I feel the need to get this off my chest, to release some inner guilt, to come clean. I need to admit the error of my ways, and profess how horribly inaccurate I have been.
I doubted Manchester United this season, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With the Red Devils’ 4-2 dismantling of bitter rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford over the weekend, Louis van Gaal has inexplicably and triumphantly lifted his squad to third place in the table, one point behind Arsenal for second. Before I issue my full-scale apology, let’s take a closer look at how truly miraculous that is.
I wrote this article on February 9th, the basis for which I will be apologizing. The day before, Manchester United had just drawn with West Ham, salvaging a point on a Daley Blind added-time goal. United had lost just one single Premier League game between November 8 and that day, a stellar record, but many now-grumbling pundits and writers (like, for example, this idiot writing to you now) were rambling on about how the team’s stellar record did not reflect their performances, and because of that, the team was due to fall off the cliff eventually.
For example, take a closer look at their 2-0 win over Queens Park
Raisins Rangers on January 17. That seems like a more than acceptable result against a floundering team. Except the performance kind of wasn’t.
They looked all out of sorts in the midfield, finishing with a not-so-stellar 77% pass completion rate. United went ahead in the 58th minute on a detestable bit of defending leading to Marouane Fellaini burying a rocket, and they managed to hold off QPR long enough to score a stoppage-time goal to put things away.
That opening goal was a tipping point. It served to sink Old Trafford into a month of long-ball hell that had the supporters grasping for any bit of exciting play, but also that produced surprising results. Fellaini had come on for the final 18 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Southampton the week before, and managed to change the game heavily in his team’s favor, despite ultimately coming up short. Van Gaal then decided to employ the towering Belgian in a much more aggressive midfield pivot role, and the team has exploded.
But it’s not just Fellaini. More on that in a moment. First, I owe the Manchester United supporters an apology. In that aforementioned article, I put forth a futile attempt to predict the eventual top four. Read it and weep:
Manchester United – Sorry, Red Devil fans. This year is not the year. Louis van Gaal has brought a positive influence to Old Trafford after a disastrous season, but the roster is just not good enough. It’s fantastic that the Dutch boss has steered the club into the top four at this current time – especially given the insane amount of injuries – but the margin of error is too thin for performances like they had against West Ham on Sunday. Players like Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney, and David De Gea are the type you build a squad around, but those around them – mainly in the back line – are not of Champions League quality, and the overhaul continues into the coming summer. Much like when a team is relegated, the road back to the Champions League after a miss is a long, arduous one, and it would appear this year there are too many holes for van Gaal to plug, and their frailty will be their downfall. Also, consider these remaining fixtures from March and May still to navigate: vs Tottenham, at Liverpool, vs. Manchester City, at Chelsea, at Everton, vs. Arsenal.
Who wrote that rubbish? Oh, right. Those fixtures I mentioned? They beat Spurs 3-0. They beat Liverpool 2-1. They beat Manchester City 4-2. The other three are still left to play, but it appears they won’t even matter, as a Champions League spot is all but locked up.
That thin back line I pointed to? Chris Smalling has played in six matches since I penned that nonsense, racking up 535 minutes. In those six games, Manchester United conceded four goals, winning all six matches, three of them on a clean sheet. Oh, and he scored in the Manchester derby.
That world-class player Angel Di Maria I pointed to? Since the West Ham draw, the Argentinian’s playing time has disappeared thanks to the emergence of Ashley Young. To me, this, of all the inexplicable things I’ve just outlined, is the most shocking. Since returning to the starting lineup from a hamstring injury on February 28, Young has started every game. Manchester United began a still-intact six-game winning streak that day. He’s produced things like this absolutely delicious cross in big moments. His suddenly stellar play has caused many to speculate how exactly the England international became so randomly prolific. I think he somehow switched bodies with Di Maria, Freaky Friday style. That’s not the only theory:
More realistically, van Gaal’s tinkering and toying earlier in the season has paid off, and he’s finally figured out how to get the best out of his players. It’s an astonishing feat, considering some of the players he has are habitual underperformers (i.e. Smalling’s moronic double yellow against Manchester City earlier in the season). Others, like Fellaini and Wayne Rooney, are the subject of heated debates about how best to utilize their talents. The sample size is still small, and we shouldn’t overreact just yet. But phase one of the Manchester United rebuild seems to be complete, and Van Gaal needed just one season. The Champions League, the true test, awaits.
But I will say this: Manchester United fans, I am sorry I doubted your team. I am sorry I doubted your manager. I sure as hell am not the only one, but I absolutely was wrong. Congratulations on European play next season.