For many reasons, Manchester United's 2014/15 season can only be accurately labelled at the end of 2015/16. Having been 'excused' with a transition season under David Moyes, the stay of execution was extended into the Louis van Gaal era, albeit with modifications. United were not expected to win the title but this time had to make the Champions League places as a matter of necessity in terms of the implications on and off the pitch.
Louis van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford just days after he had guided Netherlands to an impressive punch-above-their-weight 3rd place finish at the World Cup in Brazil. Taking the reigns officially on 16th July meant that for the second season in a row United were left way behind by their rivals in terms of the meticulous planning that should go into the transfer window. With a squad full of dead wood from the David Moyes era and desperate for balance, the manager had a job on his hands to get the squad in shape within a month that also included an unhealthy number of commercial-filled pre-season friendlies across the pond.
United did find time though to complete the club's most lucrative transfer window with Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria and the shocker of them all, Radamel Falcao (loan) each putting pen to paper for a total of 150 million pound sterling. If nothing had happened to usher in the new regime at that point, the flood of new arrivals right to the death of the transfer window and the numerous departures that included (but was by means limited to) Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa, and local lad Danny Welbeck definitely did.
Suffice it is to say then that the playing personnel at Manchester United became finite on the 2nd of September, some three games into the new season. Not without consequences though. United would get off to their worst start in the Premier league era that included an opening day home defeat to Swansea City. When MK Dons thrashed a decent United side 4-0 in the Capital One Cup, you'd have been forgiven for thinking that Louis van Gaal was determined to out-do David Moyes. Indeed, 10 points from the opening 13 games saw United ruled out of any title race at the dawn of November.
It has to be mentioned though that it was very apparent from early on that United had not quite got the balance in the squad that they would have addressed with a more meticulous summer window. The 4-0 home victory over QPR that had many of the new signings make their debuts was the exhibition of attacking talent available. That exhibition would spill over into the first 65 minutes at the King Power stadium. United suddenly had an exhilarating verve about their approach play that a that moment, yours truly thought we were going to walk the league.
What happened beyond that 65th minute at Leicester defined 2/3 of the rest of the season. Having started the campaign with a back 3 that had treated us so well in pre-season, van Gaal modified it to include 'defensive wing-backs', if you may, in Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Rafael's injury list made it easy to relieve him of right back duties whilst Luke Shaw was told that he was not up to the required Manchester United fitness levels. In making those choices, van Gaal quickly developed trusted generals, in a formation (that changed when defending and changed in attack) that was designed not necessarily to win games but definitely not to lose them. Into the wilderness of the bench went Ander Herrera and Juan Mata and in came the hitherto injured Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini who suddenly became useful in the eyes of the boss after one Monday night second half display at the Hawthorns on at the end of October.
As fans cried out for the manager to reflect the club's traditions of risk and reward, van Gaal stifled Angel Di Maria, emphasised ball retention and steered United through a run of just 2 defeats in 23 games to take and then keep United into the top 4 albeit without looking likely to mount a title challenge. In contrast to the thrilling stuff at the start of September, this was dull and lifeless football that was geared towards safe results more than anything. Unfortunately for the fans, this was to remain the case for the longest chunk of the season.
We drew with Tottenham Hotspur over the festive season (in a game we admittedly should have won) and lost at home to Southampton. Every other opponent was well within our means (yes including Arsenal at the Emirates!) and yet we still contrived to drop points at a hapless Aston Villa, at Stoke and at West Ham.
The common denominator in those dropped points is being away from home. Old Trafford quickly became our points haven-cum-heaven. Indeed, our first away win of the season came in the most fortuitous circumstances at Arsenal. The Gunners had United under siege for the entire first half before a Gibbs own goal via a deflection from an Antonio Valencia drive opened the scoring. That luck revisited us at St. Mary's stadium to come away with 2 goals from our only two shots on target by Robin van Persie. The highlight of the first half of the season however was a glorious 3-0 thumping of Liverpool at old Trafford in a revenge-scripted encounter. It was those results, added to a credible draw at home with the Chelsea that, more than anything, kept buying Louis van Gaal just enough credit in the bank at a time when the fans were slowly getting unnerved by his persistence with a 3 at the back system. It wasn't just about the 3-5-2 though, many players were desperately out of position, no least the captain Wayne Rooney who is not up to the task in midfield in ways that say Ander Herrera, sat on the bench at the time would have been. And so by the time the fans chanted for a 4-4-2 in a drab-looking away match at QPR, the sight of Phil Jones preparing to take a corner kick must should not have shocked us as much as it did.
And then. Everything suddenly clicked. The penny finally dropped or call it what you like but all the work into the manager's much proclaimed and acclaimed philosophy (Can't believe I got this far without mentioning it) bore fruit. The irony is that this happened at the most daunting phase of our season. In truth, that run of 2 defeats in 23 games hardly manifested top tier opposition. United were suddenly faced with a run of fixtures that included Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal (FA Cup), Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal (league) in the space of 7 weeks!
