Manchester United solidified its grip on fourth place in the Premier League with a commanding 2-1 victory over rivals Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. The very idea that fans should give a toss about finishing fourth in the league is basically everything that’s wrong with modern soccer, but that Champions League money is better than a trophy these days. There are only so many Official Potato Chip Partners from which a club can squeeze money, after all. As such, Sunday’s result was a significant one in the top four “race.” United is now five points clear of Liverpool and even within touching distance of second place.
The biggest talking point was of course Liverpool icon/third-best central midfielder Steven Gerrard getting himself comically sent off seconds after coming on as a halftime sub. With scant consideration for those fans still on their way back from the toilets, the future California resident stamped on poor Ander Herrera like so many grapes in a Napa Valley wine press. The furore/shocking lack of furore (delete according to personal bias) over Gerrard’s idiocy, however, ignores the fact that United had been even more dominant against 11 men than it was against 10. For the second time in two weeks, Louis van Gaal got his tactics spot on, and United played a top(-ish) team completely off the pitch.
The realization that United is suddenly looking like a real team aposes an obvious question: Why the hell did it take Van Gaal two-thirds of the season to get his team’s collective shit together? After spending several months playing like leaden-footed strangers, the Red Devils seemed to finally click against Tottenham, and then showed it was no fluke by putting on another fluid and assured performance at Anfield. The more obvious explanation is that the Dutchman has finally been able to transmit his philosophy to his charges, and after some key personnel and tactical adjustments, we are now seeing the fruits of his labor. But that may be giving ol’ Louis a little too much credit.
Although Manchester United is well on track to achieve its primary post-Moyes goal of getting back into the Champions League, Van Gaal’s management this season has not always been faultless. Some esteemed and highly qualified soccer analysts (me) have even raised the possibility of LVG picking his team while shroomed off his tits. The current is now the fourth different formation United has set up in this season, with various players going in and out of the starting XI since August. Flexibility in the face of changing or difficult circumstances is always an important trait, but a case can be made that Van Gaal has had these most recent (and so far, most successful) changes forced upon him.
Much has been made of the formation change effected by Liverpool manager and president of the Brendan Rodgers fan club, Brendan Rodgers, that turned Liverpool’s season around. Never one to minimize his impact, Rodgers claimed that he had to do some serious soul-searching before deciding to make the switch to a 3-4-3 in order to get the most out of the players available. Similarly, Van Gaal has lately switched to something of a 4-3-3 — with Marouane Fellaini as a weird but effective hybrid midfielder/attacker, and Juan Mata as a “false right winger” — and has been rewarded with the best two United performances of the season. The transition, though, has been either reluctant, just plain lucky, or a combination of both.
Mata’s magnificent brace was the finest bit of Scouse-busting at Anfield since Diego Forlán in 2002. But before last week, he barely had a kick in over two months. To some, Mata has come to represent a so-called luxury player: someone who is good at the nice bits, but not to be trusted when it comes to winning tough games. That is a ludicrous view to hold, and if it wasn’t already clear from his various big games while at Chelsea, he put that argument to bed on Sunday.
Mata is a luxury in the same way that a handlebars are a luxury on bicycle, but if Ángel Di María doesn’t stupidly get himself suspended in the FA Cup tie against Arsenal, would Mata even be in the team? For all his talk about treating all players equally, Van Gaal has shown a dogged loyalty to certain one, even when they have been totally out of form. For the last four months at least, Di María has been playing like a man who can’t wait to engineer a move to Paris in the summer. Even his bright moments — like his assist for the winning goal on Sunday — seem to happen despite his obvious disinterest. Still, it took a suspension for Van Gaal to take him out of the team.
Wayne Rooney spent most of Sunday’s game stumbling around uselessly, but before that he had been demonstrating why his best position is still right up top as a striker. Even that — a fact painfully obvious to anyone that watched him struggle in midfield — was a change that Van Gaal was hesitant to enforce. Only an injury to Robin Van Persie and the relentless haplessness of Radamel Falcao saw Rooney finally pushed back where he belongs. Had Van Persie in particular still been fit, there’s no doubt he would’ve still been lumbering in attack, killing the team’s fluidity with one unmade run after another. Ander Herrera, United’s player of the month for February, has been a major part of the team’s newfound drive and sharpness. But somehow, a out-of-place striker first had to make way for him to be given a place in midfield.
Van Gaal’s philosophy is predicated on maintaining possession of the ball. It should be self-evident that this philosophy would be well-served by actually playing the players who are best at keeping the ball, but Van Gaal only seems to have stumbled upon that solution by accident.
Manchester United is winning games while genuinely playing well for maybe the first time under Van Gaal, and for that he deserves some credit. He may be a wily genius, or he may just be a very fortunate charlatan, but either, way he’s finally getting the job done. What’s that they say about lucky generals?