As we reach yet another international break, United remain in 2nd position, albeit 8 points adrift of City and although performances have not been of the highest quality throughout it has to be seen as an improvement from the past 4 seasons. Jose Mourinho has spent a fortune creating a squad that is hopefully once again good enough to mount a serious title challenge, but there is one man that maybe should be recognised more for the improvement in position who is actually no longer part of the club.
When Louis Van Gaal departed after the FA cup final win in 2016, most were pleased to see the back of him. The cup win was not enough to mask what was on the whole a disappointing league campaign that was full of slow, boring and predictable football. For all his faults that season, everyone at that football club needs to recognise the impact he has had on this current squad.
The standout performers this season
If fans were asked to name players who have performed this season, top of the list would probably be Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, both of whom started life at Old Trafford under the management of LVG. Martial was brought to the club in the summer of 2015 under much criticism of the money spent in him but he was a revelation that season, leading the line and then being deployed out wide after the emergence of Rashford. Under Mourinho he did not seem to have the same level of confidence in him but this season he is back to his best and playing more games. It was LVG who noticed how much talent this young man possessed and had the confidence to bring him to the club for a big fee and I think he will be a star for many years to come for club and country. His current position of left wing is not where he started or maybe even prefers to play, but under the Dutchman’s mentorship he was first deployed there and is a huge threat to any full back. I find it hard to fathom Mourinho taking the punt on him if he had been in charge in 2015 as he maybe doesn’t fit the “Mourinho style”. I don’t remember Mourinho splashing cash on a someone as young and less well known as Martial and instead this could have been another one of those foreign stars we only wish we could see take to the field at Old Trafford.
The Frenchman’s change of position has much to do with Rashford. I know the cynics amongst us will say that Rashford’s inclusion was largely down to luck that season following an unexpected injury to Martial in the warm-up which resulted in the youngster’s promotion to the starting 11, but LVG still had the confidence to include him in the squad in the first place and then to throw him in at such late notice. Knowing Mourinho’s history of bringing through youth team players, I once again believe this may not have happened under his leadership and instead Rashford may be on another season long loan at a Championship club. Since that night at Old Trafford has been a revelation for club and country since he burst in the scene and how lucky we are to see 2 such talented youngsters grace the Theatre of Dreams. This is all down to one man, but this seems to be forgotten. Obviously Mourinho has to be given credit for sticking with them, but after that 2015/16 season he had no real choice. However, what he has done is move him from the central position and now uses him on the wing, where he still produces good performances. I would have loved United to build the side around him as the main striker and who knows, if LVG had been given the chance of a third season, this could well have happened. I got the idea of using Zlatan Ibrahimovic to give Rashford a season to learn from the world class experience, but then to go and sign a young striker this summer, basically rules Rashford out of the striker role for the next 5 years. I am not saying Romelu Lukaku is a bad striker but Rashford could be even better and unfortunately we may never know.
On top of these 2, LVG also brought other players to the club that have made a big influence on Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford. Daley Blind played in the Europa League final and is a key squad player due to his versatility, Marcos Rojo played a huge part in last season’s success, forming a key partnership with Phil Jones, Matteo Darmian was a key defensive option last season and the biggest of the lot, Ander Herrera, who was United’s player of last season. Herrera had a huge part to play in the “Special One’s” midfield, especially when he wanted to set up defensively, which is his preference in the big games at least. One of the big stars in the Europa League success was Sergio Romero, often praised by Mourinho for his performances and quality. When rumours of David De Gea moving to Real Madrid resurfaced, as they do every summer, Mourinho always seemed confident that Romero would be a more than suitable replacement, often mentioning that he is the best number 2 keeper in world football. Juts in case you are not sure, he was also a signing of the Dutchman. Of course LVG did not always get it right with signings, with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin, 3 of his bigger signings, all being moved on since his departure.
The LVG impact doesn’t stop purely at his signings, there are certain aspects of the current squad that have a LVG stamp on them, that maybe currently get taken for granted. A good example of this is Antonio Valencia, played the majority of his time at Old Trafford as Cristiano Ronaldo’s replacement and had some successful seasons playing out wide. But under LVG he found himself playing second fiddle to the more creative flair players and was then used more in a defensive capacity at right back. He played there in ahead of Rafael in LVG’s first season, but had some initial problems positionally, which let him and the side down too often. The Arsenal quarter final FA cup defeat that season was a clear sign of this, where he was caught out positionally for the Nacho Monreal goal. The arrival of Darmian resulted in Valencia losing hi spot at right back, but he finished the season as first choice, playing there in the cup final win. Van Gaal’s vision to play the Ecuador international there was genius and under Mourinho’s defensive tuition he has become one of the best right backs in the league, if not Europe.
Other crucial members of the squad were defined by the Dutchman, such as Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and even to an extent Marouane Fellaini. Mata struggled to make an impact at Old Trafford when David Moyes was in charge, but LVG found a spot for him out on the right where Mata undoubtedly put in some of his best performances in United red. That is the position he has continued to play under Mourinho, also providing the space for Valencia to get forward and into attacking positions. Jesse Lingard was very much on his way out of Old Trafford until LVG brought him in for his first game in charge. Although the game ended badly for both Lingard and United, it was clear Van Gaal saw something in him to keep him at the club and into his second season, he played a huge part in the cup success, scoring the winner in extra time. Mourinho continues to be a fan of Lingard, although technically less gifted than some other youngsters, what he gives back in passion, heart and effort can not be underestimated. In Fellaini, the supporters have always struggled to take to him. Under Moyes he was poor but towards the end of Van Gaal’s first season and into the second, he began to get good performances from him, using him as a key player in the midfield to link play up. Mourinho has always talked up Fellaini’s abilities and uses him in the exact same way that Van Gaal did, a little further up the field, using his physical presence to win the ball and then be a complete handful in both boxes. It may not be pretty but he is very effective.
It is normal for a new manager to work with the old managers squad of players, but for the amount of money spent over the last 2 summers, you would have expected this to be very much a Mourinho side, with full of Mourinho players, playing the Mourinho way. Instead, he is still relying on a large bulk of the thinking and methods of his predecessor and some may argue made them less threatening. The successes of last season and the first 11 games this season all have a Van Gaal link and for all his failings during his reign, maybe he was just starting to build a side that could go on to mount a more serious title challenge than what the so say “special one” is currently doing.