Louis van Gaal spent the post-match press conference after Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield last Sunday watching the television. As reporters asked questions, he was engrossed by Arsenal’s 0-0 draw at Stoke City, showing on a screen on the left-hand wall. So long as Arsenal didn’t win that game, he said more than once, he believed United could win the title.
That seemed a strange caveat. The draw left Arsenal seven points ahead of United, a gap that can certainly be made up in the 16 games of the season that remain. Would nine points have been so much different, have represented an unbridgeable gap? If that really was what Van Gaal was saying, it shows how slender United’s title chances are.
Or perhaps Van Gaal’s point was psychological, that if Arsenal had managed to win at Stoke, where it hasn’t won since 2010, the boost to its self-belief would have given it an unstoppable momentum. As it is, after draws at Liverpool and Stoke, Arsenal heads into Sunday’s game against Chelsea in an oddly ambivalent position. Win, and it will have negotiated a tricky run of three matches without defeat; lose or draw, and it will have gone three games without a win.
Van Gaal’s hope must be that United’s victory at Anfield has just such a galvanizing effect. United has not played well since beating Everton 3-0 away in October. It has won only two of its last nine games. A summer in which it spent almost £100 million (albeit while recouping around £70 million) has left it with a weirdly imbalanced squad loaded with stolidly slow midfielders and inexperienced strikers. There is a growing sense that Van Gaal, the great pioneer of the 1990s, now plays an old-fashioned form of football.
There is nothing, realistically, to suggest a title challenge is imminent. There are significant reasons to be concerned about the long-term direction the club is taking, and a smash-and-grab victory over the team that was ninth in the league at the start of the weekend shouldn’t change that. But it was against Liverpool, and that lends it greater significance than other fixtures.
“This game will give a huge boost to the players, the fans and to everyone connected with Manchester United–and we have to continue, of course,” said Van Gaal. “That will not be easy, as we saw today, but we can do it because we showed every week that we can do it."
Other than that, perhaps the biggest factor in United’s favor is that this is not a normal season. Not since 2002 has the leader had so few points after 22 games of the season.
Nobody is consistent, nobody looks like putting together the sort of run of 13 consecutive victories that eventually won Arsenal the league that year. Arsenal has probably played the best football so far this season, but it remains capable of aberrations such as the 4-0 defeat at Southampton. Leicester City, level on points with Arsenal, has won only one of its last five games: there is a sense that, at last, its bubble is deflating.
Manchester City has the best squad, but it is heavily reliant on Vincent Kompany for leadership and he is still struggling with a persistent calf problem that has restricted him to just eight league starts this season. Tottenham draws too many games, an indication of its dependence on Harry Kane for goals. The four sides above United are all flawed, all vulnerable.
Nor is there much reason for United to look over its shoulder with fear. Chelsea, surely, is too far adrift now to make the Champions League qualifying slots. Liverpool is still adapting to Jurgen Klopp. West Ham, Crystal Palace, Stoke, Southampton, Everton, Watford, none are consistent enough. United can focus on what is ahead of it.
It has two things in its favor. One is its defense. United has struggled to get the balance right, seemingly forever drawing either 0-0 or 3-3, but it has the second-best defensive record in the league this season, with only Tottenham conceding fewer goals. Even on Sunday, when United was outplayed for long spells, David De Gea was drawn into only three saves of note. The foundations are solid.
The issue, then, is to combine that with a cutting edge and, perhaps, there are signs that with Wayne Rooney returning to form–five goals in his last four games, albeit two of them penalties–United may have that.
There’s a huge onus on him given the rawness of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Memphis Depay, but a two-month purple patch of form may be enough.
Or there remains the possibility that United will suddenly click, as other Van Gaal sides have, that it will suddenly assimilate his philosophy, as it appeared briefly to have done towards the end of last season in the consecutive wins over Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City, and it will be shown that his football does still have a place in the modern age. To believe in that, though, after all this time, requires an extraordinary act of faith.
That’s why this season is so hard to call: there are no patterns, there is no consistency, and that means it wouldn’t take much to transform a side into champions. And even if United does somehow scramble to the title, it wouldn’t invalidate the long-term concerns about the future.