5 Reasons to Believe Manchester United Are Moving in the Right Direction

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2016

5 Reasons to Believe Manchester United Are Moving in the Right Direction

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    Anthony Martial celebrates against Stoke.
    Anthony Martial celebrates against Stoke.PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

    Manchester United are hugely underperforming again this season, but in among the doom and gloom lie a few key reasons to be cheerful.

    From youngsters thriving in the spotlight to the potential for a managerial upgrade in the summer, causes for optimism do exist. The green shoots of a spring time of attacking football have even been seen around Old Trafford.

    Perhaps this is all too little too late for Louis van Gaal—whose side looks likely to miss out on a Champions League place—but in the medium term, things should get better.

    Of course, next season will bring plenty of challenges for United.

    Pep Guardiola is arriving at Manchester City. Jurgen Klopp will be doing his best to reinvent Liverpool. Tottenham Hotspur have built an effective squad and will be looking to build on their impressive season. Chelsea will keen to right the wrongs of this season.

    And, of course, Leicester City will have offered hope to every club in the division that the elite are conquerable—or they will have at least given it a good shot.

    However, United do look like they are moving in the right direction, both in terms of the rest of this season and beyond.

    Let's take a look at why...

Improving Performances

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    An on-form Wayne Rooney has led the improvements.
    An on-form Wayne Rooney has led the improvements.Jon Super/Associated Press

    Manchester United have looked much better of late.

    It started with Jan. 29's FA Cup fourth-round trip to Derby County—not the most challenging opposition, of course, but given how poor Louis van Gaal's side were against Sheffield United in the previous round, it felt like significant progress.

    Thousands of boisterous away supporters watched their side play with an attacking verve that had been almost entirely missing from the previous couple of months of the season. The 3-1 victory with which they were rewarded was well-deserved.

    The Red Devils followed it up with an even better showing in the 3-0 victory over Stoke City at Old Trafford—easily the best home performance of the season and a contender for the best 90 minutes they have managed this campaign.

    The second goal in particular, a striking counter-attacking effort finished with aplomb by Anthony Martial, had fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief. While United made mistakes at the end of the subsequent game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, they still looked much more dangerous going forward than they have all season.

    There have been false dawns under Van Gaal before, such as last spring's run of victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City, so no one is getting too excited. But in moving Juan Mata to No. 10, the Dutchman has finally found some balance in United's attacking play. There have been enough signs to suggest the improvement is at least reasonably sustainable.

Anthony Martial

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    Martial after scoring against Swansea.
    Martial after scoring against Swansea.James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

    It is impossible to write about the positives at Manchester United without talking about Anthony Martial.

    He is the kind of young player about whom it is hard not to get giddy. Indeed, he is the kind of young player who makes you regret having got so giddy about other, lesser talents. Of course, the future is unknown, and anything could happen from here, but the trajectory upon which Martial is set looks extremely exciting indeed.

    His arrival in the summer was shocking, but it was not quite as shocking as his immediate impact. His goal against Liverpool on his debut set a tone that seemed impossible to match, but match it he has. With his goal against Stoke City, he has even managed to score one that can compete against it for his personal goal of the season.

    He has been virtually ever present in United's side this season in spite of Louis van Gaal saying he had bought Martial for the Red Devils' next manager, per Sky Sports.

    He has looked equally assured on the left flank—from where he has torn apart full-backs such as Seamus Coleman and Branislav Ivanovic—and leading the line.

    And given he is still just 20 years old, there should be plenty more to come in the years ahead.

Promising Youngsters in the Ranks

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    Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard celebrate.
    Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard celebrate.Tim Ireland/Associated Press

    The specific collection of injuries United have faced means Van Gaal has been denied Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo's services at the same time. Phil Jones' injury problems have meant Daley Blind has been needed at centre-back. Without his first four choices at left-back, Van Gaal turned to Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who has become one of the success stories of United's season.

    The youngster has put in a series of assured performances. He was somewhat at fault for Chelsea's equaliser on Sunday, but before that, it was he who had put in the cross that led—via a Wayne Rooney touch—to Jesse Lingard's goal.

    Lingard himself has two goals and an assist from his last three games. Guillermo Varela impressed against Derby. United's under-21s put seven past Norwich on Monday, with Will Keane scoring five. Andreas Pereira has not often been favoured by Van Gaal, but when he has, he has looked a player with plenty of potential.

    In spite of concerns about United's academy, detailed by Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail, for now there are plenty of promising young talents around the club, and nurturing them will be an important ingredient in any future success.

Players with Room for Improvement

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    Januzaj and Memphis on United's bench.
    Januzaj and Memphis on United's bench.OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

    While there are certainly negatives to the underperformance so far of Memphis Depay, the one cause for hope is there remains a lot more to come from him. There have been glimpses of his talent—he made a positive contribution when he came on as a substitute against Sheffield United and Liverpool, for example.

    When he gave the ball away against Chelsea for the move that led to their equaliser on Sunday, no one was hugely surprised. He has been inconsistent all season long. However, it is his first season in the Premier League, and working with Van Gaal is no cakewalk for forward players, few of whom have thrived under him at United.

    Adnan Januzaj is another player whose ceiling looks a long way above where his current performance level would place him.

    In the case of Ander Herrera, it seems abundantly clear he has not been used well by Van Gaal, particularly this season. Up until very recently, the same could be said for Juan Mata.

    The upshot of all this is there should be more to come from United's squad than has been shown this season. With Luke Shaw to return from injury and the possibility of bringing in more talent in the summer, improvements in the squad seem likely to be forthcoming.

Rumours of Managerial Change

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    The next Manchester United manager?
    The next Manchester United manager?Tim Ireland/Associated Press

    The final real cause to believe United are on the right track are the rumours they are in the market for a new manager.

    While this may be counterintuitive, the truth is that, for now, replacing Van Gaal seems like the quickest way to bring about a sustained improvement in the side. His time at Old Trafford has be so inconsistent and so much of this season has seen bland football produce mediocre results that considering a dramatic change is the best news of all.

    The rumours Jose Mourinho will take over, such as in the Mirror, for example, are rampant. While there are plenty of potential disadvantages to the Portuguese's arrival, it seems almost inevitable he would get more from the squad than is currently being shown.

    There would seem to be plenty of briefing and counter-briefing taking place, with Jamie Jackson of the Guardian reporting: "If Van Gaal was to take United to fourth position or better it is understood [executive vice chairman Ed] Woodward might decide to let Van Gaal serve out the final year of his contract."

    However, the rumours of a change persist, and that certainly seems like it would be a change for the better—and cause to believe things at United are moving in the right direction.