Louis van Gaal has endured more than his fair share of criticism since taking over at Manchester United in the summer of 2014. He's been accused of all sorts of things and oversaw a terrible run of results at the end of 2014. But above all else, what he's achieved is steady progress. It may not seem obvious, but it is there.
Most were ready to mock when the Dutchman recently commented that 2015 had been a very good year apart from a tailing off in December, but he made a valid point. It had been a good year and only that blip had pulled them out of the immediate reckoning for the title race after topping the table as recently as November.
What too many people forget, or are willing to overlook, is that Van Gaal inherited a terrible situation when he first stepped through the door. United had just had by far their worst season in recent memory with an ageing and broken squad of players who overachieved during the 2012/13 title winning campaign.
What Van Gaal needed to do was completely overhaul the squad and build a new one around a core of remaining players - David de Gea, Chris Smalling and Wayne Rooney. That is what he has done. There were those who have tried to claim that a team of players he's let go are better than the new ones that have been signed. Bastian Schweinsteiger vs Tom Cleverley? Please.
The most pressing issue, and phase one of the project, was creating stability once more. In a few short weeks in 2014, United lost Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra - three defensive rocks with vast experience, but none of whom had been at their best for two or three years. Van Gaal needed to find a way to make United defensively strong once more.
It wasn't easy and it required a lot more than simply signing new players. The fact that he managed it without spending £30m or more on someone like Nicolas Otamendi, who has proven to be rather underwhelming at Manchester City, and focused mainly on the existing defenders available to him is testament to his ability as a coach.
Establishing a shape for the team and a way of playing as a whole was an important step as well. It means defensive protection in midfield, enter Morgan Schneiderlin in particular, and not overextending where it can be avoided. Of course, the issue was that the goals dried up and attacking flair dried up.
It was a problem and it made United boring to watch, that cannot be denied, but a temporary one. For the most part, keeping it tight at the back and scoring the odd goal here and there was working. While the focus was still on making sure United could control games and not concede, scoring goals was never going to be a priority, even with talented attacking players on the pitch.
December was a blip, worsened by key injuries and suspensions. Every team has them. Since Boxing Day things have already begun to improve in an attacking sense as well. Against Chelsea, there was a noticeable difference, while in the weekend's victory over Swansea, United had 19 attempts on goal and created more than 10 scoring chances throughout the 90 minutes.
It took this long to steady the ship and find that elusive foundation that been ripped out, but Van Gaal's United are finally ready to compete. So many other managers don't get the chance to properly rebuild when it's required. Short-term success trumps everything. Take Chelsea for example, their squad will be ripped up again within a matter of years and next time it might not work. Van Gaal, on the other hand, has built and continues to build a United team that can dominate for years.
He's identified a creative player with pace as the way to go next. People talk about the money that has been spent already, but that was the scale of the project and is just what it takes these days. A couple more key signings and United will be frightening.
A report from the Sunday Times after the Swansea game explained that the United hierarchy had assured the manager of his position. Whether he was even under pressure, or if that was an invention of Twitter and the sensationalist sections of media is now up for debate. Ed Woodward and the Glazer family are determined to stick to the long-term plan, one that will see Van Gaal see out his contract and Ryan Giggs take the reins when he is ready to do so.
Phase one of Louis van Gaal's project is complete. Now watch Manchester United kick it up a gear in 2016 and beyond...
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