United have fashioned 15 points from their last 6 Premier League outings, marking their highest league standing since the illustrious retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Old Trafford outfit journeyed to the St Mary’s Stadium on Monday evening upon an invigorating run of four successive Premier League victories, having prevailed over Hull, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Stoke respectively in a self proclaimed “satisfactory run of results”. Although the final score-line perhaps misrepresented Southampton’s efforts on Monday, whose domination of possession and cohesive structure encapsulated their fruitful season, United made it five victories in as many games.
Returning to a 3-5-2 formation, Van Gaal opted to reshuffle his setup that earned victory over Hull and Stoke. The visitors injected an early lead after Robin Van Persie profited from Jose Fonte’s back pass. Graziano Pelle soon gained a merited equaliser as the Saints turned the tide in their favour. The Saints then appeared the likeliest to score, although United’s fans finished the match singing Van Persie’s name after the Dutchman guided in Wayne Rooney’s looping free-kick to bag a brace, as well as a man of the match award. Van Gaal was quick to praise his team’s success, while also accepting that the display was far from resounding, acknowledging his team was “lucky” to get the result at St Mary’s. The ability to grind out victories during turbulent periods of form is perhaps a characteristic analogous to Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27-year supremacy at the club.
Van Gaal has certainly stamped his unique ideologies since superseding David Moyes, whereby controlling games via possession and applying pressure rather than, Ferguson’s more direct approach Old Trafford fans were accustomed to observing over former decades. Following United’s challenging season in 2013, it appears that the players and supporters have embraced the main tenets encompassing Van Gaal’s philosophies, and are adapting to the gap left after the veteran’s departure. The absence of midweek European games has perhaps proved a blessing in disguise for Van Gaal’s men, whereby additional time spent repeating drills and reiterating philosophies appears to have benefited the squad. While some highlight the occasional dearth of attractive football, their league standing may suffice in delivering Champions League football next season.
In addition to Van Gaal’s impact this season, the decision to announce Wayne Rooney as team captain appears to have exceeded expectation. While Rooney’s temperament has been questioned, particularly during his teenage years, his tenacity and appetite for the game has endured. Roy Hodgson was quick to commend Van Gaal’s judgment by subsequently offering Rooney the England armband in August 2014. Hodgson stated “the great thing with Wayne is the passion he has for football, for his country, and for his club; he can transmit that passion to a lot of the younger players. He can get his point across”. Rooney reflected on his appointed captaincy, revealing it as “a huge honour” and a role to be performed with “great pride”.
Perhaps one of Van Gaal’s most striking attributes has been his persistent faith in youngsters, particularly after United seemed to overlook them after summer signings Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Daley Blind. However, the Dutchman has favored youngsters, and more importantly, they appear to have rivaled their illustrious colleagues. Defenders Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair have proven significant in helping United overcome their defensive hitches of late. Likewise, when Van Gaal has been capable of selecting alternate players, he has shown faith in his youngsters, demonstrably with 19-year-old James Wilsons being selection over Radamel Falcao at Old Trafford last week.
Looking to continue where they left off from Monday, United face Liverpool on Sunday, where a true test awaits them where a productive result may define the rest of their season following the Christmas break. With Van Gaal appearing to have galvanised his squad recently, Manchester United are more than capable in achieving their prospects of gaining a desirable Champions League spot.
What additional factors may contribute to Van Gaal’s chances of gaining a Champions League spot this season?