Functional, mechanical and rigid was replaced by adventure, excitement and entertainment on Tuesday night. The change in the much maligned philosophy, which frustrated fans have been craving to see come to fruition, somewhat ironically did not yield the same outcome that the start of 2016 brought, a victory.
The re-found cavalier, attacking enterprise came at a cost however, with a distinctly average Newcastle side finding a way past a United defence, so drilled they are almost on autopilot, three times, thus ensuring United have let four precious points slip away against the beleaguered Geordies. Letting a two goal advantage go to waste is a cardinal sin and if Van Gaal’s side had any title aspirations this campaign, they have been decimated by the side’s inability to be ruthless against the lesser teams, much like last season. The 3-3 draw in midweek had earmarks of the side’s sobering Champions League exit from a group which they should have theoretically coasted through: The must win encounter against Wolfsburg was an unbalanced concoction of brave, enthralling attacking play marred by some amateurish lapses at the back.
Van Gaal needs to find that happy medium between restoring the vintage, swashbuckling United whilst maintaining a nigh-on impregnable defensive unit- which has only been possible thus far under his leadership with the shackles firmly in place. It is a peculiar instance of one inhibiting the other, despite Van Gaal’s repetitive bemoaning of the lack of balance last season it appears, despite a near £250m outlay, that we have a squad still bereft of the right blend to be genuine title contenders.
United’s swiftly altered ambitions, from title challengers to ensuring their place in the top four once again, do not necessarily hinge on Sunday’s crunch encounter against Liverpool, but the match is arguably Van Gaal’s biggest in charge of the club- with there being little room for any more errors in the second half of this bizarre season.
Sunday’s venue is the perfect arena to showcase that the attacking verve shown against Newcastle could be the start of a new dawn. The Dutchman was facing a similar scenario in his debut season in England and can take solace from an expert display at the very ground earlier this year.
22nd March 2015 at Anfield. A real six-pointer, Liverpool had the opportunity to leapfrog United, who could equally steal a march on their bitterest foes and take a giant step towards achieving the overall goal of Champions League football.
United showed a composure and ability to handle a supposedly electric atmosphere and start from the home side that had seldom been seen previously, with Gary Neville calling it the best opening to an away game at Anfield that he had seen from United.
The game will undoubtedly be remembered fondly for Slippy G’s Gone in 38 Seconds master-class and Juan Mata’s scissor kick permanently endearing himself to the United faithful but the fact United played so effectively in a big game scenario under pressure will stand the players in good stead for this season’s fixture.
United used the Liverpool fixture as a springboard to make a big push towards securing their goal last season, a victory once more will not only deflate Klopp’s men but the confidence will surely be flowing through the United players should they emerge victorious with the top four firmly in their sights.
There is no escaping the fact that Van Gaal is not totally out of the doghouse among United supporters after a wretched and turgid end to 2015, despite the Dutchman’s infamous belief at the end of season speech that United were ‘close’ to being title winners once again.
If he managed to mastermind another victory at Anfield, he would go some way to emerging from a relatively dark spell and dispel any doubts that he is not the right man to lead United.
He has overseen some positives in this embryonic 2016 to date, notably the upturn in form from his captain Wayne Rooney, who appears to have come back revitalised after his Boxing Day demotion to the bench at Stoke City. He has been hungry, energised and is delivering the quality we all knew he still had in his locker.
The style has been some slicker since the turn of the year: there were signs of Rooney and Anthony Martial combining as a pair once again, like they were at the start of what promised to be a flourishing relationship up front. The tempo is a lot sharper, crisper, the transition from back to front has not been as laboured- Okay, it’s not exactly the Red Arrows, but it has been an improvement at least.
Van Gaal and his players still need to prove to fans and pundits alike that this is the start of a new dawn — new year, new United.
What better venue to continue the promising start to 2016.