Manchester United may just be a small cloud of dust in the rear-view mirror of league leaders Chelsea, who lie eight points ahead, but one that’s getting bigger and coming closer with every passing game.
More than a month ago, when the two sides met at Old Trafford, there was a gulf-and-a-half between them, with Chelsea threatening to steer eight points clear of nearest rivals Southampton and United in the bottom half.
It needed a poaching striker’s goal from Robin van Persie in stoppage time to grab a deserved point for United, after regimentally labouring for 90 minutes to contain Jose Mourinho’s men to their 1-0 lead.
That draw had ignited the engine that Louis van Gaal had begun to construct since his appointment in the summer.
It may have taken longer than his stipulated three months, but van Gaal’s United are well up and running after their 2-1 win over Southampton on Monday evening, making it their fifth consecutive win since their 1-0 defeat in the Manchester Derby last month.
The two back-to-back results against Chelsea and Manchester City paved the way for United, who have struggled to adapt to the new manager’s philosophy, along with coping with an unenviable injury list.
However, after making their way from 10th in the table a month ago to third as the league enters the busy Christmas period, you can’t help but begin to feel that Van Gaal knows what he is doing.
Ugly wins, but wins nonetheless
Of United’s five consecutive wins, except for their 3-0 thrashing of Hull City, none have been convincing. They’ve been scrappy, lucky, opportunistic, grabbing the daylight-robbery variety of wins seen before only in the Alex Ferguson era.
Suddenly, everything seems to be falling into place.
Mind you, United are still nowhere near the finished product. Four of their last five results could have easily gone the other way and if they had, this column would probably be laying into Van Gaal.
United were abysmal in their passing against Southampton, only saved by their opposition’s own sloppiness, as was the case against Arsenal two weeks ago.
The absence of the injured Angel Di Maria in the midfield for the last couple of games robbed them from creativity down the middle of the pitch. United still managed to move along only due to the experience and precision off the feet of Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney.
A serpentine injury list (Chris Smalling became the season’s 42nd casualty on Sunday) left aside, the players are still finding their feet with Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system, after being ingrained with the club’s traditional 4-4-2.
There are still some areas the manager will want to strengthen, particularly the back line. The squad’s depth has been subject to an acid test, with various combinations tried and tested, more by force than choice.
But even with a fragile backbone, inconsistent performances, new philosophies and lesser attempts on goal in a match since such statistics began being accumulated, United have stuttered sputtered to third place in December, just five points behind neighbours City.
What’s working for the Red Devils is the gritty, never-say-die attitude that they seem to have rediscovered. They may not be the well-oiled machine yet, rather the old, clunky variety, but are nonetheless managing to cruise along.
With their current winning momentum, can United close the gap on City and Chelsea, and—dare anyone say it—actually have a shot at the title?
A quick glance at United’s next 10 league fixtures which will take them to the first week of February suggests that their real title credentials would be clear by then.
Between now and February 10, these are United’s league fixtures: Liverpool (home), Aston Villa (away), Newcastle (home), Spurs (away), Stoke (away), Southampton (home), QPR (away), Leicester (home), West Ham (away), Burnley (home).
Van Gaal would be hoping he has a few of his injured players back by then, with the possibility of having a few reinforcements in the January transfer window as well.
If United are still rubbing shoulders with City and Chelsea come February, never say never. It would be quite remarkable, considering a month ago the most optimistic person wouldn’t even have dreamt of it.
However, considering the nature of their last five wins, United’s biggest enemy right now would be complacency. It only takes a gentle blow to bring down a house of cards.
Photo courtesy: Paulo Camera (Creative Commons)