence the game on the road. In part Mata suffers for Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system away from home where the former Chelsea player is deployed in a deeper role. Still, rumours persist that United’s manager is prepared to offload the £37 million player. It would be a genuine mistake. 7/10
What next for the ‘boy who can do anything?’ Certainly, the campaign has marked a regression in Januzaj’s standing at United. In part the Januzaj has suffered from United’s deployment of wing-backs this eason, but also because of Di Maria’s acquisition. Yet, the teenager is far too good to be released on loan. Can his manager find a role when the team inevitably switches back to a four man defence in the coming weeks? 5/10
Fletch lives, but only just. Out of contract next summer, the campaign to date has demonstrated Fletcher’s enduring combative qualities, but also his permanent physical limitation. No longer able to influence a game for the full 90 minutes, Fletcher is now restricted to a role as a defensive substitute. Likely to leave Old Trafford next year. 5/10
Robin van Persie
This has not been van Persie’s finest campaign. The Dutchman has rarely touched the level of his freshman year with United; in truth he has been mediocre for much of the past 18 months. Yet, there are signs in recent weeks that the former Arsenal forward’s hunger has returned – a sharpness together with eight goals in the campaign to date. But for injuries elsewhere Van Persie might have already lost his place in the team. 6/10
United’s ‘shock and awe’ deadline day signing is world class in every department save for his actual performances in a Red shirt. Rumour has it that United will hold off making a final decision on Falcao’s permanent transfer until April. This is sound logic based on the opening five months of the campaign. There is more to come from the Colombian; for the moment injury and a lack of fitness have blunted one of the world’s premier strikers. 5/10
Another strange campaign from Rooney, whose burst of goals in the late autumn brought hope that the Scouser may return to his glorious peak of yesteryear. Yet, in the opening weeks Rooney was poor, starved both of goals and his first touch. Still, the former Evertonian is now rapidly learning a new role as an attacking midfielder. He is no Paul Scholes, but then so few are and Van Gaal was right to ask for a more attacking approach to his game from a deeper role. 7/10
The youngster is United’s long-term striking future, with no guarantee that either Van Persie or Falcao will be at the club beyond next summer. Wilson’s pace is at the top end and so is his finishing, at least a youth and reserve level. He is yet to score this season, but Van Gaal appears to have much faith in the teenager after starting the kid against Liverpool. It was a significant statement. 5/10