Louis Van Gaal Can Give Man United an Edge in League Decided by Small Margins

Rob Dawson@@RobDawsonMENManchester United CorrespondentJuly 7, 2014

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 05:  Head Coach, Louis van Gaal (R) and his assistant, Danny Blind stand for the national anthem prior to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Quarter Final match between the Netherlands and Costa Rica at Arena Fonte Nova on July 5, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

There were times when Sir Alex Ferguson was winning trophy after trophy that he needed only to make sure there were 11 names on the team sheet for Manchester United to win a game.

Teams would turn up at Old Trafford hoping to keep it respectable rather than harbouring any ambitions to score themselves. Others needed a little more encouragement to collapse, but it didn't take long.

Most of Ferguson's 13 Premier League titles were won against one challenger. Sometimes, Blackburn. Sometimes, Arsenal. Sometimes, Chelsea or Liverpool or Manchester City. Sometimes, there were none at all. The 1999-2000 season springs to mind.

But things are different now. 

Jon Super/Associated Press

When the new season starts in August, there will be five teams who will believe they have a realistic chance of winning the league.

Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United will all think, with varying degrees of reason, that they could end the season as champions. It's seven if you count Everton and Tottenham.

With more challengers come more big games. More title deciders, six-pointers and Super Sundays.

Just 10 years ago, the Sky Sports schedulers would have snorted at the idea of screening Manchester City versus Tottenham or Everton versus Chelsea.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19:  Patrice Evra of Manchester United is challenged by Oscar of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on January 19, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike He
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

But now, they're important games. Matchups that will, in some small way, decide where the title ends up.

The way the Premier League's huge TV deal is dished out, with everybody getting a share, keeps the league competitive. 

Chelsea beat Manchester City and Liverpool home and away last season but still finished third. They didn't win the title because they dropped too many points against teams in the bottom half of the table. Fine margins.

It's the same at the World Cup. And throughout this summer's tournament, new United manager Louis van Gaal has found a way to give Holland an edge. 

Replacing first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul before the penalty shootout with Costa Rica was just the latest substitution that has paid off.

He has made subtle changes to his system, too. Not least playing with a three-man defence to compensate for the loss of Kevin Strootman.

Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that what works at an international tournament, or in Holland, Germany or Spain, will work in the Premier League. 

And Van Gaal will also inherit a different group of players at Old Trafford than he found at Barcelona, Bayern Munich or in the Dutch national team.

But at least in club football, he can fill a gap with a new signing. It's not a luxury afforded to international managers, and he's doing all right with the Netherlands.

Jose Mourinho's shrewd plans helped Chelsea win at the Etihad Stadium and Anfield last season, places few others had any success.

United now have someone in charge who can rival that tactical intelligence. To help end up on the right side of those fine margins.