Sunday, 17 May 2015
Van Gaal’s Magic Formula
Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal [Premiership, Old Trafford]
On May 3 Chelsea became Premiership champions following a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge. The west Londoners had three games still to play and led the table by thirteen points. Eden Hazard headed the goal after his penalty was parried and it seemed that nothing could go wrong for the furry-necked wonder, right at the moment: back on April 26 the young Belgian had been voted PFA Player of the Year and was to king the award with the Football Writers’ gong on May 12. He was without question one of the world’s great playmakers on present form.
It had been a double-edged campaign for Jose Mourinho’s men, owing much, in the first half of the season, to the sibylline passing of Cesc Fabregas and the barbarous finishing of Diego Costa; then after Christmas, once the striker’s hamstrings had begun to go out of tune and the midfielder lost a little of his lustre, it was the bird dog prescience of John Terry and the timely emergence of young central-defensive partner Kurt Zouma which saw them through, as the southerners led from the front, shored up their advantages, and began to personify the art of winning ugly. The magic feet of Hazard, of course, had been a threat throughout; likewise the reformed playmaker Nemanja Matic had been a giant in the defensive holding role. The side had drawn criticism over the extent to which they had ‘parked the bus’ in key games over the second stretch; it was said that they weren’t as refined as Arsenal, on their day, or as enterprising as Manchester City. Whatever…once more Mourinho had run off with the silverware, and in only his second season back in English football. It was the the first time the Premiership trophy had left Manchester since 2010.
In Stretford, an unexpected spark of optimism had flamed from the damp kindling which had been fuelling the season so far: all those changing formations, and the underperforming Gaalacticos (who had long since ceased being referred to as ‘Gaalacticos’), and the baffling experiments with the long ball stuff. Quite uncannily, and without a whisper of warning, everything seemed miraculously to come together for Van Gaal – for a few weeks, at least – as if the dark, smoking philters he’d been mixing in his cloud-filled laboratory for the past seven months had suddenly produced a golden elixir. In a bewildering trice, it looked like the Tortoise Man had known exactly what he was doing all along. Six days after that desultory exit to Arsenal in the FA Cup, United played host to a not un-fancied Spurs, and the Dutchman turned to yet another untried system: a 4-3-3, the formation with which he’d made his name at Ajax in the ‘90s, when Danny Blind (father of Daley) would step out from the centre of defence to make the play; Jari Litmanen would steal into the attack from the midfield ranks; and the graceful fires astride the striker, Marc Overmars and Finidi George, lit up a fearsome attacking trident with Patrick Kluivert at the tip. Retaining the best of what his team had managed to produce for him so far (notably in his continued faith in Fellaini) Van Gaal now sent out a side which hinted at some of the qualities which had illuminated his golden past: fluid, possession football; continuous circulation of the ball between the lobes of the brain; a formation designed to maximise the number of available triangles.
The Van Gaal style 4-3-3 was said to be a notoriously difficult system to pull off in short order, due to the positional instincts it required its practitioners to develop. It may have been erroneous to draw too many parallels between what we saw here and what glittered in Amsterdam in the mid 1990s, but nevertheless: the new system seemed to work, and quite spectacularly so. On March 15 the Reds gleefully chain-whipped Spurs to embark on a startling streak of performances, with a clutch of personnel changes to man the new machine.
This was the formula:
1. Shaw, sidelined with yet another injury (this time to his groin) was replaced by Blind at left-back. The youngster’s fitness problems – an apparent struggle with the greater number of high-intensity runs required of him, up and down the flank, following his arrival from Southampton – was now redressed by the more assured presence of the Dutchman. Blind had himself seemed an uncertain fit in his previous billing, sometimes setting about the holding role as if he was wearing another man’s underpants; this switch seemed to offer, at least for the time being, a better fit all round.
2. Carrick returned from a two-month lay-off to replace Blind in front of the defence: without doubt, a crucial development. The veteran’s artful range of passing – long or short, quick-smart or calculated – in the regista role, seemed integral to the new efficacy of the team as a whole. Quite simply, it appeared to be no coincidence that with the Tynesider back at the helm, tooling the vehicle, everything began to click like a German car door.
3. Fellaini, on the left side of the midfield trio, was now confirmed as a key cog in the attacking wheel. Using the Belgian to receive and reroute long incoming passes, like some kind of mobile sorting office for deliveries between disparate post codes, was by no means United’s only ploy, now – much as they’d done it to death on the night of the cup exit – but it was unquestionably still part of the mix. Herrera, meanwhile, whose judicious passing and eye for the target had drawn somewhat premature comparisons with no lesser figure than Paul Scholes, recently, was brought back in from the cold to take up the billeting on the right.
