Things don’t always work out the way you want them to. But it is important to bear in mind what you signed up for. Manchester United hired Louis van Gaal and they did so to steady the ship and guide the club back to the top table. Did they really expect he would do that and simultaneously change the methods that had shaped his career? He has not.
The first few times Tony Pulis’s Stoke met Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United the Old Trafford team posted scores like 5-1 or 4-0. In fact, it took several years for Pulis to even take a point off United, let alone a victory.
Given that context, it is hard to do cartwheels over a slow two nil win which featured goals at the each end of the second half. Context remains important though. Since United were whalloped three nil by Arsenal at the start of last month, they have not conceded a goal in seven fixtures.
Louis van Gaal might not be perfect, but he can fix a problem when it arises. He also, despite his protestations, gets the message pretty quickly. Last season I was surprised and delighted by how often he changed personnel seemingly at the behest of the fans. He definitely reads the papers and listens to the supporters.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford on Wednesday against Moscow was close to full on mutiny. The booing when Martial was substituted was deafening and it could have got ugly. I can’t remember seeing anything like it.
The argument, of course, is that people want to see United “attack, attack, attack”. In fairness to Louis, they have certainly been giving it more of a go over the past two games. In fact, they were fairly adventurous against Middlesbrough too.
The war of words with Paul Scholes does neither man any favours. One suspects there may be a little more to it. Louis was clear that he had offered Scholes and Phil Neville jobs when he took over and that it was the wish of the club for them to stay on board.
He also has a point when he asks what motivates Scholes in making those comments. No doubt he feels it is easier to be a pundit than to pitch in and help the club. I couldn’t agree more.
By the same token, Scholes is on the money when he says United should be more adventurous. They should, and the evidence of the past week is that they are getting there. As mentioned before on these pages though, the price of trial and error can be catastrophic. No wonder Louis plays it safe sometimes.
Although United were not sumptuous against the Baggies, it was at least a regulation victory. In other words, it was a game United expected to win and did. Considering West Brom have won their past two fixtures at Old Trafford, you cannot deny that Van Gaal has them moving in the right direction. Just maybe not in the right style, yet.
Victories, of course, are what make the difference. Most people would look at United’s month of judgement and surmise it was a disappointment. However, we awake this Sunday morning with them one point from the top of the league and on top of their Champions League group. The exit from the League Cup is not ideal but nor is it a calamity for the ages.
Lest we forget, this has also been a period that has seen a debut for an academy product, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson got on the field yesterday, and a first goal for youth teamer Jesse Lingard too. It was a beautiful strike against West Brom and a wonderful tribute to the club’s traditions. Louis is getting a lot of things right too.
The pressure has certainly been on Van Gaal in recent weeks and he more than anyone will be aware that Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancellotti and possibly Jose Mourniho might be looking for new managerial jobs next summer.
It cannot be denied that the manager has cojones. Despite loud and vociferous protest midweek, he told his players to get on with it and was vindicated by result, substitution and outcome. The result this weekend consolidates his argument further.
My suspicion is that he is not as arrogant as he purports to be and is more pliant to the desires of the supporters than he lets on. Nonetheless, United take their international break in far better shape than they were a week ago.
Louis deserves the credit for that as much as anyone else. But he still has a long way to go. Not that he is likely to admit it in public though.
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