If any of us had been given a pick of the period in which to suddenly click into life, we'd all have taken that run. In hindsight, that run of wins saved our season. In beating Spurs at Old Trafford, we effectively took them out of the race for the Champions League. In beating Liverpool at Anfield, we knocked them off their newly-acquired bearings that had threatened to aid them to displace us in 4th. Between Juan Mata's brace at Anfield and the end the season, Liverpool won just 2 games to the end, having been unbeaten since they left Old Trafford in early December. In winning the Manchester derby quite handsomely, we restored pride and made our trip to Stamford Bridge irrelevant in the context of a top 4 finish.
The downside is that we seemed to tail off at the end when the games became easier and a top 4 place seemed a formality. Losing consecutive games to Chelsea (understandable), Everton (unacceptable) and West Brom (unacceptable) led to a confirmation of observations and indeed an admission by the manager that his philosophy was so far suited to games when the opposition attacked United. Breaking down teams that sit back and hit on the counter remains the only incomplete phase of Louis van Gaal's methods. It is something that you hope is addressed in pre-season and by extension the transfer window so that it is not carried into the new campaign.
United's golden victory in the context of the season's target came at Crystal Palace when a hard-fought 2-1 victory all but sealed our place in the Champions League for next term. To achieve it with a couple of games to spare was probably down to the manner in which our rivals for that position fell apart but United, in finishing top in the elite league of games against the top six, fully merited their place.
When the post-mortem was tallied, Radamel Falcao's 4 goals for the season were not enough to earn him permanent terms. Angel Di Maria, despite 10 assists, struggled to justify his club and league record transfer fee for various
Collectively, United struggled to score as many and as ruthlessly as their talent demands. United's weaknesses in defence have been well documented throughout the season but we were heavily out-scored by the rest of the members of the top four. That Wayne finishes as our top scorer with 12 is in itself an indictment. Whereas Wayne can be excused having had to contend with midfield duties most of the season, he has not really lit up the world when he has played there. The following campaign will be three games old when he hits 29. Robin van Persie is already on the wrong end of 30 whilst James Wilson could yet be loaned out next season. It leaves United, for all their attacking prowess on paper, short of a consistent goal threat for next term. Indeed the midfield has been the highest contributor of goals this season for the first time since 2007 (when Cristiano Ronaldo made it difficult to categorise strikers and midfielders). All the sides above us in the league have had a main striker that has notched 15 plus in the league and 20 plus in all competitions. The arrival of Memphis Depay probably goes a mile into solving that problem but you feel there is need for a more consistent goal threat up front.
It will not have gone unnoticed that United seemed to lose an attitude about them that has defined the club. Even though the boss made reference to the 'spirit' of the players over the course of the season in getting United that 4th spot, there were hardly any 'spirited' comebacks over the course of the season. All too often, United seemed to crumble into their shells whenever they went a goal down. It is not to suggest that there was no in-game come-back at all. Far from it. The desire shown to get back after going behind in home games against Chelsea and City as well as the late points secured at the Hawthorns and at Upton Park was commendable but that is barely a handful of games and yet we've needed that never say die attitude more times than we can care to remember during the season.
Indeed, it was not until Preston North End in the FA Cup Fifth Round in February that United won a game under Louis van Gaal in which they had gone behind first.
The Cup runs were poor even though we exited the FA Cup at the quarterfinal stage at the hands of the potential winners, Arsenal. MK Dons made sure our League Cup run was over even before it started. Regardless Arsenal's lucky scalp at Old Trafford to take our place in the FA Cup semi-final, Yeovil Town, Cambridge United and Preston North End had done enough to expose our flaws even with their collectively meagre resources.
The club also suffered a plethora of injuries throughout the season to key players. It is an issue that has not been addressed at the club for quite a while since Sir Alex's final years. There is no doubt for instance that United would have easily made the top two if they had Michael Carrick fit for as long as Chelsea have had John Terry. Often times it is such details that make the big points difference between clubs at the end of the season. Here's to better luck next term.
Ultimately though, Manchester United and Louis van Gaal achieved the season's target in making the top 4 but 2014/15 should ideally be looked back on as a transition season; a first step in recovery from the wretched season under David Moyes. Whether we shall accurately look back on it as such however, depends on whether United kick on in 2015/16 and mount a title challenge next year in a bid to win our trophy back.
Player of the Season - Ashley Young
Goal of the Season - Juan Mata vs Liverpool (a)
Signing of the Season - Ander Herrera
Best Academy Breakthrough - Patrick McNair
As has been the policy of this blog, there shall be no reaction to rumours throughout the summer regarding the club's transfer business. However, as always, an evaluation of the window is provided just before the season gets underway. United head over the United States again in 50 days or so for a shorter pre-season for games against Club America, San Jose Earthquakes, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona.
Till then, cheers!