“It is not always that we improve our game, but mostly we have improved and won the match, so that’s important,” said Louis van Gaal on Friday. “When you see the scores of the last 15 or 20 matches we are the best team in the league. So that is why I think confidence is also high like it was at the beginning.”
There was confusion over the exact figures in Van Gaal’s quote in the build-up to his side’s trip to Swansea, but his insinuation was clear: Manchester United were back in business. Pride comes before a fall.
It was that word “best” used by Van Gaal that grated most. United had spent large periods of the last two months playing poorly, but had managed to keep their hold on third place through a record of one defeat in 19 matches. Time and time again they had fallen behind, only to respond with heart and fight. They had got the job done, but “best” hints at quality, as well as quantity.
Against Swansea on Saturday, the opposite occurred. United took the lead rather than conceding first, but it was the home team who responded immediately. Van Gaal’s side were excellent in patches, dominating the first half of the second period with Swansea defending desperately, yet it was they who were left with nothing. Football is an unfathomable, illogical beast. We love it for that.
United’s rivals might remark that this has been coming. Their recent good form has felt as if it is built on sand, a lofty position maintained through a heady mix of fight, fortune and a generous-looking fixture list. That sand is now shifting, leaving United’s ambitions vulnerable.
“It’s amazing we have lost today,” said Van Gaal after the final whistle. “We were not lucky…it’s disappointing.” Perhaps the luck had just run out. It’s now one victory in their last six away league games and three all season. David Moyes had matched that total by his tenth PL match in charge.
“I have to look at the players, I have to communicate with the players and observe the players,” said Van Gaal last month, after away supporters had chanted “4-4-2, 4-4-2” at their manager. “I can’t observe the fans because Manchester United have 600 million fans all over the world. You can’t take into account 600 million opinions.”
For a man who will not be dissuaded, Van Gaal sure listens to the noise, and against Swansea United supporters finally got what they have long been demanding. Angel Di Maria was played on the left rather than up front, Wayne Rooney started in his preferred role and Ander Herrera actually began a Premier League match. It was the Spaniard’s first league start since December 2.
Herrera was actually United’s best player, scorer of his third goal in his last three starts and reliable in possession. He lost the ball just nine times (15 times fewer than Di Maria) and had more touches than any of his team mates, the pivot from which every attacking move began. Whatever the reason for his extended absence, supporters will hope that he has merited a run in the team.
As so often during this season, however, Van Gaal was unable to draw performances from enough of United’s stellar names. Robin van Persie was preferred to Radamel Falcao but again looked jaded and ineffective, with just one of his seven shots on target. Di Maria was given plenty of space behind Kyle Naughton on United’s left wing but, aside from his assist for Herrera, offered insufficient creativity.
The most expensive signing ever by a British club is struggling, but he is not alone. Antonio Valencia struggled against Jefferson Montero, Marouane Fellaini is the most undignified No. 10 in the Premier League and Rooney again failed to impose himself on the match. He will not consider his first shot on target of 2015 as a cause for celebration.
The one shining light through the fog of underwhelming United performances and confused tactical plans was that, this season, only the result is king. Van Gaal’s sole remit was to regain their place in the Champions League. After the shambles under Moyes, aesthetics could wait.
Unfortunately, unless Van Gaal can inspire improvement, even that looks a tough ask. A five-week period in March and April brings league fixtures against Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea. Is this United side really ready to compete with those teams in this sort of form? The answer to that question will decide whether this season is judged as qualified success or repeated failure.