4. Young, previously seen as one of the club’s more unfashionable assets, had clearly won the manager’s faith on the strength of his energy, cogent dribbling and the right-foot crosses he whipped in low, like a showy tennis forehand, from out on the left. The doe-eyed Januzaj, by contrast, who had found himself frozen out during the wing-back period, continued to look on from the sidelines; while the £25 million capture of Memphis Depay, a young right-footed interiore from PSV Eindoven (whose imminent arrival had been announced on May 7) promised to stir the pot.
5. Di Maria was out, Mata was in. The Argentine’s sputtering form since Christmas was one thing; the histrionic flap which led to his dismissal in the Arsenal cup tie seemed to be the last straw as far as his manager was concerned. From then on, he appeared only from the bench, his position taken by another rejuvenated figure – Mata – whose guile, vision and sly inward-drifting from the right led to concertos of pundit-land chin-music over the stealth of the pioneering ‘false winger’. Certainly, the Spaniard appeared to be a key lubricant in United’s reanimated attack.
6. Following his sojourn in midfield, Rooney was recalled to the striker’s role, reinforcing swiftly the notion that he was easily the most convincing candidate for the job, these days, ahead of the benighted Falcao and the BUPA Loyalty Bonus Cardn holder Van Persie. Everyone, so it seemed, had been urging Van Gaal to correct this misapplication of the England captain’s skills; once he did so, United’s offensive edge appeared immediately resharpened.
With De Gea (still the subject of speculation linking him to Real Madrid) enjoying a wonder season, Smalling earning the evident confidence of his manager (against the prevailing tide of critical opinion) and some big names numbing their backsides on the substitutes’ bench, this was the basis of the side which began to relieve months of constipated drudgery: the adroit interventions, intuitive key changes and stormless orchestrations of Carrick; a more politic mixture of longer and shorter passing between the thirds; incisive wing play, building on the logical triangles of Blind, Fellaini and Young on the left side of the brain, and the creative interplay of Valencia, Herrera and Mata on the right; and above all, at long last, after all those interminable encounters…greater tempo. On March 15 the change of gear was plain to see, as Spurs fetched up in Manchester, and found themselves ruthlessly and charismatically swept aside.
It was a mere six days on from that dispiriting cup departure, and of course there’d been not the faintest glimmering of the sparkle to come. What happened was served up completely out of the blue: United overwhelmed the north Londoners, that day, to the tune of three breathless goals to nil; indeed it was all over after 34 minutes when Rooney punished a loose pass along the Spurs back line by cat-pawing the ball past the exposed Eric Dier and then arrogantly sliding it home once he’d slunk past the centre-back’s leg. Fellaini took the Man of the Match plaudits as the lynchpin of the whole: so long derided as a dunce centre-midfielder, or an oafish target man for long distance hoofs, he seemed now to be a vital component of a primed, multi-bladed weapon.
This was no fluke. Seven days later (March 22) the Reds destroyed Liverpool with equal gusto: the damage inflicted largely down the right, as Mata showcased the full spectrum of his particular, elusive artistry. It was a 2-1 victory which would be remembered for Steven Gerrard’s harebrained sending-off – 38 seconds after emerging as a half-time substitute, having venged himself with his studs on the prone Herrera in what the Anfield legend knew would be his last ever appearance against the old enemy – and for Mata’s exquisite scissor-kicked goal: Western-rolling his body to accommodate a ball incoming behind him and twanging it into the net with the deftness of a hairpin sprung on its tines.
The 3-1 mauling of Aston Villa at Old Trafford on April 4, courtesy of a brace from the obsessive-compulsively accurate Herrera, took United above City into third place – a development which would have been unthinkable only a few weeks previously, when the Premiership leaderboard had looked about as open to third party intervention as the university boat race. That was before City got sick, of course. The reversal of fortunes was painted vividly on April 12 when the two teams met in a gale-force derby, in which the Red team ran off with the spoils of a rambunctious six goal affair.
