Journalists and fans alike laughed off Louis van Gaal’s suggestion that Manchester United is still in the title race following the Red Devils improbably 1-0 win at Liverpool. The Dutch manager has been savaged for his team selection and tactics, but the fact remains that United sit just seven points from the top of the table in what, for its competitiveness, has been a Premier League season unlike any other.
Manchester United showed an ability early in the season to get results without playing well. Critiques of van Gaal’s tactical philosophy, which revolves around possession, were numerous even before the December funk which stimulated several reports that the Dutchman’s sacking was imminent. What was lost during this period of self-loathing at United was that the perceived front-runners in the league, Arsenal and Manchester City, were both stumbling about as well. The Gunners continue to drop points in winnable matches and the Blues have not won successive Premier League games in three months. Leicester City have also left points on the table, most notably in draws against Aston Villa and Bournemouth where Riyad Mahrez missed penalty kick opportunities.
Liverpool’s loss to van Gaal’s side on Sunday ended any remote shot the Reds had of charging up the table, also eliminating a potential rival for a UEFA Champions League spot. Spurs continue to confound with a young squad who are performing well, but they likely won’t have the experience to push hard for a title. Despite all the conversation about Crystal Palace, West Ham and Stoke potentially pushing for the top four, Manchester United now sits above all three in the Premier League table and can now focus on chasing down the leaders.
Meanwhile, Manchester United have consolidated, now unbeaten in four Premier League games, including wins over Swansea and Liverpool. The Red Devils uninspiring performances are no longer yielding poor results, and it can be argued that unlike Arsenal or Leicester, the Red Devils have already endured their worst slump of the season. Yet they still sit just seven points from the top of the table with 16 matches remaining.
What makes it possible for Manchester United to expect an uptick in results? First off, Wayne Rooney is beginning to find his nose for goal again, and his performances, which were roundly critiqued for months, now have improved dramatically. The backline, with the exception of some comical errors in the 3-3 draw against Newcastle last week, have shown a solidity and organization throughout the rough period that will allow United to stay competitive in every match. Thirdly, the manager himself has a history of rescue jobs.
As we’ve discussed regularly on the World Soccer Talk Podcast, van Gaal’s teams have historically played better in the second half of seasons. In the 1997-98 season, van Gaal had similar problems at Barcelona in terms of tactics and being eliminated from Champions League. His team was performing poorly in the league, as well, but eventually closed strong and ran away with the title, finishing eight points clear of second place Atletic Bilbao and 11 points clear of UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.
During the 2009-10 season at Bayern, van Gaal spent much of the first half of the season experimenting tactically trying to force a 4-3-3 on a team that had traditionally played a 4-4-2. The signing of Arjen Robben from Real Madrid had given van Gaal the personnel he believed to play that formation, but it simply didn’t work. Bayern sat in seventh place at the end of November that season, six points behind league-leader Bayer Leverkusen following a 1-1 draw against the table-toppers at the Allianz Arena.
From that point onward, van Gaal, who had reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, saw Bayern run roughshod over the league, eventually winning the title by five points, claiming the German Cup and reaching the UEFA Champions League final after being a match away from elimination at the group stage. While things went badly the following season when Bayern fell to third in the league, in a similar situation during the 2009-10 season, van Gaal was able to pull things together and almost win a treble.
In the Red Devils victory over Liverpool on Sunday we saw some of the elements of the Bayern revival – a return to traditional tactics which emphasized defensive solidity and an ability to break quickly when winning possession in midfield.
Knowing van Gaal’s successes rescuing teams in second halves, Manchester United’s board was wise to let the Dutchman ride out the storm that had reached a fever pitch over the festive period. The sacking of Jose Mourinho by Chelsea began a feeding frenzy in the press that could have consumed the club and van Gaal had the board not been as steadfast in its support.
Manchester United remain underdogs to win the title. They will likely need both Arsenal and Manchester City to drop points with alarming regularity. But both the Gunners and Blues have already proven this season that they cannot find consistent form away from home. The Blues, of course, just five seasons ago overhauled an eight-point deficit with six matches left to win a title on goal difference over United. With 75 to 77 points likely to win the title in this topsy-turvy season, the Red Devils have a shot – a better one than many might believe.
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