Van Gaal and Man United enjoy respite thanks to a run of four straight wins
When Midtjylland took the lead at Old Trafford just over a week ago, which gave the Danish side a 3-1 aggregate lead over Manchester United in the Europa League Round of 16, I scanned social media to gauge reactions.
They tend to swing wildly with goals and results but, even given that, this occasion led people I'd consider rational to snap. One said that United should call it a season right now, go home, pour a stiff drink and just stop.
Such a mood prevailed, though it quickly changed -- again -- as United, who were actually playing well when they conceded, went on to score five. Those goals sealed a second successive win and that run now stands at four, including back-to-back victories in the league for the first time since November.
The latest win was Wednesday's narrow, late triumph against Watford. The previous time the sides met, United also stung the Hornets with a late goal and went top of the Premier League as a result. Louis van Gaal's side subsequently failed to win for another eight matches in all competitions
Wins make people smile and four on the bounce make fans believe. Yet we've seen so many potential corners turned under Van Gaal, only for United to keep arriving at the same point on the block.
The team were fourth this time last year; they're fifth now. United are also in the FA Cup quarterfinals, as they were a year ago when Arsenal beat them at Old Trafford. On Mar. 13, West Ham, who are only a point behind United in the league, are the opponents in their year's sixth round.
There's optimism but, when Van Gaal's side start to look the sum of their parts, they start losing. Injuries, poor form and the use of so many new and young players mean his side lack consistency. It's been like that throughout the Dutchman's time in charge.
Just when you think it can't get any worse, United start winning. And just when you think that things aren't so bad and imagine a trophy being won and Van Gaal indulging in a crazy celebration, which he links with an ancient Dutch custom, United start losing.
This season has been as bizarre and baffling as the man in charge, as mad as a league which sees Leicester top in March and champions Chelsea 10th. In that league, the top four couldn't muster a win this midweek, but fifth-placed United did claim three points, thanks to Juan Mata's late, great free kick.
At least the football has been fun to watch over the last week and, given how many games they're playing -- a minimum of 56 this season compared to 44 in total last term -- there are plenty of viewing opportunities.
Yet the fact that United have found form defies logic, considering the best football has been played when several of the best players are absent through injury. For example, a team full of kids played against Arsenal and won.
The team who struggled to score in so many games before Christmas have hit 21 goals in their last nine games. As such, the mood remains upbeat but fragile ahead of Sunday's game at West Bromwich Albion. Players who were down and upset after being booed off the field, following defeat in Denmark only two weeks ago, are now enthused and excited.
There's a buzz about the two forthcoming Europa League games against Liverpool, the first leg of which takes place at Anfield on Mar. 10. Van Gaal boasts a 100 percent winning record against Liverpool in four competitive games and an increased ticket allocation for the game means there will be more United fans present than previously thought.
One club sponsor wants to give those supporters a free white shirt to wear on the night and create "a wall of white". It's a generous gesture on the face of it, yet marketing men meddling in fan culture can have messy consequences.
Most of the United hardcore who travel to games like Liverpool away haven't worn a replica shirt since they were kids. That's the match-going fan culture and you only need to see a picture from any away end to see it. Further, though it's much safer than it was, marking yourself out as a United fan around Anfield isn't usually wise.
Just as was the case a year ago, Champions League qualification remains a priority. Now, as then, a spring flourish will be needed to secure a spot in club football's biggest competition. United are currently fifth, but level on 47 points with an out of sorts City, who have a game in hand. The Manchester derby at the Etihad is on Mar. 20.
Van Gaal's stock has plummeted and most fans hope and expect him to leave at the end of the season, a year before his contract ends. And yet, with each win, the clamour for change lessens and Jose Mourinho's name is heard a little less frequently. Back page headlines linking the Portuguese manager with a move to Manchester are set aside.
With two and a half months of this season remaining, the jury is still out on United in 2015-16. For large parts, the campaign has looked and felt like a disaster, yet United have beaten some of the best English teams and they're still in two cup competitions. It isn't over; the door isn't yet closed.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who'll make the decision about United's next manager, is a man who favours hard data over emotional, knee-jerk responses calling for change. He's rightly weighing everything up, having been given the opportunity by United's unexpected purple patch.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.