LONDON — There's a simple way of measuring if there has been any progress at Manchester United under Louis van Gaal: the Premier League position and the points tally.
After Sunday's 1-0 loss to Southampton, with United on 37 points after 21 games, it was inevitable comparisons would be drawn with Van Gaal's predecessor. After 21 games, David Moyes had also collected 37 points.
So after a year of turmoil, despite more than $250 million spent revamping the squad, United has made no progress?
"You have been waiting for the moment to tell me I have the same points as David Moyes," Van Gaal snapped after Sunday's loss.
The Dutchman's irritability is partly justified.
The priority is restoring United to the Champions League, ensuring this is a one-off season jettisoned from Europe's elite competition. So with United in fourth place, Van Gaal is on target (even if United's budget projections are for a third-place finish).
For Moyes, 37 points was only adequate for seventh place during a season when he only spent the first week in the top four. And the downfall for Alex Ferguson's anointed successor was United only collecting 20 points from the next 13 matches.
On paper, United has the attacking potency to avoid such a slump in the second half of the season, without the distraction of European football.
But the so-called Gaalacticos aren't always living up to their star billing or mega salaries. It was risible that a team featuring Angel di Maria, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney couldn't manage a shot on target, albeit against a Southampton team that has defied expectations to rise to third — above United on Sunday — with the league's stingiest defense.
"They came for a draw, I believe, and they go away with a victory," Van Gaal said. "That is disappointing."
United, though, expected it was hiring a manager with the tactical acumen to come up with a "Plan B" to outwit opponents as he did at the World Cup last year with the third-place Netherlands. The former Barcelona coach talks about imposing a "philosophy" that remains a mystery to many.
Equally mystifying was the complete absence of Radamel Falcao from Sunday's squad when United required all the attacking vigor in its armory to break through such a sturdy back-four. Paying more than $60 million to turn that loan from Monaco into a permanent deal at the end of the season seems unthinkable at the moment, but predicting how the next five months will unfold would be foolish.
"As a coach you have to take decisions and you have to look at the composition of your team and your selection and you have to look at your game plan," Van Gaal said. "We have a lot of players who are coming back and (Falcao) has played the last five matches in a row."
Those five games capped an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions. Unlike Moyes, that included steering United into the fourth round of the FA Cup, albeit against weaker opposition.
And Van Gaal's job seems far more secure than his ill-fated predecessor. The air of gloom and negativity that pervaded Old Trafford last season has gone, and fan dissent has been quelled with a cocksure coach in the dugout.
Publicly, Van Gaal is saying the right things.
Moyes was ridiculed for saying of Manchester City: "It's the sort of standard and level we need to try and aspire to get ourselves to." Whereas Van Gaal just last week issued a typically crowd-pleasing declaration: "My ambition is that I have the best players who can collaborate with each other to form the best team in the world."
The starting point is ensuring strikers perform their primary function and find the net more consistently. Only then will the comparisons with the mediocrity under Moyes stop, even though United is in a more elevated league position.
Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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