By now the pundits were speaking of the new 4-3-3 as more of a 4-1-4-1: Carrick in front of the defence (sometimes sitting so deep as to become ensconced in the back line himself, as at Anfield, as though in reversal of the Daley Blind role back at Ajax); the four midfielders ranged behind Rooney at the apex. Whatever the interpretation, there was no doubting that City came roaring out of the blocks that Sunday with an early strike from Aguero – prodding in Silva’s cross after a righteous reverse pass from Milner on the left – that served only to tweak the tail of the big stripey moggie. The kitty was displeased and City were set-upon, and this time the carnage was inflicted down the left: Young scored one, set up two more, and turned Zabaleta like the larder key all afternoon, as the Reds ran out emphatic 4-2 winners. A sixth defeat in eight left Manuel Pellegrini’s future hanging perilously by a thread. United, by contrast, had now won six in six.
But just as soon as the new dawn was being hailed, however, the skies darkened again. So dynamic had been the all new Van Gaal Show that when United ventured down to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea on April 18 they were tipped in many quarters to turn over the league leaders. This time, however, injuries had thrown a wrench in the works. Blind was out (crocked in the ankle after a loose challenge from Kompany in the derby) meaning the return of Shaw; susceptive young Paddy McNair deputised in defence amidst a shortage of available centre-backs; while the all-important Carrick was likewise laid off (a calf problem, also picked up in the City match), prompting Van Gaal to switch Rooney back to midfield and call up the ill-starred Falcao to lead the line. The encounter which followed was a little uncanny, even by Jose Mourinho standards, as United passed the ball about fluently without seeming to create many chances, amassing a staggering 80% possession as they did so; yet still they wound up 1-0 losers thanks to an insurgent strike from Hazard, an almighty defensive performance from Terry, and the conspicuous redeployment of young Zouma from his habitual centre-back berth to shackle Fellaini in the holding role. Yet again, despite gift-wrapping the ball for their opponents, Mourinho’s men had contrived victory from reactive tactics. The result saw Chelsea move ten points clear at the top of the table.
If that reverse was seen on the day as a forgivable blip, then the humbling at Goodison Park on April 26 was more of a reality check. The Toffees put three goals past De Gea, without reply, and again the counter-attack was key: electing to follow the Mourinho blueprint, Roberto Martinez’s side shucked off their attacking instincts, sat back, allowed the visitors ramp up their Opta stats, and hit them on the break. They looked the more accomplished team for it – this wasn’t luck – and the implication was now obvious: the magic formula, so it seemed, had come with a shelf life. Or rather, there was an antidote: and when the counter-serum was introduced the potion turned unhappily curly and brown.
The weakness in the new system had apparently been found.
This was underlined in no small measure at Old Trafford on May 2, when West Bromwich Albion rocked up and played with so many men behind the ball they could have been posing for a team photograph…yet still they managed to p0wn their hosts after a Chris Brunt free kick rocketed in off the keister of Jonas Olsson, a development to which United were unable to muster an response. The return of Van Persie for his first outing since February piled anti-climax upon disappointment, as the Dutchman looked a yard off the pace and contrived somehow to telegraph the placement of an otherwise decent 72nd minute penalty. Here was another former celestial whose star seemed now to have fallen; his departure from Old Trafford looked increasingly likely.
A barely watchable 2-1 squeaking of Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on May 9 – a victory about as emphatic as a split points decision in a gravy-wrestling contest – steadied the ship a little, but by now the club had slipped back to fourth place. After a fits-and-starts campaign, the purple patch had been regrettably brief. The visit of Arsenal on May 17 for the final home game of the season offered the chance to peg back the side just ahead of them in the race to clinch third spot. Two points to the good, Arsenal had two fixtures to play (after today); United just the one. Both teams were bidding to avoid the Champions League qualifiers which a fourth-placed finish would entail.
The Gunners had faltered slightly since a strong post-Christmas surge put paid to the annual mutter-fest over their lack of an adequate spine (Per Mertesacker sometimes slow; Laurent Koscielny sometimes hasty; Wojciech Szczesny sometimes smoking; Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla sometimes needing a step-ladder; Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck sometimes seemingly unable to hit a fat kid with a nerf gun), suspect application and toughness (the delicate complexion and Peter Lorre eyes of half-hearted hotshot Mesut Ozil; the fragile ankles and fractious temperament of the visionary Jack Wilshere, said to suffer for releasing the ball late and drawing clumsy tackles) and perceived paucity of ambition in the transfer market (whereby their fans harboured hopes that such problems could be rectified). Having before Easter moved up to challenge City for the second place spot, the Londoners had slipped back again, just as the Blues regained some composure in the finishing straight. The last few weeks had been stronger, though, and the team was now unchanged in six matches. In contrast to the Old Trafford cup tie, that meant three alterations: the ciggie-less, slightly-more-trusted hands of David Ospina having replaced those of Szczesny in goal; the artful Aaron Ramsey having come in for the alacritous Alex Oxlade Chamberlain on the right of midfield; while the conspicuously able-bodied Giroud was currently holding down the striker’s berth in preference to the everything-but-goals allure of the injured-anyway Danny Welbeck. The rest of the side was unchanged in a 4-2-3-1: Nacho Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Hector Bellerin comprising the back four; Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin stationed in front of them; Alexis Sanchez at left midfield, Ramsey right, with Ozil in the centre behind Giroud.
