Man United's resurgence has fans smiling as young players impress
After seeing three wins in six days, the most impressive of which came against an Arsenal side who are serious Premier League title contenders, the mood among Manchester United fans continues to improve.
Not only are the wins positive, but the football is fantastic. United look like United again. There have been goals, attacking football and excitement aplenty, especially because the successes have been achieved with a threadbare squad where young players have had to make up the numbers.
Manager Louis van Gaal was said to be underwhelmed by the quality of youngsters at the club last season, even though the U21s won their league title, but a season full of injuries has left him had little option but to use them this term.
There's not an expert, who didn't fear for United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Arsenal's bench was packed with established internationals, while United's featured players who didn't even have their own Wikipedia page and of whom even the majority of hardcore match-going fans inside Old Trafford had barely heard.
Van Gaal was vengeful after the 3-0 October defeat at Arsenal. He knew he got the tactics wrong that day and was told so by his coaches and players as Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger were exposed to the Gunners' quick attack and Matteo Darmian bewildered by it.
United's ability to exact revenge was seemingly limited by so many injuries. But then the game started and the 90 minutes that followed featured everything from a manager simulating a dive, to three more home goals against a team with a dreadful recent record at Old Trafford.
Arsene Wenger's side may knocked United out of the FA Cup in Manchester a year ago, but in the league they've won zero and lost seven of their last nine Premier League trips to Old Trafford.
Juan Mata's intelligence was peerless, while Ander Herrera, who was really down after a poor game and defeat at Midtjylland recently, had his best game of the season, snarling with fight against physically bigger opponents which belied his slender frame.
His goal was heavily deflected past Petr Cech but it was still a fine strike and deserved for Herrera, who worked hard to get into the position in the first place after running from his own half.
Memphis Depay, who has been a disappointment since arriving in England, is at last looking like a player. Full of confidence after an impressive Europa League game, he holds onto the ball well, he beats a man and, on Sunday, he also did a good defensive job to restrict the impact of Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin.
United fans also saw two more young players, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and James Weir, make their first first-team appearances. Van Gaal has given eight debuts to players from the youth system this season and six in the last month alone.
Injuries meant he had to make some changes but the manager seems on a mission to give minutes to every young player, many of whom started the season as U18s players, effectively United's third team.
According to their former coach Paul McGuinness, who was recently let go by the club after over two decades, and his staff, the most promising players in that age group were Callum Gribbin and Axel Tuanzebe -- neither of whom have yet played in the first team -- along with Fosu-Mensah and Marcus Rashford.
The quartet was promoted up to the U21s, where the hope was that a better standard of football would make them stronger and quicker. Despite that progress, they simply weren't expected to feature in the first team, let alone excel in it as Rashford has done, exciting fans with four goals in his first two games, including one with his first Premier League shot.
A week ago, he wouldn't have expected to be on the front page of the Sale & Altrincham Messenger newspaper, which is delivered to his house in Northern Moor. Today, Rashford's picture is on the front of Gazetta Dello Sport in Italy.
Seven years ago, another young United player had the same privilege after 17-year-old Federico Macheda scored a dramatic winner against Aston Villa in April 2009. A suspect attitude didn't help his progress under Sir Alex Ferguson, but he's playing for Cardiff City in the Championship, making a very good living as a professional footballer.
Rashford is only the second player to score for United's U18s, U19s, U21s and first team in the same season. James Wilson achieved the same feat last season, which shows that rapid progress can be made, but he is also now playing his football in the Championship, where he's struggling to be a regular while on loan at Brighton.
The lower levels are where the most of United's debutants end up playing regular football. At least they've had the buzz of playing for the club and those who've most impressed this season, including Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela, look set to have the brightest futures.
United fans are realistic. They love to see youngsters given a chance but have seen several crops melt away after a brief initial flurry. The Class of '92 and the Busby Babes of the 1950s were the exception.
Nothing exemplifies what can go wrong when young players are pushed too quickly than Ferguson's first group, known as "Fergie's Fledglings", who burst onto the scene on New Year's Day, 1989, in a home game against Liverpool, who were champions of England at the time.
United had won just five of their 18 league games at that stage of the season but they swept Liverpool side, with 20-year-olds Russell Beardsmore and Lee Martin to the fore, along with Mark Robins (19) and Lee Sharpe (17).
Beardsmore scored in only his second league game and following a defeat the following day(!) at Middlesbrough, United went on to win four consecutive league games. The young players quickly captured the imagination.
However, with the exception of Sharpe and Martin, for varying reasons most of those young players ended up leaving the club after not making much further impact. One, Guiliano Maiorana poignantly said "hindsight is all you are left with" when looking back over his shattered career.
United have had several false dawns under Van Gaal and maybe this current form will be another. There's still little appetite from fans for the Dutchman continuing as boss, despite supporters singing his name on a joyous Sunday afternoon.
Only good results and more exciting football could pick up his ratings off the floor, though he would be credited with consistently giving youth a chance and questions have been asked whether Jose Mourinho would do the same.
History suggests not but Mourinho would still be a popular choice to take over. For now, though, United fans are just enjoying their football again, something that hasn't been true for the majority of Van Gaal's tenure.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.