Much was made of the arrival of Louis Van Gaal to Manchester United as the man tasked to restore the Reds' to their title-winning ways. Despite receiving heavy criticism in early parts of the season for a string of poor displays and dismal results, he has kept the faith with his much fabled 'philosophy' to mould United into strong contenders for the League next season.
Arriving in the wake of last Summer's World Cup following a successful run to the semi-finals as manager of his native Holland, Louis Van Gaal was greeted with frenzied enthusiasm in the red side of Manchester, with his arrival seen as a symbol of change and a sign that good things were to come.
An unbeaten run in pre-season games did much to support the hype that surrounded him, while at the same time fanning the flames for further expectation. Combined with the expensive acquisitions of Angel Di Maria for £59m and Radamel Falcao on-loan for £6m, hopes for a title-challenge were justifiably high. Yet by the end of August those hopes had been severely dampened, normal service was resumed.
Mustering just one win in their opening six fixtures, United fans would have been questioning why they remained so optimistic prior to this barren spell. It is the losses during this period against MK Dons and Leicester City which stick in the mind the most, that saw a troubled United side concede a combined total of nine goals.
Looking to impose his much questioned 'philosophy' upon the Manchester United team, Van Gaal had decided that a 3-5-2 formation would be the system to herald success.
Partnering the inexperienced academy graduate Tyler Blackett in a back three alongside a combination of either Phil Jones, Chris Smalling or Johnny Evans, it soon became clear that the players were struggling to adapt to Van Gaal's ways. Unable to interpret where to where to position themselves within the formation, woeful defensive performances made it all to easy for the opposition to score.
Unable to establish a winning formula, constant tweaks and changes to the team proved ineffective to rectify the problem. Appearing to almost draw names out of a hat in order to name his starting 11, such was the frequency of personnel changes it became not only impossible to predict who would play, but what position they would play in.
With an abundance of attacking talent to pick from the team often looked unbalanced and top-heavy as Van Gaal worked to accommodate all of his star names. Forcing his captain Wayne Rooney to adopt a deep-lying midfield role, despite all of his hard work and endeavour in the position, it was a clear waste of Rooney's goal scoring ability.
Turnaround in form
Whether through tactical nous or sheer luck, Van Gaal gradually found wins easier to come by through a more consistent selection process. Although their 2-1 win over Southampton in December was rather fortunate, it did demonstrate early signs that Van Gaal's influence over the squad was beginning to take effect.
Since then a settled formation resembling either a 4-4-2, or a times a 4-4-1-1 with Rooney restored to a forward position, has resulted in United's early shoots of promise coming to fruition. Becoming increasingly potent were it not for a slip up at home to Swansea and they would have lost only once since Novemeber. Form like this next season will surely ignite hopes for a first Premier League title without Sir Alex at the helm.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of Van Gaal's now evident philosophy is his decision to select his team upon merit, not reputation. It is this ideology which has seen the likes of Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini, the former poster boys of failure during David Moyes' torrid tenure at Manchester United, selected ahead of the big money signings of Di Maria and Falcao.
Speaking to the Daily Mail Van Gaal explained his reasoning for doing so, " if a player cost £95m or £5,000, its not any different for me. You have to prove yourself".
Although trailing Chelsea by eight points in third place, well out of the hunt for a Premier League title this term, United will be satisfied that Van Gaal has met the objectives originally set out for him at the beginning of the season in qualifying for the Champions League. In previous season's under Sir Alex this would be regarded as nothing less then a complete tragedy, though that is more of a sign of how far United had fallen since his departure, that a third place finish is now viewed as success.
After a shaky start to his Manchester United career, the unique ways of Van Gaal appear to be making all the difference. With much tinkering and adjustment he has now established his plans for future success and possibly with the addition of further signings over the Summer it seems plausible that United can aim higher again next season in once again challenging for silverware.