It’s been nearly a year since Ed Woodward stepped out of Carrington bearing the weight of a fruitless season of football on his shoulders, with the news that the manager of the biggest football club in England had been relieved of his duties at Manchester United. David Moyes, the man everyone had seen as the natural successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, was sacked only ten months into the job, a period of time in which he led the club to a Premier League low of seventh place, lost at home to the likes of Newcastle, West Brom and Stoke for the first time since the 1970s, and oversaw the worst home form Old Trafford has seen in the Premier League era. A mixture of poor signings, a creaking defence, and tactics that felt like they belonged in a different age contributed to his eventual demise.
Almost one year on and with no trophies available and an unconvincing stumble to what now looks an assured fourth place, Manchester United have had another broadly underwhelming season. With former Barcelona and Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal now in charge at the club, bringing with him the sort of authority and reputation that a club of Manchester United’s stature demands, the progression of the club and of the manager is once again under scrutiny.
Apart from the obvious positive of being in fourth rather than the unacceptable seventh, Van Gaal has come under a hefty amount of criticism. To start with, the £150 million spent in the summer on Angel Di Maria, Radamal Falcao, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera has looked like a waste of money for most of the season. Despite their undoubted quality and talent at their previous clubs, Falcao and Di Maria have looked well off the pace, with the latter frustrating fans and pundits alike with a lack of finesse and accuracy. Falcao has been a train wreck for the club from start to the inevitable finish of his ill-fated loan spell, having only scored four goals all season and looking like he would be better suited to playing in the Under-21s. Blind and Rojo have looked decidedly average despite their World Cup performances and Herrera has barely played enough for a definitive opinion. Combined with Van Gaal’s elusive tactical ‘philosophy’, that has had the look of a ill-formed, pedestrian 4-3-3 about it at some points, a Fellaini-headed 4-1-4-1 at others, this mediocre season has led to comparisons between the Dutchman and Moyes.
Statistically speaking Van Gaal has had a better season than Moyes. During Moyes’ tenure United averaged 1.68 goals a game which has risen to 1.73 under van Gaal, but more importantly the much maligned defence of the Salford club has drastically improved with the club now conceding on average 0.9 goals a game, down from Moyes’ 1.13. This is the crux of the difference between the two managers. The defence has improved to the point where they are no longer conceding as many on the whole, with only twenty-seven goals conceded so far this season compared with forty-three last year. Perhaps the most eye-opening stat come with the amount of clearances performed by the defence, with Moyes averaging thirty-seven clearances per game while van Gaal is on a far less nervy twenty-nine per game. Statistically, there has clearly been progress.
Tactically however is a whole other kettle of fish. Moyes’ excruciatingly negative and flimsy 4-2-3-1, dependant on the creatively challenged partnership of Fellaini and Cleverley, amounted to aimless sideways passes in front of a backline that looked like collapsing at any given opportunity. Van Gaal’s system, firstly a dodgy 3-5-2 followed by a more settled and dangerous 4-3-3, has finally seemed to click.
The performances against Spurs in an impressive 3-0 victory followed by an even more impressive 2-1 victory against Liverpool in the past fortnight have shown that Van Gaal may have finally found his elusive ‘philosophy’. This recent form might just be enough to save Manchester United and Van Gaal’s future as its manager.