In August, there was not much to suggest that Manchester United could genuinely challenge for the league this season. However, these six unlikely occurrences have rewritten the script.
1) The deadline day signing of Anthony Martial
“What a waste of money” the United fans sang at Southampton after Martial grabbed his second and third goals for the club. He’s been revelatory so far, the early comparisons with Henry confirmed.
Louis van Gaal likes his teams to keep possession and probe patiently, but until now his attacking players have been a little too patient. Martial is a player who tickles the hips of the opposition’s back line, a much-needed, sticky-footed final point of attack. He is so surprisingly composed, as if he’s blind to the crowd. If he can avoid injury, he looks dead certain to be their top scorer.
2) They have finally made sense of Louis van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’
He’s been banging on about it since he stepped off the plane, so much so that when he says it now it is impossible to believe he’s not just taking the piss, perhaps even competing in an ongoing private bet with his wife: “This weekend I said it 6 times in my post match interview, 3 times in the Sky Sports interview, and 14 times on MUTV. What’s the grand total now?” “Where’s the calculator Louis?”
Like a Football Manager tinkerman, he’s been through a 4-4-2, a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 before settling on a 4-2-3-1, which is incidentally what Alex Ferguson was using before he retired. According to Juan Mata they have finally ‘got it’. It certainly looks that way.
3) Keeping David De Gea
Requires no explanation. He and his girlfriend experienced a difficult summer of uncertainty, and he had all but packed his bags for Real Madrid before it collapsed in outrageous fashion. He has already made a couple of world-class, match winning saves since re-signing, and Alex Ferguson (biased though he is) reckons he can win United the league.
He doesn’t seem too unhappy, either:
— David De Gea (@D_DeGea) September 24, 2015
4) The disappearance of one of their main competitors
The last time the United won the league was by 11 points in 12/13, the general consensus being they walked it because their closest rivals were rubbish. By that logic, Chelsea’s start to the season is encouraging for them. The Blues certainly won’t continue as terribly as they’ve started, but consider this:
From rounds 8-38 last season, Chelsea gained just 9 more points than United with 68 points to United’s 59. Going into round 8 this term, United are already 8 points ahead of Chelsea. If from now they both perform to a similar standard as last season, with United continuing to be slightly better and Chelsea slightly worse, it’s difficult to see how Chelsea could possibly overtake.
5) The bizarre centre-back pairing of Chris Smalling and Daley Blind
Daley Blind is 5 feet 10 inches tall. That is 3 inches shorter than Louis van Gaal. He looks anything but a centre-back but he and Smalling have pillared a defence that have conceded only 5 goals so far, joint lowest in the league. Smalling has got stronger, more assured and sensibly aggressive. Blind is intelligent and allows United to play the ball out of defence more fruitfully, a staple of van Gaal’s teams. How many centre-backs do you know who can pick a pass like this?
6) And finally, the massive cull has left a revitalized squad.
Seventeen first team players have left in the two years van Gaal has been in charge and the squad has clearly benefited from this extensive trimming. The first team finally picks itself. Each player knows their job, and there is a decent backup for every position. It’s taken Louis three transfer windows but United finally appear to have a new, potentially successful post-Ferguson identity.