After the dismal start Manchester United had to the Premier League campaign, few would have predicted that Van Gaal’s men would be ahead of their noisy neighbours come April. Alongside Manchester City’s slump in form, Manchester United’s performances and results since the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal have significantly improved. United have moved ahead of their arch rivals in the Premier League for the first time in 500 days (November 2013). United have won their last 5 in the Premier League and there is a growing sense that Van Gaal’s men have hit their stride at the optimum moment. Van Gaal has indicated that Manchester City will face a different team to the one they beat 1-0 in November, “It was another Manchester United [last November], I believe”, he told reporters. “That was more in the start of the process and now we are in the end of the process. Now we have developed the team. I think also the confidence of our players is very high at the moment. Our performances show that, so it’s not the same Manchester United”. United’s recent performances have vindicated Van Gaal’s constant patience and perseverance with his possession based philosophy. With Van Gaal’s side seemingly timing their push for a Champions League return to perfection, here are some key things that have been evident to see in United’s uplift in form:
Combination of Daley Blind and Ashley Young
After Luke Shaw suffered yet another injury setback, that coinciding with Michael Carrick’s return to the side, Daley Blind has returned to arguably his best positon at left back. The combination play of Blind and Ashley Young has terrorized the right hand side of opposition defences in recent games. With Marouane Fellaini drifting over to the left hand side, opposing defences are finding the movement and inter play of Young and Blind a tough quandary to overcome. Blind and Young have conjured up a phenomenal understanding which is becoming more and more apparent with every passing game. If United are to continue their impressive run of form then the partnership that Young and Blind have summoned will be imperative to maintaining such impressive performances.
Mata and Herrera- The Spanish Bromance
Many felt that the futures of Ander Herrera and Juan Mata were looking extremely bleak at Old Trafford after both suffered a frustrating period looking on from the bench. With Robin Van Persie suffering an injury set back, that has arguably been a blessing in disguise and enabled Van Gaal’s jigsaw to unravel before him. Wayne Rooney has been utilised in his best position and as a result that has allowed Herrera to become a regular starter in midfield alongside the cool, calm and collected Michael Carrick. After Angel Di Maria got himself sent off in the FA Cup clash against Arsenal that has allowed Juan Mata to come back into the side and truly flourish on United’s right hand side. Mata and Herrera’s return has revitalised Manchester United at a crucial time. Mata and Herrera’s calmness and positivity in possession has given United a spark, when both Spaniards were out of the side United’s link up play lacked inspiration and was lacklustre. Mata and Herrera possess an incredible understanding which has embedded composure and injected belief into the current United side. With United’s big games coming thick and fast, Van Gaal will hope that his influential Spanish midfield duo continue to be at the forefront of United’s ever growing revival.
The real Marouane Fellaini
Marouane Fellaini was allegedly close to the exit door back in August, if it wasn’t for an injury Fellaini was reportedly Napoli bound. At the time United fans would have been delighted to see the back of the Belgian who initially struggled to take to the transition of playing for Manchester United. However in recent weeks it has become more and more apparent that Fellaini has become a pivotal part of Van Gaal’s puzzle. With Rooney back in his familiar striker role, Fellaini has been deployed as a deep lying target man. Van Gaal’s current formation is 4-3-3 with Juan Mata being positioned as a false right winger. However it’s arguably Fellaini’s gangly presence which has played an integral role in getting United back on track. Earlier on in the season when United were labelled as long ball United, the likes of Herrera and Mata were not playing week in week out. Now with the Spanish outfield duo looking a permanent fixture in Van Gaal’s plans, the direct option of Fellaini is creating the time and space for the likes and Mata and Herrera to weave and conjure up their creative magic. Fellaini may not be the type of player that gets fans of the edge of their seats but his physical presence and his defensive discipline are traits that have seen him become one of the first names on Van Gaal’s current team sheet.
Manchester United fans will be delighted that Michael Carrick has penned a new one year deal. At the age of 33, Carrick’s importance to the current Manchester United side seems to be growing and growing. It comes as no coincidence that United were so poor at the start of the season without Carrick’s presence. Carrick alongside Rooney are the senior heads in what is a fairly inexperienced Manchester United side. Carrick’s coolness on the pitch seems to be rubbing off on the rest of his team mates. After a string of impressive club performances, Carrick is not only back in the national team set up but Roy Hodgson may have finally realised what a crucial role Carrick can play in the current England side. Carrick’s work in the current United side regularly goes unnoticed but it comes as no surprise that Carrick’s team mates are the first to appreciate the role Carrick seems to have perfected. With United’s season seemingly gaining momentum at a decisive stage, Van Gaal will hope that his midfield maestro’s injury troubles are behind him.
Rooney back tormenting defences
There is no denying that Van Gaal opting to unleash his captain back upfront has played a major role in Manchester United’s resurgence. Van Gaal has consistently gone about searching for the right balance with his United side, Rooney in midfield looked a lost puppy and was unable to have an attacking influence on matches. With Rooney back upfront, United look revitalized and for the first time this season pose a genuine attacking threat. Rooney’s energy, movement and desire upfront is setting the tempo for United, when Van Gaal was deploying Rooney in midfield and the likes of Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao were upfront, United lacked attacking potency. With Juan Mata and Ander Herrera back in favour at Old Trafford, Rooney’s movement and willingness to create space for others is being rewarded. United now look a different animal with Rooney upfront and with Herrera and Mata finding their feet at Old Trafford, United’s style of play looks more expansive and appealing.