The mutterers muttered, but the evidence was that they were a tougher team to beat, these days. Certainly, after the ups-and-downs of the preceding few weeks, United showed them a lot of respect on this occasion. They were themselves missing a clutch of key individuals.
What with Carrick’s confuckulated calf muscle, Blind returned to centre-midfield; while Rojo covered as a third-choice left-back in the absence of Shaw. Rooney’s dead leg meant the Merseysider was forced to sit out, so Van Gaal crossed his fingers and toes and sent out a whole dead striker, Falcao, in his stead. Other than those significant changes, the 4-1-4-1 formula remained: De Gea in goal; Jones, Smalling and Valencia accompanying Rojo across the back line; Young, Fellaini, Herrera and Mata manning the midfield in support of the Colombian. Whether Blind could conduct the music as articulately as Carrick; or Fellaini could shake off the attentions of Coquelin this time around; or Falcao could pluck up the courage to ask the ball for a date in the net…well, those were just some of the questions this slightly hobbledehoy line-up posed. But likewise for Arsenal…would Ramsey’s craftsmanship prove preferable to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace, given United’s perceived vulnerability to the counter?; did Cazorla and Coquelin have the stature to boss a game like this, just as the giants who preceded them, Petit and Vieira, used to do?; and did Giroud, so long the cause of grimacing in the stands at the Emirates, have a goal in him to justify his continued part in Wenger’s eminent schemes?
On the evidence of the first half, at least, it was the home side who laid the greater claim to winning the argument.
Not that it was barnstorming entertainment, mind. With their eyes fixed on the result required, the Manchester side seemed determined less to relive recent highs than to take the snap out of their opponents’ garters. Accordingly, the back four stepped up to make a provocatively high line and Arsenal were given no time to settle on the ball: Jones and Smalling making their breath felt on Giroud; Fellaini looking to lord it over Coquelin; all over the pitch the heckling press, the badgering challenge. With just four goals to his name over the course of the season, the presence of Falcao up front did not invoke a spirit of ambition, of course: his poacher’s stealth looked forever promising, tipping the onlooker’s mind back to the astonishing scoring feats he had amassed at Monaco and Atletico Madrid; his ability to steal a yard, and those dangerous runs across the near post…all that looked good. Somehow, though, at twenty-nine years of age he was like a fairytale prince cursed with wooden limbs, which seemed to seize up, unseen, whenever a scoring chance presented itself, leading him to squander it almost pathetically at the crucial moment. There was something almost tragic about it, in light of the work that went into acquiring such chances in the first place, and the belief with which he set himself to the task. There appeared to be nothing to be done to break the spell, however; no magic of his manager’s had seemed to work; everybody knew he was on his way out of the club.
In the absence of Carrick, Blind set about the holding role with his familiar bona fides. If the Englishman gave the impression that, on his day, he could make distributing deckchairs look like an art form, the understudy seemed a little bit more of an enigma: as though he’d arrived on the beach with a thick head from the night before, something he generally did a good job of concealing. The tackling was usually fine, though the concentration occasionally went; it was the passes that were sometimes the giveaway: lateral and routine, compared with the ones fanned artfully around by the maestro. The maestro himself, of course, had been a derided figure (in the stands, at least) back in the days when Scholes was still on the scene, but had subsequently seen his reputation blossom into full-blown vogue. Now it was Blind’s turn to be the man in the shade: showing moments of unflurried class, he was perhaps a touch more two-footed than the older man, his sideline being the little combinations he ventured to generate as he stepped out from the defensive third; improvised 2v1s or 3v2s in conjunction with Herrera and Fellaini, the shaggy-haired surfer dude with the buddy-up mentality, trying to make the party right here and now with whoever was on hand. On a day like today, though…well, you were left to wonder how much Carrick’s more far-reaching talent to knit together the whole was missed by the team. The little triangles just didn’t seem to be replicating; the two sides of the brain lit up only intermittently.
