Winners and Losers: Confusion reigns at Man Utd

Manchester United remain the great enigma of this season’s Premier League. Louis van Gaal’s side are in the Champions League places despite it being generally agreed they haven’t played that well in many of their 24 games to date, and Sunday’s draw with West Ham came with a striker playing in midfield, a midfielder playing in attack and a goal from Daley Blind, who plays wherever the manager puts him.

All in all it’s a confusing picture at Old Trafford and, just to add to the impression everything about the 20-times champions goes through some sort of Bizarro World filter, it was United mocked for playing long-ball football by Sam Allardyce. West Ham were indeed the side playing with energy, style and verve, while United were static, ordinary and lacking in ideas.

Blind, earner of 20 EuroFantasyLeague points for the game , got United out of jail and allowed van Gaal to bat away the awkward questions a little longer. The inquisition generally centres on Wayne Rooney’s role, one of the club’s record goal scorers pushed into midfield, while that of Angel Di Maria, a standout in midfield for Real Madrid last season, plays further forward.

Solving these issues wouldn’t mean everything is rosy, either. David De Gea’s future remains up in the air, the defence continues to creak, the injury list is still long and Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie show absolutely no sign of forming a partnership. The two are among Europe’s most prolific strikers in the last few years but haven’t clicked. They each spend too long stationary, and van Gaal has sold or dispatched the two United forwards who specialised in stretching defences, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.

As long as United remain in the top four, or at worst within touching distance, the Dutchman’s brusque attitude can be tolerated. He isn’t there to make friends. But there will come a point when the questioning is too intense and the answers to vague – stubborn insistence that he is right won’t save van Gaal forever. His track record understandably means he gets more leeway than David Moyes but if the same problems persist in 12 months’ time, past success at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich will count for little.

The coming summer transfer market will then prove pivotal. Van Gaal won’t have the World Cup to contend with, as he did last year, and nor will there be a pre-season tour to a far-flung but lucrative corner of the map. Van Gaal will have preparations exactly as he wants them, on the back of a full season to assess his current squad, and, reports say, a small fortune for additions. That will be the manager’s chance to build the team in his image.

It’s then we’ll learn what van Gaal really wants from Rooney. If the captain is still in midfield for the duration of next year then, for better or worse, van Gaal views him as a midfielder. But the United mystery will continue until then and probably a while after, though it can’t go on forever.

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