Man Utd can be Chelsea's big rivals next season - Phil Neville

Match of the Day 2 analysis

Former Manchester United player and coach Phil Neville explains what Louis van Gaal has learned from his first season in the Premier League and why his team are not far away from being title contenders again.

I think Manchester United can be Chelsea's closest challengers for the title next season, but Louis Van Gaal has got to get things right away from home against the so-called lesser teams.

This season, they have dropped points in 10 out of their 16 away games against teams below them in the table. They got rolled over at Everton and Leicester, and drew with Burnley, Sunderland and West Brom.

Esteban Cambiasso scores Leicester's third goal from the penalty spot in their 5-3 win over Man Utd in September
Esteban Cambiasso scores Leicester's third goal in their 5-3 win over Man Utd in September

In the past, the aim at United was always to do the double over everybody outside the top six.

We approached all of those games - home or away - with the aim of winning them and doing that was one of our strengths down the years.

That meant, when we came up against our rivals in the top five, our record against the rest meant that those big games were not must-win and the pressure was off us a bit.

This season, it has largely been the opposite. United have produced their best football against the other teams in the top five and have struggled against the sides that have camped in their own half and made things difficult for them.

Going forward, United need a player who can make the difference in those games, when the opposition are packing their defence.

Chelsea have that with Eden Hazard. Last season, Luis Suarez did it for Liverpool. Those players can win you the title because, when games are tight, they make the difference.

But at the moment United do not have anyone who is providing those bits of individual brilliance in the final third.

'Di Maria could make the difference for United'

A lot of people are saying Gareth Bale would be the answer to that particular problem but I think United already have the right player on their books - if he performs to his capabilities.

Man Utd forward Angel Di Maria
Di Maria has scored four goals in 31 games for United, but has not found the net since 4 January

Angel Di Maria arrived for a British record fee last summer but, considering his £59.7m price-tag and his reputation, he has not delivered since his first three or four games.

Even so, he is still the United player who excites me the most.

Everything about the way he plays from his pace, his skill, and his ability running or passing forwards tells me he has what it takes to shine at Old Trafford. He has just not done it yet.

Next season could be the time when he realises what it takes.

He now knows there are no easy games in the Premier League, and that he has to toughen himself up.

Di Maria will also understand that United are a huge club. He is on a big stage and there is a bit of pressure on him.

We know he can do much better, and so will he.

I would love to see him play to his potential because he could be the attacking star this United team needs to make the next step.

Will Man Utd sign Falcao?
"The United fans were desperate for Radamel Falcao to do well at Old Trafford and so was he but it has just not happened for him. I don't think Louis van Gaal will sign him in the summer, not because of his injury record but because you don't splash out more than £40m and pay big wages for a player who cannot get in your team. Falcao has not produced the required levels that warrant that kind of money. United have already signed Memphis Depay and I think they will be looking for another striker in the summer."

'Van Gaal will know what he needs to do'

Van Gaal's first season as United manager is also almost over and he will have found out a lot about English football over the last few months.

Earlier in the campaign, he tried playing three at the back and I don't think that system worked for United.

Van Gaal probably tried it because he was trying to accommodate Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata in the same team, but he has realised that he can't do that in the Premier League.

When he arrived at Old Trafford, I think he might have under-estimated that anyone can beat anyone in this country.

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal (centre)
Van Gaal saw his United side ship five goals against newly-promoted Leicester at King Power Stadium

Maybe in some of the countries where he has managed in the past, teams in the bottom half of the table do not even give you a contest. Here, they do.

At times Van Gaal has probably been surprised by the intensity of every game that United have played, but he will have learned from it too.

Next season, he will come back and be thinking 'I know what I need to do'.

'De Gea exit would be a big blow'

Van Gaal has achieved his aim for his first year at United by securing a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League. Because of that, it has been a good season for him.

Man Utd manager Louis van Gaal
Van Gaal has won league titles in every country he has managed - the Netherlands, Spain and Germany

Now his next target is to win the title, and I don't think United are far away from being champions again.

The important thing is that they are going in the right direction. To go from seventh, where they finished last season, to first was always going to be impossible.

People might say that is defeatist and not the way United should think but you cannot make that leap, even by spending £150m like United did last summer.

You have to do it gradually. Going from seventh to fourth then first is achievable, although it clearly will not be easy.

Man Utd goalkeeper David De Gea
United have admitted they have drawn a list of replacements for De Gea

Can they do it? If David De Gea leaves, then that would be a big blow. Without him in goal, I don't think they would have finished in the top four this time.

I am worried he will go because he has not signed a new contract and the noises coming out of the club about his future are not good, particularly if Real Madrid do come calling.

'Sensational performance gives me hope'

Along with Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young and Juan Mata, De Gea's individual form has been one of the high points of the season.

But it was United's sensational team performance in their win over Liverpool in March that was the most encouraging thing for the future.

Juan Mata scored twice for Man Utd at Anfield, including a stunning scissor-kick
Juan Mata scored twice for United at Anfield, including a stunning scissor-kick

For me, it was their performance of the season and the one that gives me massive hope for what they can achieve next season.

In fact, that period in March and April where they also beat Tottenham and Manchester City gave us a glimpse of what this team can do.

That is the level that they have to play at consistently to challenge for the title.

They could not do it this time but, just as with Van Gaal, a lot of United players will be better for what has happened to them in the last few months. I am expecting further improvement from them too.

Phil Neville was speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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