“There’s a bigger picture some fans can’t see yet. In five years they’ll understand the masterpiece Louis van Gaal is painting”, mused Manchester United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy last week, as he urged the Old Trafford support to retain their faith in the now infamous LVG “philosophy”.
To speak of a “masterpiece” still seems premature at this stage; under van Gaal’s stewardship United have stuttered regularly and often look like a team in search of its own identity.
The club have made an overly well documented financial outlay in an attempt to recapture something akin to Sir Alex Ferguson’s golden touch – rendering mixed returns. Club record signing Angel Di Maria has come and gone in the space of a year, and the less said about the Radamel Falcao experiment the better.
With expectations lowered post-Moyes, results have been just about good enough despite an exasperatingly fluctuant quality of football, and there was some media suggestion that certain members of the squad were not particularly enamoured with van Gaal’s methods.
Yet amid the odd substitutions, recurring injury crises, transfer sagas and disgruntled South Americans there are indications that the Dutchman’s vision is taking form with increasingly broad strokes.
As October approaches, United now sit top of the league for the first time in two years, though it still feels like there is a wealth of, as yet, untapped potential in the squad – one which is almost unrecognisable compared to the XI which David Moyes fielded on his opening game at Swansea in 2013.
As United cantered to a 3-0 win at home to Sunderland, there is now an undeniable feeling that this is a Louis van Gaal team – an assertion which was often difficult to make last year as the Dutchman shoehorned players into alien positions and made Marouane Fellaini the focal point of his attack.
Another colourful summer transfer window has allowed van Gaal to expand his palette as he seeks to deliver the “masterpiece” which Ruud van Nistelrooy insists is on the way. However, irrespective of several arrivals through the Old Trafford gates, media focus throughout the window often turned to who United hadn’t signed, rather than who they had.
Compiling lists of players who had allegedly “rejected” the opportunity to relocate to Manchester became fashionable on social media. But while others mocked the supposed pursuit of the likes of Neymar and Thomas Muller, van Gaal was busy assembling what is now arguably the strongest central midfield in the Premier League.
Fergie’s inexplicable negligence of the position in later years was one of his few failings, but van Gaal has now transformed it into one of United’s main strengths. Despite Bastian Schweinsteiger being slightly the wrong side of 30, his manipulation of the football remains a joy to behold.
Of course, with Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin also in the fold, United are not short of technical ability in midfield – but Schweinsteiger provides something else entirely. He is a winner. A leader. Within minutes of entering the fray against Tottenham on the opening day, Schweinsteiger was directing traffic, moving pieces around the chess board with a simple point of the finger.
Behind the German, Chris Smalling is steadily developing into the player many had begun to think he would never become. Less than a year ago, Smalling was rivalling Jonny Evans as the principal liability in the United defence, yet now he finds himself at the heart of an increasingly cohesive backline.
Unknown to the majority of United fans mere months ago, Matteo Darmian looks capable of occupying the right back berth for years to come, and Daley Blind continues to ridicule those who seemed so convinced he would be incapable of partnering the excellent Smalling.
Although improvements are evident in defence, the unlikely retainment of David de Gea may prove to be the single most important moment of United’s season. Whether the spectre that is Real Madrid will come calling again at the campaign’s end remains to be seen, but De Gea’s form since his return to the side suggests that, on the pitch at least, he is unaffected by the fiasco which ended with a prospective move back to Spain lying in tatters.
Whilst the base layers of van Gaal’s prospective magnum opus appear increasingly promising, the right finishing touches still remain elusive. In comparison to United attacks of old, van Gaal’s current forward line often resembles little more than a sketch. Nine goals in the past three league games hints at an upturn in attacking quality, but match highlight packages often belie the lethargy which continues to permeate the play more often than would be liked.
United have begun to find the net with greater regularity, but the free flowing nature so often associated with past sides has yet to materialise. The addition of Anthony Martial, however, has added an element of explosiveness in the striker’s position – an attribute which has long since deserted the ailing Wayne Rooney.
Rooney looks wildly out of sorts despite the insistence of pundits nationwide that he can still function as the #10 in van Gaal’s setup and is arguably standing in the way of further progress. Considering the revelation made by his manager that Rooney enjoys a say in team selection, it seems unlikely that he will be removed from the side any time soon.
Rooney’s apparent immunity will only serve to further marginalise Ander Herrera, who showed promise on the few occasions he has been deployed in an advanced midfield role. The Spaniard epitomises everything his captain does not – namely energy and creativity.
Martial’s willingness to run in behind would conceivably create space for Herrera to operate in, picking passes and allowing his understanding with Juan Mata to flourish once again. Not as well suited to the deeper midfield berth as his compatriots, Herrera may be consigned to the bench for long periods once again.
Regardless of league position, van Gaal’s United remain a work very much in progress, but there are encouraging signs emerging after a worryingly uncertain start to the season. Following the visit of a dangerous Wolfsburg side in midweek, United visit Arsenal before facing Everton and Manchester City respectively. If United remain at the summit of the Premier League following those three fixtures, it may just be time to start getting excited.