Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dismissed any idea that complacency would creep into his side in their FA Cup semi-final against second tier Reading on Saturday.
Reaction after FC Porto claim a surprise 3-1 win over Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday.
Manchester United have won their last six Premier League games, have convincingly beaten three of the top six teams in the country in the last four weeks and can close the gap on leaders Chelsea to five points with a victory at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, that doesn’t look so farfetched anymore.
However, still Louis van Gaal has his detractors, that this upturn in form is not necessarily all his doing and how a manager of nearly 30 years experience at some of the world’s biggest clubs has somehow stumbled upon a winning formula.
In this newspaper last month, we questioned whether United have improved under the Dutchman. Six games down the line the answer has to be an unequivocal yes, and while nothing has been achieved yet, a return to the Champions League looks all-but confirmed.
Van Gaal made a rod for his own back on arrival by using the word ‘philosophy’. English football struggles with any words of more than three syllables and it has been used as a stick to beat him with.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 1, 2015
But it was always going to take time. Not just for the players to learn what he wanted, but for the manager himself to get used to the league, the language and the individual personalities within his squad.
Of course, there have been mitigating circumstances in terms of injuries while Van Gaal tinkered and experimented with his side.
And, yes, neither Marouane Fellaini or Juan Mata were ‘his signings’, but so what? At least Van Gaal has had the gumption to realise he doesn’t have the players, a backthree and that shoe-horning Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie into the same side might look good on paper but not on grass.
Ashley Young’s reemergence as a player of genuine class and guile in the Premier League is not coincidence.
He’s been treading water for the last 18 months. Confidence has played a part but, at the same time, Van Gaal’s clear and concise instructions and system and Young’s ability to play within that has helped him rediscover his best form and, whisper it quietly, he may now even be a better player than he ever was. That is no coincidence. It’s outstanding coaching.
Watching Gary Neville’s brilliant post-mortem of the 4-2 win over Manchester City on Sky Sports (seek it out, it really is worth 30 minutes of your time) also revealed another considerable tick next to Van Gaal’s name: what he’s done with Rooney.
The turnaround from Valencia, Young and Fellaini is incredible. Tremendous faith from Van Gaal. #MUFC
— Peter Hall (@PeteHall86) April 12, 2015
Van Persie’s injury may or may not have helped re-establish him as United’s main striker but while that remains debatable what is crystal clear is that Van Gaal has done in nine months what Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t do: turn Rooney into a tactically-disciplined footballer.
So often used to haring around the field, popping up at right-back one minute, centre midfield the next, winning tackles, it’s part of what endears him to so many. The all-action street footballer made good.
But as United often witnessed in big Champions League matches and England in major international tournaments, it can be counterproductive, breaking down any kind of tactical shape and system.
Against City – a derby tailormade for his approach – Rooney barely featured on the ball, his 35 touches his lowest ever for a Premier League match as a starter. However, his effect off the ball was devastating, pulling Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis apart to make space for the runs of Young, Mata and Ander Herrera.
It is no small achievement that Van Gaal has installed a new level of discipline in Rooney who, at the age of 29, also deserves huge credit for how he has adapted.
Chris Smalling, also exceptional against City, was a figure of fun at the start of the season, but is now emerging as a defensive leader and organiser.
These are not the result of an arm around the shoulder and a few uplifting speeches in the dressing room. It’s work on the training ground and getting players to know their roles within a clever but easy-to-understand framework.
Footballers, in the main, have short-attention spans. We all watch games saying this player should do that, and should be positioned here etc. but many a coach has failed at their inability to properly convey their ideas.
Tactical knowledge is all well and good but if you can’t communicate it correctly – especially in England where it’s often seen as an alien concept – it becomes pointless and, ultimately, damaging. We’re now starting to see just what makes Van Gaal so special.