Manchester United’s stalemate draw at Hull brought the curtain down on Louis Van Gaal’s first season at the club. Following nine months of highs and lows, United are again on the Champions League’s doorstep after a year-long hiatus and, so far, it is a case of job done for the Dutchman.
However, while United have laid the foundations for their future, a lot of work remains to be done if Van Gaal is to transform his side from also-rans to title challengers in 2015-16.
Here’s five positives and five negatives from this season.
1) Signings – the bad
The £150m Van Gaal spent last summer quickly became a stick with which the media repeatedly beat the Dutchman his team, as United dragged themselves through the first six months of the season.
Angel Di Maria, the club’s record signing, hit the ground running after arriving at Old Trafford but that proved to be a false dawn, as the Argentine quickly lost himself amid a catalogue of fitness problems and rumours linking him with a move away from United.
When fit, Luke Shaw impressed and seemed to justify the fee paid for him in the summer but, unfortunately for the England international, those occasions were few and far between. Radamel Falcao, meanwhile, arrived amid high expectations, huffed and puffed in a bid to prove his worth but will ultimately depart as a rather expensive flop.
2) Signings – the good
Marcos Rojo was troubled by injuries throughout his first campaign in England but the Argentine defender showed plenty of promise and should become a cornerstone of United’s defence from next season.
Daley Blind’s versatility and tactical diligence make him exactly the sort of player every team needs and the kind of figure United had missed for too long, while Ander Herrera, after a difficult start, has gone on to become an instant hero.
A goalscoring midfielder – six goals in just 18 Premier League starts – with the ability to spot a pass and who’s not afraid to tackle, what’s not to like?
Throughout the season, Van Gaal complained about not being able to play with a settled back four due to a shocking injury record and the numbers tell a sorry tale. Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans missed 14 matches, Phil Jones and Rafael 15, Chris Smalling six and Luke Shaw 22, while Antonio Valencia and Paddy McNair missed three games each.
United’s injury curse struck in midfield and up-front as well and they’ll need to sort their fitness issues out if they’re to mount a title challenge next season.
4) David De Gea – the good
The Spaniard, who was ever-present in United’s Premier League campaign until he was forced off the field against Arsenal, deservedly scooped the player of the season award for the second consecutive campaign.
The 24-year-old has developed into a world class keeper and bailed his team out time and again during this season, keeping 10 league clean sheets in the process, despite playing behind an at times embarrassing back four.
5) David De Gea – the (potentially) bad
United have a fight on their hands to keep De Gea at the club in the summer but, even more importantly, they must ensure a world class replacement is signed immediately if the Spaniard leaves.
Losing De Gea would be a massive blow, allow a repeat of the scenario that followed Peter Schmeichel’s departure, when the club scrambled around for years to find a suitable replacement, would be calamitous.
United might not have played the free-flowing, exhilarating football many demanded and expected at the start of the season, but Van Gaal has successfully instilled some good, old-fashioned, self-belief in his side.
United came back from losing positions five times to earn a point and overturned a one-goal deficit to beat City 4-2 in April. Even more importantly, after spending last season folding like a pack of cards, United won 12 points by scoring in the last 20 minutes of a match. A sign, perhaps, that the good old habits are slowly returning.
Along with the self-belief, the swagger of old momentarily returned during the season. It took United just 45 minutes to have the better of Spurs and the 2-1 win against Liverpool in March was described by Gary Neville as one of the best United performances he had seen at Anfield.
A few weeks later, United put City to the sword in a way they had not done in a couple of seasons and, despite a raft of injuries, they were unlucky to leave Stamford Bridge empty-handed late in April.
After a season when they were urged to aspire to be like City, United boasted the best record against the other five teams in the top six of the table and are definitely on the right track.
With Michael Carrick on the pitch, Manchester United won 72% of their games, a ratio that drops to a mere 35% without the former Spurs man.
Carrick will be 34 in July and, for all his brilliance, United simply can’t afford to be so reliant on a single player, particularly considering that if they qualify for the Champions League proper they’ll have to play at least eight more games – playoffs included – than this season.
Teams that are over-reliant on a single player are ultimately destined to fail. United have – just – got away with it this season but they can’t afford a similar scenario in 2015-16.
While they did not entertain, United were remarkably consistent between November and March, when they lost just three games out of 23 in all competitions. However, while such runs are not to be sniffed at, United lacked the cutting edged to “win ugly” when it mattered, as they drew away at Villa, Spurs, Stoke and West Ham and lost to Swansea.
Similarly, having found themselves five clear of City with six games to go, United picked up a meagre four points from their following five games, an unacceptable run that almost threatened their top-four finish.
As Chelsea have shown this season, the ability to get over the line is crucial for any side with genuine aspirations of success and beating their main rivals is an ultimately futile exercise unless points are put on the board against smaller clubs.
10) A new lease of life
Before the season started, few expected Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini to stick around and even less could have predicted their incredible turnaround in form. The pair have gone from pantomime villains to crucial figure of Van Gaal’s team and while new arrivals should mean the duo will have to fight for their places they definitely deserve a chance next season.
Meanwhile, Juan Mata might not quite yet be the player he was at Chelsea but the Spaniard has been increasingly more influential and involved as his nine goals in 26 league appearances confirm and will be a key player for United next season.
If Van Gaal has managed to inject new life into the trio, there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to perform the same magic with Angel Di Maria.
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