Is Louis Van Gaal already becoming his predecessor?
After a sixth successive victory in the Barclays Premier League, Louis Van Gaal's Manchester United have begun to take the upper hand in the race for the top four, nay three. Whilst the jury is still out on the squad as a whole, few can argue with 18 points from a possible 18. Futhermore though, it cannot be disputed that in four of their last five games they have not been at their best. The fact remains they have ground out the results, and whilst it still is early days in the for LVG, the theme rings true with that of a certain former manager, one Sir Alex Ferguson. But is this merely the honeymoon period after the initial nuptuals? Or is LVG slipping effortlessly into Sir Alex's heavy shoes?
With a crucial Chritmas period approaching with four league games inside 13 days coming thick and fast, The Red Devils, sit in third spot in the English top flight with a five point gap between them and fifth place. The festive period is likely to test an already injury ravaged United squad to its' limits - if possible. Van Gaal is already aware of the pitfalls of this time of the year and with no experience of the only league with no winter break, the Dutchman will be tested, particularly his shrewd tactical approach.
At the beginning of Fergie's era at Old Trafford the Scot had suffered hardship, after his arrival from Aberdeen. Ferguson has stated himself that the club were on the verge of sacking him, but stayed faithful. The rest as they say, is history. Van Gaal has endured a similar rocky start to his tenure in Manchester, but now seems to be exhibiting signs of a resurgence in fortunes. All this after being forced to deploy a makeshift defence since the start of the campaign, with a combination of injury and work permit issues hanging over Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Johnny Evans, Rafael and Luke Shaw. despite this, Utd have pushed onto some sort of Fergie-like aura where, no matter how they play - or badly in this case - the team will get the result.
To fans outside of United, this process has come about in a particularly irksome fashion and one that is all too familar to rival fans. Versus Arsenal and Liverpool, the Red Devil's porous back line gave away chances but were foiled, in no thanks to a resolutely stubborn David De Gea who is quickly becoming as fearsome psychologically as Peter Schmeichel between the sticks. If anything, LVG's tactical approach is sounder than that of Ferguson's, certainly on paper. But has Louis Van Gaal just been extremely fortunate in these past six outings?
The form of Robin van Persie had been a concern up until recently and only the fitness concerns of Radamel Falcao allowed for the Dutch striker to still being in the first eleven. It is no secret that Falcao was brought in to remedy the Van Persie situation with doubts over his well documented muscle problems. Irony in the extreme. Especially the the light of the striker's resurgent displays, with Southampton in mind, where the Dutchman rolled back the years from his lethal best Arsenal days, where he barely gave the ball away and whilst his teammates were creating little, any chance he was presented with was taken with aplomb. Had these chances not been taken, surely the Saints would have gained a positive result.
Looking back, the Arsenal win was key. Much like Jose Mourinho does with Chelsea, Fergie maintained a stranglehold over the Gunners that refused to shift. With the victory at the Emirates, the psychological barrier that many North Londoners had hoped would be broken merely continued. Not only that is was reinforced. Fergie was a mind master of the beautiful game and the win versus Arsenal served to give the man who sensationally brought Tim Krul on during extra time versus Costa Rica in the World Cup, a further step up. Whether it be false or not, the fact is irrelevant.
United's position in the table is somewhat of a misnomer. They haven't played well and yet only have Chelsea and Manchester City above them in the table. So if they suddenly start playing well again, what does that spell for the Premier League? The difference with this team under Ferguson, was that the Red Devils could play badly but still create chances. In both the games versus Southampton and Arsenal, United won with two efforts and a solitary one respectively. In the latter, they managed to score twice to throw the stats book out the window. Indeed, watching the Manchester outfit under Van Gaal has become perplexing.
This unit of players that some have said is the worst in a decade at Old Trafford - worse than David Moyes' beleaguered troops - are winning ugly but then even that cannot be true. For that to be the case, they need to at least be wasting chances. United lack any sort of attacking direction. A manager entrenched in his wing-back philosophy has seemed to become more defensive in a largely untested system that only Wigan were the main proponents of, to their detriment. With that in mind, Van Gaal has put in place his own grip on Premier League teams, the sort Sir Alex would be envious of.
Therein lies the critical vein of this Christmas period. If United can continue in the way they have, come New Years day eve, Manchester United and Louis Van Gaal could have 10 wins from 10 games. 30 points. Of course that very much remains to be seen, with trips to Aston Villa and Spurs as well as the visit of last year's conquerors and Chelsea topplers Newcastle United. However, after winning the opening mental battle, United could be very optimisic of pushing on and if they start playing to their potential, Louis Van Gaal and his employers could be enetering a new era.