So United’s run of winning performances came to an end at Stamford Bridge, but it is fair to say that the run of impressive displays goes on. Yes United were Mourinho’ed in the classic sense and so came away with nothing but this shouldn’t stall United’s recent momentum, either in respect of the end of this season or for the seasons ahead. Van Gaal stated in his round of interviews immediately after the game that he felt this was our best performance of the season. That might be over stating it a little for our tastes but his repeated use of the word “process” suggests that his focus will remain on the incremental improvements that saw United take the game to the “Champions Elect”.
Mourinho vs Van Gaal
This has happened before, and not just to Van Gaal, not just to United. Chelsea’s tactics were transparent and predictable. Sit back, retain a solid defensive shape and await an opportunity to hit United when they make a mistake or over commit. It worked of course, with Chelsea winning the game. This might be distasteful to United fans who wouldn’t want to see their team use this method to win but Chelsea fans will say, “So what, we won the game”. In the aftermath many United fans have made the point on social media that they are glad that Bobby Charlton blackballed any possibility of Mourinho’s appointment at Old Trafford rather than Stamford Bridge on his return to the Premier League. But this rather misses the point.
Van Gaal lost the Champions League Final to Mourinho’s Inter a few years ago and the match statistics for that game were very similar to those resulting from the United game at Stamford Bridge. That suggests that there is a lesson to learn here for United and their manager.
To an extent, injuries restricted Van Gaal’s room to manoeuvre. With Carrick at the base of the midfield and Rooney troubling the centre-backs at the front United would probably make a better fist of the approach employed at Stamford Bridge. It was not that the players brought in or re-deployed to a different area of the team did particularly badly, but for all their possession United didn’t create enough clear cut chances and Herrera as the deeper midfield player misplaced a couple of passes which lead to breakaways that a more clinical Chelsea with Costa might have punished.
The defence did well and Shaw (like McNair, still only 19 years of age) was excellent, offering attacking thrust on the left, but when United tried to change things; going for width by introducing Januzaj and Di Maria, it didn’t work because these players themselves were ineffective, continually running into trouble. Falcao was poor.
What this all points to is areas of the squad where United need to strengthen; our squad remains unbalanced and the key lesson is that United need a more dynamic thrust on the wings, (something Shaw’s display signposted), and cover/alternatives in several positions, most noticeably in this game, upfront.
The last few weeks have been exhilarating and after a defeat there is a natural tendency to feel a little flat. United fans shouldn’t though. We have five games to go and Chelsea play Arsenal next. We have a tough game at Everton to focus on but we still have to play Arsenal at Old Trafford. This all means that we are still set nicely to qualify for the Champions League. That isn’t enough long term but it is the aim this year.
Long term, the improvements seen over the course of the season bode well. We will put aside a detailed analysis of what we are doing well now for other occasions, but the point to be made is that we have shown a gradual improvement throughout the season and not just in recent weeks. Yes the game against Tottenham at Old Trafford displayed a significant step forward but that is what it was, a significant step forward in the “process”. The signs of improvement have been there for months for those prepared to look.
But the most encouraging thing is that for the first time in years United seem to be improving gradually rather than regressing. Since Ronaldo left, United’s football had gradually gone backwards. We would acknowledge that we have had success since then but the general standard of our play was always regressing. In this context Van Persie was a sticking plaster solution designed to ensure Sir Alex went out on a high. But now United are building. Van Gaal has come in to do that job and perhaps last season opened the eyes of the club’s owners to the fact that we needed to refocus and could not progress without a serious re-structuring of the squad. Was last season a price worth paying then? Whatever the answer, it seems to have motivated the owners to release our money and back the manager. Sir Alex suggested that backing a new manager was necessary; was he talking to the fans or owners when he made that speech?
But it isn’t just about buying players; Van Gaal has improved this group through the season, both as individuals and as a squad. They might not be there yet, but they continue to move in the right direction, and so the momentum remains.