Still, the strangling job seemed to work very well – for the opening forty-five minutes, at least – as Arsenal failed to generate a first half shot on goal. There was brief comedy when Jones let a ball get away from him under pressure from Giroud: after tumbling on to his belly he appeared to try to snorkel a path to the ball in order to head it from out of the Frenchman’s way, and was lucky that his opponent was unable to steal in. Then came the golden moment: the goal. Fellaini broke free on the left after Coquelin naively allowed him to get wrong side, then fed Young, fishtailing up the touchline with that smooth, glistening, rubbery-looking crown of his, like a black dolphin…the dolphin brain, the left lobe, logically probing. There was a judder, then a step outside as Bellerin tried to close him down, then a cross flipped towards the back post like a punted beach ball. As the choreography of the strike unfolded you were inclined to wonder if what we were witnessing was a typical Van Gaal routine – we’d heard so much about the primacy of positioning with respect to the Dutch Master’s methods, after all – though in truth it was more of an old standard lifted from the general attacking playbook.
As the cross was floated, Koscielny and Monreal were stationed in the danger area to deal with the threat. Fellaini took care of the former simply by holding his central position, drawing the worried Frenchman to him like a chip of worried iron to a magnet. Meanwhile, Mata – the fox brain stealing in from the right – ushered Monreal towards the near post like an evil guide dog steering his master under a bus. This left Herrera unmarked at the back post, with an opportunity too good to resist: the Spaniard’s record at converting such chances had been remarkable all season. His unchallenged volley was despatched with the efficiency of a clerk filing a ledger on a bookshelf – in its rightful place, of course – and capped the one luminous moment of the half. It meant that the home side went into the interval 1-0 up, and deservedly so.
Arsenal’s half time reflections may have been pithier than their oranges. The problem for Wenger, of course, was that his men were being stifled by the press. That suspect spine, again, coshed and cowed by the hectoring hosts? Coquelin ceding ground to the alpha male Fellaini. Koscielny and Mertesacker caught like brothel-chumps in a raid for United’s goal. Ozil dreaming of Rilke behind the godforsaken striker. And Giroud..? Well, the peanuts he’d been tossed would have made a monkey jibber. For a side sometimes lauded as an example to the rest Arsenal had been a weak wet Wednesday of an opposition, so far. Van Gaal might himself have been less than cock-a-hoop with what he’d seen in the opening period, but it was clearly Arsenal who needed to tickle themselves into shape.
But if the first half was United’s, the second belonged to the visitors – or the crucial last half hour, at least. The resumption of play saw a clear advance up the line by the Arsenal full backs, Bellerin and Monreal, and at first the Reds seemed to scent cake in the spaces in behind: the dolphin flippering keenly up the left, the fox sniffing the breeze as he prowled the right. The Reds were unable to seize the initiative, however, as their aspiring triangles came apart like dejected Meccano; the balance of play began to drift the other way. This seemed very much due to the rising influence of Ramsey, yet another of Wenger’s stars with the chops to change games at the highest level.
The Welshman had had a quiet first period, but now became animated in his artistry. The twenty-four year-old could be an imperious influence with the wind at his back, a full-toolkit midfielder of the old box-to-box type, melding tireless running and shrewd tackling with a nascent, aristocratic technique. It was no secret that he coveted a central role, rather than the right-midfield slot he’d been delegated today, and it was conspicuous, in that light, that his interventions from within the centre circle began to shape the game in Arsenal’s favour: dinking the ball through Herrera’s legs before swazzing an extravagant through-pass for Giroud with the outside of his right boot; executing a bombshell hairpin turn, as if there were a spotlight on him, now, and the stage was all his own. The game was more open, now – faster, and more spacious – but now it was United who looked to be flagging from the exertion of enforcing the press; the hosts were finding themselves backed-up like heisted shop tellers inside their own premises.
Van Persie came on for Falcao, who gave a valedictory wave as he exited which evoked the look of a man recently walked-in on in the water closet. The Gunners brought on Walcott for Bellerin – as the beleaguered Coquelin was redeployed in the back line – and Wilshere for Cazorla, who had also been uncharacteristically uninfluential. Then De Gea snagged a hamstring stretching for a ball across his six yard box and had to be replaced by Victor Valdes: the former Barca stopper who’d been warming the bench for the past seven months after a knee injury curtailed a successful career in Catalonia; Van Gaal chose that moment to introduce the youngster Tyler Blackett for Rojo at left-back, who had seemed to be doing well, though his manager claimed later that he was lacking “match rhythm” following a recent injury. Some new faces, a few cards thrown up in the air, then…but as it turned out the way they came down seemed only to tighten the Londoners’ grip on the encounter.
