Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal can afford to enjoy his glass of red wine following Saturday’s scrappy 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, but deep down the Dutchman will know that his team had robbed the Eagles off a deserved three points.
After three consecutive defeats, Van Gaal would not care how his side managed it, but the win at Selhurst Park has all but sealed Champions League football next season — which was the goal at the start of the season.
To see United fans jump over the barriers and celebrate with their players after Marouane Fellaini headed in a late winner — in effect celebrating Champions League qualification — speaks volumes of how much things have changed at Old Trafford since the Alex Ferguson era.
After berating Arsenal fans for the better part of the last decade for celebrating Champions League qualification, for the 20-time league champions the shoe is well on the other foot in a matter of two seasons.
Don’t get me wrong — Fellaini’s goal was HUGE and warranted such ecstasy. A draw would not have been catastrophic for United, but seven points is any day a more comfortable margin than five, especially when your next two opponents are second-placed Arsenal and relegation-threatened Hull City.
If you have followed United’s season so far, there are three facts that have defined it:
1. David De Gea has been phenomenal between the sticks and was the main propellant of the team from seventh to fourth;
2. Chief orchestrator Michael Carrick is a close second and in his absence United have lacked the cutting edge moving forward;
3. Their defensive line of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Daley Blind is more flimsy than Van Gaal’s argument of more possession equals better football.
That United have almost sealed top-four with a two-man team and a non-existent back line is extraordinary. However, so much of that has been down Liverpool’s own inadequacy following the departure of Luis Suarez and the absence of the injury-prone Daniel Sturridge. There’s no doubt United have been extremely lucky.
While sealing top-four with a point more in their remaining two games will be United’s top priority*, Van Gaal has already started looking ahead to next season, where he will hope to at least challenge for the title if not win it.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 7, 2015
The confirmation of the signing of attacking winger Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven even before the transfer window opened shows the Reds’ intent. However, to challenge Chelsea for the Premier League title and to put up a strong showing in the Champions League, United would need at least four more top signings, assuming De Gea decides to stick it out in Manchester.
While De Gea’s contract renewal would be like a signing in itself, he would hope to have a top-class centre-back and right-back shielding him. The names of Mats Hummels and Nathaniel Clyne are doing the rounds.
Carrick’s replacement/substitute would be the next priority and Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan is the most talked-about name.
United would also like to have another established forward, assuming the permanent departures of Radamel Falcao and Javier Hernandez, and possibly Robin van Persie.
United will look much stronger with some key additions next season and would hope to enter the last year of their transition phase. The squad has improved and progressed since Ferguson’s departure two years ago, but a league title next season would not be a realistic target even if there is heavy investment in the summer.
As Gary Neville said on Sky Sports, “What they have to do next season is challenge and get closer to the title… To win it in the third season probably would be [Van Gaal’s] aim.”
United also need to revolutionise their team ethic of keeping possession and not passing forward enough. Their lack of penetration into the opposition box has been alarming in some of their losses this season — even more than the gaping holes in defence. Champions League football is likely to attract the right talent they need to achieve that.
With two games remaining and the Red Devils six points ahead, and a goal difference of 14 over Liverpool, it would take a tremendous slip-up for Van Gaal’s men to not mingle among Europe’s elite next season.
But will they have it in them to remain there and challenge for trophies?
*This post was updated following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea on Sunday.