Manchester United - 11 reasons the Red Devils have gone from struggling to swaggering
Less than two months ago, Manchester United had lost 2-1 at Swansea, were eight points behind local rivals City and about to be knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal. Now, they have won six league games in a row - including the 4-2 derby demolition of City - and are looking nailed on to finish in the top three. How has Louis van Gaal effect the transformation?
1. Ashley Young is back from the dead
Ashley Young has been United’s outstanding player over the past month, with his attacking flair returning, but combined with a crucial defensive work ethic down the left flank. The 29-year-old is now one of Louis van Gaal’s most important players.
2. Di Maria is out of the firing line
Angel di Maria’s red card in the FA Cup defeat against Arsenal led to the £59.7m winger being suspended for the victory against Tottenham, but United have benefited from being without the inconsistent Argentine, who had become more of a weak link than lethal weapon.
3. Daley Blind has found his niche
With Luke Shaw injured again, Daley Blind’s move from midfield to left-back has not only given United defensive solidity and composure, but also taken the Dutchman’s caution out of the centre of midfield, enabling Van Gaal to be bolder with his options.
4. Michael Carrick is playing like United's Andrea Pirlo
Michael Carrick is in his ninth year at Old Trafford, but only now is his midfield quality being appreciated as a crucial ingredient in the team. Carrick’s confidence on the ball and ability to create and maintain possession is on a par with Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo.
5. Van Gaal is trusting Juan Mata...
Juan Mata has appeared to be a square peg in a round hole for much of his time at United since arriving from Chelsea in Jan 2014, with Louis van Gaal unconvinced by his work-rate and overall contribution, but the Spaniard’s creativity, energy and tenacity - and goals - have been key in recent weeks.
6. ...and trusting Ander Herrera
Ander Herrera has become the darling of Old Trafford since being restored to the team by Van Gaal, but the £28.8m summer signing from Athletic Bilbao has had to work hard to overcome his sceptical manager. With his confidence rocketing, Herrera has now nailed down a regular position in midfield.
7. Van Persie's injury has released Rooney
United have won six successive Premier League games, scoring 15 goals in that run, since Robin van Persie was struck down by an ankle injury in the 2-1 defeat at Swansea on Feb 21. Without the Dutchman, Wayne Rooney has become the focal point of the attack and United have not missed the former Arsenal striker.
8. Fellaini is playing like a £27.5m player
United supporters chanted Marouane Fellaini’s name for the first time following his goal in the derby win against City. At the start of this season, the Belgian was booed in a friendly against Valencia, but his fighting spirit and refusal to buckle has impressed Van Gaal, who admits Fellaini is now undroppable.
9. United have rediscovered their self-belief
Football can be over-complicated at times, with systems and tactics pored over in search of the reasons for this or the reasons for that, but one crucial element of United’s renaissance is simply the confidence of winning. The team is now flowing with belief as a result of huge results against big rivals.
10. Jones and Smalling are finally making progress
Since Chris Smalling and Phil Jones marked Tottenham’s Harry Kane out of the game during the 3-0 win at Old Trafford last month, the England pair have formed a partnership which, four years after being viewed as United’s long-term successor to the Ferdinand-Vidic axis, suggests it may yet be the answer. There is still work to do, but the signs are good.
11. Rooney is playing his part
When Wayne Rooney plays well, Manchester United play well, so it is no surprise that the team’s resurgence has coincided with the captain returning to form in his favoured centre-forward role. The 29-year-old’s recent contribution has been immense.