It all seemed so gloomy at Old Trafford only weeks ago. Now, with Manchester United hosting rivals Manchester City in the local derby on Sunday, and with notable and impressive wins under their belt against Totenham, Liverpool, and relegation candidates, Aston Villa, they are suddenly favourites to beat City and extend their lead over them to four points.
So, what has happened to turn around the fortunes of the club so quickly?
Rio Ferdinand, talking to The Sun, says it is his former team-mate and Red Devils captain, Wayne Rooney’s re-deployment in attack that has changed the fortunes of Louis van Gaal's team.
Ferdinand, like a good many others, feels it’s where Wayne should be playing, and the recent statistics certainly bare this out. Since Van Gaal has returned his skipper to his favoured position, Rooney has found the net four times in the last five league matches he has lead the line in.
United haven’t lost one of those matches. Goals win games, it’s as simple as that. The question must be asked of the United manager, though, why it has taken him so long to work out an equation that seemed so obvious to the world and his dog?
He might tell us that he wishes it were as simple as that. Michael Carrick has spent too much time on the treatment table this season, and Ander Herrera, the £30 million pound signing from Athletic Bilbao, has struggled to find the kind of form United expected from a player they hoped might be the new Paul Scholes.
So, in the absence of Carrick, and Van Gaal’s lack of trust in Herrera, Rooney was placed into the midfield to steady the team and to give it the rhythm he was hoping for. Still, United struggled. Robin van Persie and loan signing Radamel Falcao were not hitting it off, and goals didn’t come, despite United dominating most teams in terms of possession.
The cry for Rooney to be put back at the summit of the team’s formation intensified. But Van Gaal resisted; insisting his team lacked balance, and that only with Rooney in midfield did he feel his team came close to finding it. No one else, especially the supporters, seemed convinced. And even the usually cock sure Dutchman appeared to be trying to convince himself more than others.
All managers need a stroke of luck, even Fergie would admit to that. Van Gaal received more than just the one stroke at one time, and in timely fashion too. Van Persie became injured. Angel di Maria, another struggler, was sent off and received a ban, and Falcao finally tested his manager’s patience with one goalless game too many.
Back came a fit Carrick, and two benchwarmers, Juan Mata and Herrera were both given a rare opportunity to show their worth. Now, Rooney had nowhere else to play but as a striker.
Carrick infused the team with his calm and precise passing, while Herrara began pressing as only the Iberians can, and he started to show glimpses of the player United thought they had signed.
Mata, freed from any defensive duties, began orchestrating things in an attacking midfield role, pulling the opposition’s defence around, and ultimately creating, and scoring, goals for the team.
It's all falling into place
Most notably, the two sublime finishes he put past Liverpool’s defence at Anfield last month, where Ferdinand thought he saw the real United back on display that day. Herrera too, has found the net as well as his team-mate’s feet, and some confidence, it would seem.
Rooney’s goals have been vitally important in this recent resurgence, and his presence in attack must have enriched the confidence in the midfielders behind him, now sure they had a target man capable of both linking with them and finishing off the moves they created within their detailed, complex passing patterns.
It can be no coincidence that even United’s previously shaky defence has looked more assured and composed as a result of the team’s more balanced and comfortable disposition further in front of it.
Round pegs in round holes? Maybe. But perhaps the balance that Louis van Gaal was searching for was there in front of him all the time. He just needed some of the decisions to be made for him in the form of occurring circumstances beyond his control.
The game on Sunday might tell us just how far United’s new and improved momentum can travel. For despite City’s opposite recent fortune, and boy have they struggled, no one doubts the quality of the players within the side.
In David Silva, Yaya Toure, and Sergio Aguero, they have three players particularly who can destroy teams if they are at their best. And they will need to be against United who surely smell blood, and must fancy their chances of a first derby win since Sunday, 9th December, 2012, when old King Fergie was still in charge. If they win, the new king, Louis, shall be hailed.