Had you offered any average Manchester United fan at the start of the season third in the Premier League table, just five points behind second place with 25 games played, they would have shook your hand and walked away smiling.
The fallout from David Moyes’ doomed tenure in the Old Trafford hot-seat had produced a shock and awe reaction that wouldn’t have been any more severe had you left the Glazers locked in a boardroom with a pack of hungry wolves. It’s fair to assume very few had expected such an abhorrent backlash from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, and even fewer had anticipated just how ill-equipped Moyes would be for the job.
So grand was the scale of disappointment that even when Louis van Gaal assumed authority last summer and was quickly given an enviable transfer war-chest to work with, expectations were confined to a top four finish.
The Dutchman wasn’t charged with winning the league or proving United are the better team in Manchester; he was simply told to get them back into Europe’s premier club competition.
At the moment he’s doing a pretty good job all things considered. If, and I say this without any bias, Chelsea and Manchester City are perceived to be a rung above all others in the Premier League due to financial advantages and unique squad depth, then United are busy consolidating their position as the best of the rest for this term.
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Is it truly good enough though? The general opinion would infer not. Whilst in a world where statistics and attractive football count for nothing United are well on their way to becoming a dominant force once again, as they’ve become eerily efficient at picking up points whilst playing poorly, that doesn’t seem to be enough for the fans.
Supporters of the club Sir Alex Ferguson helped turn into one of the most popular on the planet are used to seeing their side dominate in the manner that Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have been this season, not turning out to see a side that has, more often than not, failed to impress upon the game and relied strongly upon it’s goalkeeper.
The barbs being levelled at Van Gaal for his use of a long-ball game when things don’t go to plan are evidence enough that there is plenty of frustration surrounding United’s style at times this season, and though it has been effective - never more so than when Daley Blind hammered home the equaliser against West Ham last weekend - it’s not deemed satisfactory.
The Van Gaal project
Why is anyone’s guess, when it’s considered that the current United setup is far from the finished product. Were Van Gaal a craftsman and this team his latest project he probably wouldn’t have even put the blueprints away to start focusing on the body itself. With that in mind their current league position should be more than adequate.
No matter how they go about it, and what manner of tactics they are forced to turn to in order to achieve success, finishing matches with three points added to their tally has to be the primary objective.
The glitz and glam associated with a sleek ball-playing team who can regularly pick apart their opposition in the style of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Barcelona will come in time, but in order to get to that stage Champions League qualification has to be secured.
In the uphill battle to restore the Red Devils to their former glory Van Gaal was always going to be trundling at a slow and steady pace, each decision being assessed, calculated and then assessed again. There is no winning formula when it comes to ventures of the ilk that he has taken on, only a gradual ascension that culminates - hopefully - in the realisation of lofty plans set in motion upon his appointment.
Sure, watching United stumble past a struggling Burnley side, relying on a brace from a defender and a penalty-kick, doesn’t make for orgasm-inducing reception from football purists. What it does do is keep the club on a track that leads to the same end regardless of how you get there.