Immediately, Walcott began to test Blackett down the right, as though it was the newcomer’s first day at Full Back School: a cut inside seemed to catch the young defender unprepared, as though a tack to the left was the last thing he expected from the right-sided winger, even one as two-footed – and indeed as given to cutting inside – as Walcott. If there was an alarm bell to be heard upon this development there was precious little time to act on it. Moments later Ramsey released Walcott again with a glorious long diagonal from the centre, and the wide man immediately showed it to the left-back – did he fancy another trip inside? – before this time stealing half a yard on him on the right. Half a yard was enough. His shot was unleashed from an acute angle, and the defender’s attempt to block it was inevitably tardy, serving only to deflect the ball wickedly from a far-post to a near-post trajectory. Valdes, deceived and twisted, fell back on his haunches and flung out a paw, but the ball was past him and he was powerless to prevent it from passing him, into the net.
1-1. And so it remained. Not a classic but there were reminders of the prevailing order of things: United more determined to stymie than recapture recent virtues; Arsenal offering reminders of their class once Ramsey finally rolled up his sleeves. If Giroud had been able to capitalise on the Welshman’s ambrosial late through-ball then the Gunners might have taken all three points. Then again, Van Persie skied a half chance on his weaker right foot, though few would have been surprised to see him fat-finger the hero button in the face of his resentful former club: the fate of the Flailing Dutchman was one strand of a knot of questions for Van Gaal to tug at over the coming summer months.
The result meant that a further point for the Gunners from their remaining two fixtures would effectively be enough to earn them that coveted third-place finish. It would be the Champions League qualifiers for United, in that case, and an early start to the European campaign this coming August. As players and staff circled the touchline to applaud the fans, it was natural to reflect on the contradictions of Van Gaal’s first season in charge at Old Trafford: the restless experimenting, the foundering talents, all those treacly, slow tempo games; the maladjusted Di Maria…there he was, swaddled-up in a cheerless club anorak, looking like whippet forced into a coat for the very first time…where would he be the other side of the coming break?; the porcelain Van Persie, just two seasons ago the saviour, now seemingly a mocking shadow of his imperious former self…was he another waving farewell on his way to the exit?; the resilient Rooney, smiling like a potato with his young son, Kai, toddling alongside…goalless since April 4, yet having ridden the knocks once again when so many sought to write him off as ‘done’…well, there at least was one candidate we could expect to be sticking around. Not so De Gea, of course, with his feathery, anvil jaw and that appalling faux-hawk haircut…on his arrival in 2011 he’d seemed such a calamity that bodyguards had to be posted to protect him from being roughed up at corners. Now, with the bright lights of the Bernebeu winking at him, he was the unanimous choice as United’s player of the season: an extravagantly gifted shot-stopper with clairvoyant reactions and redoubtable granite hands. If he went, who could come in to replace him who would be remotely as dependable? Just how many points the Spaniard had earned for the side, this term, was a matter for debate, but few would deny a major contribution to the tally.
One fixture still to play – a trip to Steve Bruce’s relegation-threatened Hull City, seven days hence – and fourth place virtually assured. Played 37; Won 20; Drawn 9; Lost 8. Goals scored 62; Goals conceded 37. Top scorer Rooney with 14 in all competitions. More goals – for what it was worth – had been bagged under Moyes.
“You…have been amazing…” announced Van Gaal though the Old Trafford sound system, having been handed a cordless microphone on the pitch. His navy club blazer bore a crest so ornately grand it would make an Air Chief Marshall’s look like a jeans patch. The folks in the stands sang on regardless, not seeming to listen to their leader, and you wondered how much they had taken the Dutch genius to their hearts.
“…especially for me,” he added, as if a quick personalising of the matter would silence them.
Later, with a TV camera in front of him, he seemed no less full of the joys; that fabled solipsism bubbling unexpectedly to the surface. “Fantastic!” he declared, with more enthusiasm than seemed apt. “How shall it be,” he asked, as though conjuring the inevitable, as if we hadn’t just lived through nine months of purgatory with a brief weekend at Pontins towards the end of it. “How shall it be,” he asked, quite shamelessly, “when we are the champions?”