LONDON, August 13: In only four weeks, new manager Louis van Gaal has revived Manchester United to such an extent that they approach the 2014-15 Premier League season brimming with rediscovered optimism. Emboldened by his achievements at the World Cup in Brazil, where he steered his native Netherlands to the semi-finals, the straight-talking 63-year-old was quick to make his presence felt at United.
From upbraiding the club for organising an arduous pre-season tour of the United States to instilling a new 3-4-1-2 formation, he has wasted little time, and the players have responded with unabashed positivity.
“He’s a tough manager, but he’s been great since he came in,” said striker Wayne Rooney, after United beat Liverpool 3-1 in Miami to win the International Champions Cup friendly tournament. “He’s given us all a different way of looking at football, which we haven’t had before. It’s been great for us and hopefully that will continue.”
United were in the doldrums after finishing the 2013-14 season in seventh place, which was their lowest final placing since 1990 and deprived them of European football for the first time in 25 years.
Van Gaal, who succeeded the sacked David Moyes, said that he had inherited a “broken” squad, but he immediately hit upon a playing system that worked. He had used a similar tactical set-up at the World Cup, when a youthful Holland squad came within touching distance of a place in the final.
The former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach was heralded for his decision-making in Brazil — such as the brazen move to send on substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul for the penalty shootout win over Costa Rica in the quarter-finals — and his early calls for United have also proved successful.
He has successfully blended new signings Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw into his starting XI, while previously marginalised players such as Darren Fletcher and, in particular, Ashley Young appear rejuvenated.
Record signing Juan Mata, meanwhile, looks far more at ease as a central playmaker than he did in the right-sided role he had to adopt under Moyes.
– Dazzling football –
True to his reputation, van Gaal has also given a chance to several youth-team graduates, with Reece James, Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard among the players who have seized opportunities to shine.
United finished pre-season unbeaten — having defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy, Roma, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Valencia, and overcome Inter Milan on penalties — and the 3-4-1-2 now appears set to stay.
“I think the system suits the team, not only myself,” said Rooney, who scored five goals on the tour of the US.
“The manager came in and had a look at the players we’ve got. He’s done what he thinks is best suited for our team.”
Eager to increase the speed of his side’s attacks, van Gaal has encouraged his players to fizz their passes at each other in training.
It has yielded flashes of dazzling football, such as Young’s opening goal against Madrid, which prompted van Gaal to remark: “You would come to the stadium just for that goal.”
United never recovered from a slow start last season, when they took only 11 points from a possible 24 after being obliged to face Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in their first five games.
The fixture computer has been much kinder this time. United play Swansea City, Sunderland and promoted teams Burnley, Queens Park Rangers and Leicester City in their first five matches and do not face a fellow title contender until they host Chelsea on October 26.
Free from European distractions, their aim now is to emulate Liverpool’s achievements from last season by following up a seventh-place finish with an unlikely title tilt.
“We go out to win the league. It is a dangerous mindset to have, to target fourth place,” said Fletcher. “Liverpool didn’t have European football last year and they went close to winning the league, so hopefully we can go one better next year.”