Football: The Red Devils' shine is back

Football: The Red Devils' shine is back

It was edge of the seat stuff watching events unfold at St Mary's, as the Red Devils strained every sinew to emerge with three points at the end of it all.

The Manchester United legions would have been thrilled.

Louis van Gaal had no hesitation admitting Southampton were unlucky after the match, he was brutal in his assessment of his team.

He claimed only three players played well for United, perhaps Wayne Rooney did just enough to join the company of two-goal hero Robin van Persie, the excellent David de Gea and slick Michael Carrick, but the Saints were the better side and deserved something for the way they tried to stay on the front foot the whole game.

FORMIDABLE DEFENCES

Although Alan Curbishley and Andy Townsend, the studio guests for the "live" broadcast of the match on SingTel mio TV yesterday morning (Singapore time), were devoid of any perspective when they went apoplectic over the way the visitors defended.

Of course United long for a defence as formidable as the ones that used to feature at its core the steel and skill of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, or Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen or Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, who marshalled the ranks expertly to provide the platform for their respective sides to prevail and claim pots and pots of silverware.

Yet, here they are, in third spot in the English Premier League after a 2-1 win, their fifth on the trot, sitting only eight points adrift of leaders Chelsea, an improbable position to anyone who watched van Gaal's men capitulate against Leicester City and Swansea and Milton Keynes Dons over the last few months.

An even more improbable position with all the injuries that have blighted the Dutchman's squad since the start of the season.

No one will appreciate the scrambling, leaderless mass of blue at St Mary's that could not seem to find an opponent to shadow or get in front of whenever the Saints advanced with menace in the first half.

But van Gaal was forced to rejig his defence midstream, van Persie went on to finish with aplomb and Carrick was ice cool as a centre back. And an under-strength United stood tough in the second half and surely they deserve praise.

This is heady stuff if you bleed United, with Liverpool due at Old Trafford on Sunday and with eminently winnable games strewn all over the course of this busy festive month, van Gaal's Devils and their hordes might as well be strapped in for an adventure of Indian Jones-like proportions for the rest of the campaign.

Suddenly, United are two spots off the top with the promise of much more to come when the new faces bed in and the various bodies vacate the treatment table.

It was supposed to be reinforced Arsenal challenging Chelsea and champions Manchester City, but the Gunners and their north London darkhorses Tottenham seem to have gone to pieces.

Liverpool have become a ghost of the side that so frightened and impressed last season with the mercurial Luis Suarez in his pomp and, instead, United have been thrust into the spotlight after a wild ride that has been stained by comedic defending and inspired by soaring individual performances.

Van Gaal has hardly had an occasion to play his first-choice defensive unit. He fielded a raw Paddy McNair at St Mary's and, after just 18 minutes, was forced to haul off Chris Smalling and throw on Jonny Evans, who hadn't kicked a ball in two months.

ERROR PRONE

With 19-year-old McNair increasingly uncertain and error prone, one would think it all contributed to the gaping channels that opened up regularly when the Saints attacked in the first half.

Yet, Curbishley and Townsend didn't think it mattered at all when they offered their counsel during the halftime analysis.

Some of the critics who questioned United's appointment of van Gaal claimed he could not adapt tactically.

Over the last couple of weeks, some commentators have said his fitness regimen is why so many of his players, especially the defenders, have succumbed to injury.

It is beginning to sound ludicrous.

Confidence and sure-handedness have always been a hallmark of the 63-year-old Dutch manager and United are beginning to stir as he works on the various levers at the club to get them back on top.

Van Gaal's not afraid to make big decisions, he believes in young players. There's a calmness and assuredness on the bench when he talks to Ryan Giggs, the necessary link to the previous era.

Seasoned, settled and with Nemanja Matic and Yaya Toure at the heart of the two teams, I would think Chelsea and Man City will stay in front the rest of the way because United's defence still needs to become a family unit of first-choice faces and the various delicious attacking options have to hum as one machine.

But the doomsayers who predicted a long spell out in the wilderness for United after their failure to even qualify for Champions League football last season will be nervous right now.

Because van Gaal has already roused the Red Devils and there's Christmas promise in the air at Old Trafford.

leonardt@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 10, 2014.
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